East End Transit

Why have bus lines to Mexico bloomed all across the East End? Maybe because it's a family affair.

Greyhound has made a concerted study of the Hispanic market, and one of the things it has discovered is that, no surprise, Mexicans are conditioned to using buses. Mexico's population is only 90 million, says Borland, but they take 2.6 billion "person trips" a year by bus. In contrast, in the U.S., which has close to triple Mexico's population, only 300 million "person trips" are made annually. Greyhound, the largest U.S. operator, uses a fleet of 2,000 buses. Mexico's largest bus company, Estrella Blanca, maintains a fleet of from 5,000 to 6,000 buses.

"The Mexican bus business is very sophisticated," Borland says. "Their terminals are like airports. During the peak period of travel, there is a bus that departs every three minutes from Mexico City to Puebla."

While Hispanics constitute only 14 percent of Greyhound's market, it's an expanding segment, and one of crucial importance for the company, which emerged from bankruptcy in 1991, to reach. Greyhound offers a Spanish-language phone number for tickets, and its long-haul prices are competitive with those of the small Hispanic operators. (Greyhound's ticket to Miami, for example, costs $69, compared to $99 for El Expreso.) Still, there's a philosophical difference in the way Greyhound and the Hispanic lines operate. The Hispanic lines tend to run point to point, with very few stops; Greyhound buses stop often. While it runs direct buses to Laredo on the weekends, on weekdays its Laredo buses stop in San Antonio.

"One group wants fast, single-destination, infrequent service," Borland says, "but there are others who want the ... frequency that Greyhound provides."

While it's essential for Greyhound to go after the Hispanic market, Borland says, it would be a mistake for them to create a Hispanic Greyhound. Instead, the Dallas-based company is buying small bus companies that have already capitalized on the growth of the Hispanic market.

In June, Texas Greyhound bought Valley Transit, an Anglo-owned South Texas bus company with bilingual drivers that serves 71 cities across the state's southern tier. In October, Greyhound bought Los Angeles's Golden State, a 400-bus operation with 125 employees owned by a man who started out making weekend runs from southern California to Mexico in the family Suburban.

Valley Transit has a 33-year history of marketing to Hispanics. One of its key assets in that effort has been Flor Winters, a bilingual former medical student who grew up in the Yucatan. Winters and her ex-husband, Ray Wentworth, are the ticketing and freight agents for Valley Transit at its South Houston station, which is on College Avenue not far from Hobby Airport. In the station's windowless office, Winter is the meeter and greeter and telephone friend to whomever calls. Her husband, David Winters, says part of her success is that, with customers, "Flor is just like a mother."

There seemed to be some truth to that on a recent afternoon. A purple Suburban was parked in front of the station with a worried father who didn't speak English and his bilingual, diabetic 18-year-old son, who was headed alone to Chicago. From South Houston he would take a Valley Transit bus to Greyhound's terminal on Main, then transfer to a northbound Greyhound bus. The boy, who was skinny and wore a backwards baseball cap, didn't seem the least bit worried. But his father required some calming explanations of how the transfer would work before he allowed his son to depart.

For Flor Winters, it was all in a day's work. A diminutive woman, she has the kind of easy confidence and charm that you don't get when you call Greyhound's 800 number for ticket information. As a commissioned agent, Winters must generate her own marketing, which includes T-shirts, fliers and ads on Spanish-language television.

Valley Transit, which is rumored to be changing its name to Tejano, has built a market advantage by catering to Spanish speakers with bilingual drivers. Like Marco Lucano, David Winters says he will sometimes pick up passengers who have no means of getting to the South Houston station. Flor Winters says she has a steady clientele of repeat customers, and hopes to persuade more of them to try Greyhound for long-distance trips. With her charm, she might very well be able to do it.

One of the more interesting moves by American carriers has been the acquisition of the largest of the independent Hispanic carriers by Coach USA, a Houston-based, publicly traded consolidation company. Coach USA's strategy is to buy small transportation companies, keep the management in place, and then help them expand by providing capital and expertise. The company can also help small bus lines cut costs through corporate purchasing power of equipment and insurance. In short, Coach USA wants to do with bus companies what Browning-Ferris did with trash hauling -- which isn't surprising, since the idea for the company came from two former BFI executives. Since it went public in May of last year, Coach USA has become the largest charter and tour bus operation in America, says Coach USA spokesman Larry King, and has bought such familiar Texas companies as Kerrville Bus Company and Gray Line of Houston.

In the first week of September, the company also bought El Expreso, which had been founded by Cesar Navarro, an outspoken entrepreneur of Peruvian and Mexican ancestry who started driving vans in 1989 when he worked at a large company whose employees needed transportation. El Expreso now has 190 employees and 40 buses and transports more than half a million passengers a year.

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