Gaining Momentum

by Beth Weimer

2018 promises to be another year of growth for Peoria Charter Coach.

Travel is all about making connections, and Peoria Charter Coach aims to connect central Illinois with Chicago, the Midwest and the world beyond. Now in its 77th year of operation, the company is experiencing record rates of growth and expanding to meet the travel needs of the region.

Walter Winkler founded Peoria Charter Coach (then known as Spring Bay Lacon Bus Company) in 1941 when gas was being rationed during World War II. He realized there was a business opportunity in transporting Caterpillar workers from Spring Bay to the factories in Peoria, so he traded in the family car and took out a loan from his sister in order to launch the bus company.

Walter established the company as a reliable, affordable means of transportation, and today his family continues that legacy. Now owned by Walter’s grandson, Bill Winkler, with Bill’s son, Jacob, serving as sales manager, the fourth-generation company remains committed to its founding principles. “The culture of the business has always been about putting the customers first, making sure they’re happy,” explains Jacob Winkler. “It’s about customer satisfaction and safety—those two factors are involved in every decision we make.”

A Foundation for Growth
The largest privately-owned charter bus company in Illinois, Peoria Charter operates out of Peoria, Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana, with 140 employees (including drivers, technicians and cleaning crews) and a fleet of 60 buses. Each year, PCC transports over 500,000 passengers more than 3.8 million miles on its coaches.

In 2017, the company saw a 10-percent increase in ticket sales over the previous year and was ranked one of the “Top 50 Motorcoach Companies in North America” by Metro Magazine. It also received the eCertification for Sustainable Transportation based on fuel efficiency and vehicle usage.

The company offers three primary services: regular bus transit to Chicago, charter bus rentals and travel agency services. Shuttles to Chicago account for the bulk of the business, with about 80 percent of ridership traveling to and from O’Hare airport. PCC also offers four daily shuttles from Peoria and 10 from Champaign, heading to the airports, Union Station and the suburbs. Another significant demographic consists of college students traveling between home and Bradley University, Illinois State and the University of Illinois.

PCC also rents charter buses for excursions such as field trips or weddings, with three sizes of vehicles (55-passenger coaches, 38-passenger coaches or 22-passenger mini buses) fully equipped with amenities like climate control and wi-fi. It also has a partnership with the University of Illinois as the contracted carrier for the Fighting Illini and Marching Illini, with four buses painted in the signature blue and orange.

The newest component of the enterprise is Peoria Charter Travel, which expanded upon its nationwide bus tours into full-service bookings of domestic and international vacations. The travel agency started out of the main Peoria office in 2015; last year, it opened travel agencies in Normal and at Junction City in Peoria. Trips range from single-day excursions for theater performances or Cardinals games to extended journeys to destinations like Alaska, China and Europe. All-inclusive vacations to Mexico and the Caribbean are the most popular packages, Winkler says, but the agency offers competitive pricing on a variety of destinations to appeal to a range of travelers.

Besides opening the two travel agencies, Peoria Charter also expanded its Urbana facility in 2017, purchasing the adjacent building to keep pace with ticket sales. “It was getting tight because we had grown so fast,” Winkler explains. “So we essentially doubled our location size in Urbana.” The company also invested more than $3 million in its fleet with the purchase of five brand-new coaches in December and another in January—an upgrade to increase efficiency and improve the travel experience for its customers.

Best in the Midwest
In addition to its strong management team and customer service reps available 24/7, what really sets PCC apart is its team of professional motorcoach operators. “Our drivers are known as the best in the Midwest,” Winkler states. “We’re unique in that we hire specifically based on personality and character, instead of just hiring people who have CDL commercial driver’s licenses.”

Most drivers receive their CDL as well as hospitality training through the company to maintain its high levels of safety and friendly professionalism. They are often cited as the reason passengers repeat their business, and several have worked for the company more than 20 years. “They really make the experience,” he adds.

2018 promises to continue the growth of recent years, and PCC is ready to take it in stride. No matter what opportunities may arise, Peoria Charter values its customers and the foundation on which they have built. “Expanding is always something we keep in mind, but we love the central Illinois market,” says Winkler. “I would definitely say that Peoria Charter plays in Peoria.” iBi

Subscribe to Peoria Magazines

Add new comment