The Road to Success
Despite a Few Speed Bumps, Valley Transporter’s Progress Is On Schedule
Gary Bosselait remembers the early days.
“When I say we did it all, we did it all,” he said, referring to the fledgling business known as Valley Transporter, which took individuals to and from Bradley International and other airports, and the partnership he created with his sister, Valerie, in 1986. “We drove the van, maintained the van, took the appointments, everything.”
Gary, who relocated from Worcester and left a position with one of his father’s businesses, a travel agency, to launch the venture, moved into an apartment shared by Valerie and her now-ex-husband. It served as residence and office for the business. Gary kept the answering machine close to his bed so he would hear it; the calls would come at all hours of the day and night, but it was, as it is to all small business owners, a pleasant sound.
“We loved to hear the phone ring,” he said. “We still do.”
It rings much more often today, and there is a growing staff of people to answer it. They take reservations and plot schedules to keep a fleet of 14 vans busy and running cost-effectively, an often-challenging assignment given the large geographic area covered by the company.
This includes Hampshire County and parts of Hampden and Franklin counties as well. The five colleges in close proximity to the company’s headquarters on Route 116 in Amherst provide a solid base for business, said Valerie, adding that the venture’s success rests on its ability to create repeat customers.
This is accomplished by providing value — the no-frills vans provide a lower-cost alternative to limousines and taxis — and quality service; in short, getting people to the airport on time and with no hassles.
The company has handled those assignments well enough to recently record its 20th anniversary, and it has preliminary plans for expansion, possibly into the Connecticut area, on the drawing board.
In this issue, BusinessWest looks at how this business has been able to take off and handle the turbulence that faces all small businesses, but especially those in this small but challenging field.
Flights of Fancy
The Bosselaits say they’ve booked shuttle trips for a number of celebrities over the years. Astronomer Carl Sagan used the company when he was in town for a speech at UMass. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has also utilized Valley, as have a number of bands and solo artists who have come to the area for performances at area clubs like the Iron Horse in Northampton.
But the partners know that it’s not the star power of a customer base that matters in this unique sector of the economy, but its overall size — in other words, the basic business tenet known as supply and demand.
Both Bosselaits were mulling career options in the mid-’80s when they began gauging the Western Mass. market and whether it had the requisite critical mass for an airport shuttle business. The two cut their teeth in travel work at their father’s travel agency (Gary would later manage that facility), and, in the late ’70s, Valerie went to work for a small shuttle business operating in Denver.
She returned to the Pioneer Valley in 1980 and went to work for Carroll Travel in Amherst. Years later, she was trying to decide whether to go back to school or start a business, and she was helped with that decision by commentary from customers of the travel agency.
“We had people coming in all the time wondering how to get to the airport,” she explained. “There really was nothing at the time — maybe a Peter Pan bus, and not much in the way of taxi service.”
These comments became part of the discussion between the siblings during a family vacation in Maine in the summer of 1985. “We started talking about how we would love to start our own business, be it a travel agency, a tour business, or something,” Gary explained. “Val had recognized the need for a shuttle service out this way, so of all the things we bandied about, we decided on the airport shuttle.”
In hindsight, they made a smart decision, but success didn’t come quickly or simply. Nor was it expected to.
Despite outward appearances to the contrary, the airport shuttle business isn’t easy, said Gary, and profitability is elusive and often takes years to achieve, unlike with most limo services. The keys to success are a large, reliable customer base, effective scheduling that minimizes the number of unprofitable runs — those with one or a few customers in the van — without sacrificing convenience for the customer in the form of a lengthy trip in a van while picking up other riders, and word-of-mouth referrals that create new business. All this takes time.
The pace of progress was, indeed, slow, said Gary, adding that it was a full three years after the venture was launched before the two could hire their first employee — a reservations taker.
The many colleges in the region, and especially the five schools in the Amherst area, provide a rock-solid base of support, said Valerie, noting that administrators, faculty, students, their parents, and visitors all make use of Bradley International and many of those constituencies need affordable shuttle service.
And, increasingly, business stemming from the schools is year-round in nature, she explained, noting that years ago many schools shut down for the summer months, but today they rent out facilities to a wide range of groups.
Beyond the colleges, the company serves the region’s business travelers and area residents who, for one reason or another, need a lift to and from the airport. Many are looking for an affordable lift, and, with rates averaging roughly $45 for a round-trip shuttle, Valley charges about half what a limo ride would cost.
The company has encountered a number of challenges over the years, including spikes in fuel prices, which it has largely been able to absorb without resorting to surcharges, through patience and proactive steps such as purchasing smaller, more fuel-efficient vans (Honda Odysseys) for longer runs to Boston and New York.
Other challenges include the struggle to find drivers, the high cost of insuring passenger vehicles, and even fluctuations in plane ticket prices, which have impacted the bottom line.
But the biggest hurdle has been 9/11, which impacted every business in some way, but threatened many of those in travel-related ventures with their very existence. Indeed, the terrorist attacks brought all airline travel to a halt for two days, put most businesses and colleges in a state of suspended animation, canceled or postponed virtually all events and vacations that month, and prompted many to refrain from flying for extended periods of time.
“The only time the phone rang then was for cancellations,” said Gary, adding that he was exaggerating, but only slightly. “Everything came to a screeching halt. For 30 days we just sat idle, wondering what the heck was going on; virtually no one was flying.”
The Bosselaits noted with no small amount of relief that by Thanksgiving break, 2001, there was a return to something at least approaching normalcy. But it would take a year to fully recover, a feat achieved with some help from Florence Savings Bank, which eased some loan-repayment schedules.
In recent years, the company has achieved steady growth and reinvested profits in some of those smaller, more economical vans, as well as in new technology in the form of an automated reservation system, steps the partners/siblings say will position Valley for continued expansion.
Moving forward, the company hopes to translate its strong track record for customer service into larger market share, while, like any small business, looking at any and all ways to control expenses and add revenue.
The partners are looking into creating a second location in the Hartford area, which, they say, does not have a shuttle operation to Bradley. Meanwhile, they’re also exploring the possibility of turning their vans into moving billboards, in much the same way that transit buses are used for marketing area businesses and non-profits — but with obvious limitations.
“It’s something we’re looking at,” said Valerie. “We have a lot of vans, and they’re very visible. There’s some potential there.”
If ads are placed on the vans, they will be small and placed (probably across the back) so as not to detract from the name Valley Transporter, said Valerie.
That’s a name that has survived more than two decades, when many others in this sector have crashed and burned.
This longevity and continued growth are a tribute to resiliency and a large dose of old-fashioned hard work — plane and simple.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]