These busses are big, they're luxurious, they can cost a million or more -- and celebrities love them for touring
Anyone who watches Oprah regularly has probably seen the feature "Oprah Winfrey's Wildest Dreams Come True," in which the queen of daytime TV travels out into the hustings in a big blue coach to do a good turn for some deserving person.
In one episode, she visited a teen who had survived brain cancer and oversaw a makeover of the girl's bedroom to cheer her up. But most viewers probably never give a second thought to the big blue coach itself.
Among the companies that make these so-called "star coaches," there's lively competition to get the business of top celebrities such as Oprah. Outfitted like luxury yachts, star coaches often cost $1 million or more, or are leased for $1,000 to $1,500 per day with a full-time driver.
They've been used by everyone from campaigning Presidents to rock and country music stars, pro golfers, and Nascar drivers. Even esteemed writer Maya Angelou, who doesn't like to fly, has one.
A number of small companies are in the star-transporting business, including some of the same outfits making ultra-luxury RVs for wealthy individuals, such as Coburg (Ore.)-based Marathon Coach (which did one for actor Paul Newman), Chicago's Liberty Coach (country stars Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis,) and Cresco (Iowa)-based Featherlite (FTHR ), which has done coaches for many top Nascar drivers.
And a passel of companies specialize in the business. Nashville's Hemphill Bros. has leased coaches to everyone from Oprah and Beyoncé to President Bush and top country duo Brooks & Dunn.
BIG WHEELS KEEP ON TURNING.
Four Seasons Coach in Lebanon, Tenn., outfitted Angelou, hip-hopper Mary J. Blige, and Joe Perry of the band Aerosmith, while Senators Coaches of Florence, Ala., has done numerous rock tours, including the current ones by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones.
Nearly all the companies start with the shell of a tour bus made by Quebec-based Prevost Car -- a unit of Volvo, which in turn is owned by Ford Motor (F ) -- and outfit it with luxurious bedrooms featuring king- or queen-sized beds, bathrooms and showers, living areas, expensive sound systems, big flat-screen TVs, etc.
Touring stars prefer these "Prevost conversions" to less expensive RVs because they can go a million miles or more. Charlie Daniels, who tours with his wife Hazel in a 1994 Liberty coach, already has a million miles on his and says: "We're going for 2 million."
RAISED IN A TRUNK.
It's so comfy, he says, that he and his wife sleep in it in hotel parking lots while band members stay inside. "There isn't a hotel room in the country I'd rather stay in than my coach," Daniels says.
"We have all the comforts of home, so why move in and out of a hotel all the time?" says Elizabeth Travis, who has been touring by coach for two decades with her husband, country star Randy Travis. "I cook every day, and we've got the coach all packed up with our things."
Companies like Nashville's Hemphill Bros., one of the top specialists in celebrity transport, go all-out to keep the stars happy. Trent Hemphill, 45, and his brother Joey, 47, first got interested in the big coaches when they toured as members of their family's gospel band as kids, so they know the business from the inside out.
ACCORDING TO TASTE.
They've hoisted a Steinway into the coach they leased to pianist Harry Connick Jr. and put tanning beds into others. They're designing a new one for country music star Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn). "We're talking about things like ostrich-leather seats with glove stitching, flat-screen TVs, and marble floors and showers," says Dunn.
Mary J. Blige's coach, designed in cooperation with Four Seasons Coach Leasing of Lebanon, Tenn., is in tastefully muted whites, tans, and mauves. It has a fancy nook with lighting that can be adjusted to different intensities so the star can do her makeup in stage-style lighting before performing.
By contrast, the coaches the company did for male rockers Joe Perry, an Aerosmith guitarist, and LeRoi Moore, the sax player in the Dave Mathews Band, have a more masculine feel, with lots of dark leather and wood paneling.
Some celebrities don't actually travel in the coaches themselves. Stars like Elton John, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones fly in private planes.
The coaches their bands and equipment travel in typically sleep six to eight people in bunks, while workhorse "crew" coaches sleep up to 12. (The star coaches often have bunk sections, too, to sleep bodyguards, a personal assistant, and sometimes a babysitter. The star usually gets a private bedroom in the back.)
Even the band and crew coaches are far from Spartan: Each bunk usually sports its own TV, and there are front and rear lounges with big-screen TVs and a sound system, and usually a small bathroom and a kitchen with a full-size fridge.
Coach travel by stars has increased since the September 11 terrorist attacks. "It's not the safety issue so much as the fact that flying has become such a hassle," says Dunn.
Will the rising price of diesel fuel hurt the business? After all, the coaches only get six to eight miles per gallon. "It certainly could," admits George Pillow, owner of Senators Coaches. "But we haven't seen that yet. Entertainment ticket prices have gone up so much I doubt if it will have much effect."
In any case, Willie Nelson already has a solution: He's running his coach on biodiesel and has started a company to produce and market the vegetable-based fuel. Obviously, a natural theme song for any ads would be that old Nelson standard, On the Road Again.
By Thane Peterson