The Hemphill Brothers Coach Company knows a thing or two about how celebrities live on the road. The Nashville-based RV company, run by brothers Joey and Trent Hemphill, has been building and equipping luxury tour buses for 40 years, boasting a list of top customers ranging from mega stars like Taylor Swift, Oprah, Dolly Parton and Beyonce to former US presidents.
“2020 was going to be our best year yet. It was already our biggest year in our company’s history,” said Trent Hemphill, when CNBC first caught up with Hemphill in October.
But when the coronavirus pandemic led to abrupt cancellations of concerts across the country in early March 2020, $ 30 million in RV rentals reserved for touring musicians came out with them. “My brother and I have been through a lot together in this business, but nothing like it,” said Trent Hemphill.
American Bus Association data estimates that between 75% and 80% decrease in tourist bus trips have been canceled since mid-March 2020 due to the pandemic, a loss of nearly $ 5 billion for the American entertainment coach industry, which includes coaches. operators and tour operators.
The Hemphills grew up touring as a successful family gospel group before borrowing money from their father in 1980 to buy their first bus to hire. Now they have over 100 buses. The Hemphill Brothers Coach Company is located in Nashville, Tenn.
In the first five months of 2019, business was booming: 95% of the Hemphill fleet was on the open road. But at the start of 2020, “not a single motorhome has left the field for three months,” said Joey Hemphill. “We were seen as essential transportation for the government. But there was no business to do.”
“The most painful thing we have ever had to do was lay off employees. We had to be very nimble and cut costs immediately and find a solution to move on to the other side,” he added. .
So the brothers thought about it together and decided to do something they had never done before: create a social media presence and start marketing their buses to the masses.
“We deal with the tour directors. Dealing with the general public is something that we’ve never done in our 40s. So that was all new to us,” said Joey Hemphill.
“We said our equipment can be used by the general public who don’t even know we exist. We just need to get the point across,” added Trent Hemphill.
To build the buzz, the brothers came up with the phrase “travel like a rockstar” to market their luxury RVs to American tourists and travelers who were looking for an alternative to air travel during the pandemic.
“It was a way for us to generate not only income for the company, but also for our employees and our drivers,” said Trent Hemphill. The “rockstar experience” has gone viral – and the Hemphills have said they have made dozens of tourist road trip rentals last year and into 2021.
The buses look a lot like a rolling five-star hotel, and passengers can choose from several floor plans. The “Star Bus” can accommodate up to 12 people and even pets, and every part of the bus can be closed for more privacy. The brothers said each bus is “extremely personalized” and “no two buses are the same.”
In celebrity fashion, Hemphill buses offer travelers a journey in luxury: each RV is outfitted with premium finishes including genuine leather, parquet, granite, marble and quartz.
The cost of renting campers starts between $ 1,200 and $ 1,500 per day, depending on mileage. Drivers, fuel, and incidentals are included, and drivers can meet travelers at their homes anywhere in the continental United States
Trent Hemphill said the benefits of traveling by road over an airplane are many. “You only have to pack your bags once,” and passengers wake up to their next destination in the morning as the bus travels overnight, ”he added.“ Our drivers are so good. to give you such a smooth ride. You don’t even know you’re moving. “
“Personally, I sleep better on a bus than at home,” said Joey Hemphill.
So who else has slept on a Hemphill bus? The same company that made superstar Taylor Swift’s first tour bus designed country legend Merle Haggard’s last.
Coaches are sterilized before each trip and drivers are Covid tested before any trip and stay in pre-arranged accommodation between destinations. Prices may vary depending on an individual’s schedule and route, or travelers may choose to have a travel itinerary tailored to them.
The Calderon family said when their trip to South Africa was derailed due to the pandemic, renting a Hemphill bus for the same amount and touring the country was one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. .
“We have traveled the world and had an amazing vacation. I think we had no idea we would come back and say of all the trips we have taken in our lifetimes, this was our favorite, a said Karla Calderon.
Karla, her husband Rafael, and their two young children took their Hemphill bus west for a 12-day trip, starting in Nashville and ending in Yosemite National Park. “We still want to travel outside of the United States and see all of these things. [trip] reminded me that this country is amazing, ”said Rafael Calderon.
The Hemphill brothers said they also increased other revenue streams by selling second-hand equipment and doing custom interior modifications and conversions for outside customers. The company said it helped offset some of the loss in rental income during the pandemic and allowed them to get employees back to work.
Even when the live concerts return, the Hemphills have said they plan to keep some of their fleet for tourists.
“We got through a storm and had to take back control of the business. And we realized we could still do it.” said Trent Hemphill. “It has been a challenge, but it has also been a bit invigorating for him and me to see that the decisions we make on a daily basis can affect the bottom line of our business. Just like they did in the beginning. feel young again. “