John Wilson, president and CEO of the Wilson’s Group of Companies, is lobbying for more direct financial aid from government for B.C.’s devastated private motor coach industry. (Black Press Media file photo)

John Wilson, president and CEO of the Wilson’s Group of Companies, is lobbying for more direct financial aid from government for B.C.’s devastated private motor coach industry. (Black Press Media file photo)

B.C. motor coach industry at the breaking point, says Victoria operator

John Wilson wants province to know bus companies are critical to B.C.’s tourism economy

The head of the largest ground transportation company on Vancouver Island is looking for government help for a private motor coach industry devastated by travel restrictions due to COVID-19.

John Wilson, president, CEO and owner of Saanich-based Wilson’s Group of Companies, says despite his industry and company playing a critical role in keeping tourism rolling here and elsewhere in B.C. and Canada, they’ve received little in direct government aid outside of the federal wage subsidy program.

Getting help paying wages “is great if you’re operating,” he said, noting that minimal passenger counts and advisories against travelling have forced companies like his to cancel many inter-city services. Smaller operators that have endured almost 10 months with revenues less than 10 per cent of usual need fast help with cash liquidity or they may not be around much longer.

RELATED STORY: B.C. bus companies say they need help to survive COVID-19

“I think everyone’s probably done as we have done; we’re down to a skeleton crew here, we’ve looked into any grant or subsidy that we could, we’ve taken vehicles off the road … but our overheads are based on normal revenues,” he says.

Having limped through what is normally their busiest season, May through September, the company saw a potential bright spot – ski season.

“With our Mount Washington ski bus service we were looking forward to a banner year, with skiing one of those outdoor activities that people can do,” Wilson says. “We were only able to run for two weeks before the new restrictions shut us down.”

He fears the long-term impact to local tourism as his company is forced to reduce its coach capacity.

“The larger entities in tourism are real leaders to recovery,” he said, referencing such companies as Harbour Air, Butchart Gardens, Wilson’s, the cruise companies and others as underpinning the visitor economy.

“If any of the key pillars falter … the recovery period for the tourism industry in Greater Victoria will be much longer due to the reduced ability to handle events and the number of visitors.”

Wilson’s does not qualify for some government programs based on its size. B.C.’s small and medium-sized business recovery grant, for example, offers up to $45,000 for tourism-related businesses heavily impacted by the pandemic, but for those with 149 employees or less.

Even with the COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out, operators are looking at no better than a 50 per cent year for revenues in 2021, Wilson said. Realistically, any return to normalcy isn’t expected until 2023.

RELATED: Bus companies at risk as revenue drops 95 per cent, no help in sight

One might look at Wilson’s as having enough hard assets – a large bus fleet – to create the liquidity that could allow the company to survive until travel restrictions are loosened. But given the market for this equipment across North America right now is “pennies on the dollar,” their primary assets are at their lowest point in value.

A statement from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure acknowledged that private motor coach companies are struggling, and indicated that the province “will continue to work with the industry to help ensure companies can get through the pandemic.”

Wilson, a member of the B.C. Motor Coach Coalition, said the group plans to reach out soon to Tourism Minister Melanie Mark to further communicate the importance of its industry to tourism.

According to Destination British Columbia, in 2018 tourism contributed more to B.C.’s gross domestic product ($8.3 billion) than any other primary resource industry. A total of 161,500 people were employed in tourism-related businesses and earned $6.1 billion in wages and salaries.


 

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