By Cheryl Hall
The Dallas Morning News.
Alex Danza got an unusual birthday present last month: three 45-foot buses with no interiors.
The president and founder of Vonlane LLC didn’t actually take possession of them. After leaving an assembly line in Canada, the skeletal motorcoaches were driven to Virginia to be outfitted in a manner befitting a private jet.
“That’s where the magic happens,” says Danza, who turned 42.
The three new buses will be deployed in January as part of the next chapter for the 15-month-old company.
The motorcoaches will double Vonlane’s fleet and allow it to serve an intrastate triangle of Dallas-Austin-Houston by adding an Austin-Houston route. It will also increase its runs from Austin and Houston to Dallas.
“It’s going to be transformative for us,” says Danza, sitting in the back-of-the-bus conference room of an existing coach that’s about to make its mid-morning Dallas-to-Austin run.
“Dallas-based travelers can do day trips: Leave at 6 a.m. and go to Austin or Houston and come back at 6 p.m.,” he says. “But Austin and Houston travelers don’t have that early-morning departure. We don’t have robust weekend schedules from those cities. Come January, we will.”
Vonlane’s original Dallas-to-Austin route began in May 2014. Dallas-Houston came on stream in April.
Dallas passengers depart from Love Field and typically arrive in Austin in slightly more than three hours or at Houston Intercontinental Airport in 3 1/2.
Danza also wants to add a much-requested Dallas-to-downtown Houston route. Later next year, he’d like to launch San Antonio-Houston.
“We have a Texas-first mentality. Then we’ll go to other states,” he says. “The sweet spot for us is city pairs that are 200 to 250 miles apart and a coin toss of whether you’re going to drive or fly, Chicago-Milwaukee; Los Angeles-San Diego.”
Willard Harris has been driving for Vonlane since its inception, having previously driven executive motorcoaches at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. As for the comparative ease of driving: “This is like driving a Cadillac-powered 18-wheeler compared to a school bus,” Harris says.
Tex Gross, chairman of Commerce Street Capital LLC, tells colleagues that Vonlane should be their first choice when traveling to Austin or Houston.
It’s faster, cheaper and you can get work done, or not, he says.
“The last time I came back from Austin after a hard day, I laid back, stretched out and my feet did not hit the seat in front of me,” says the 6-footer.
Gross recently arranged for his 94-year-old mother-in-law to come to Dallas from Austin. “The care that they took with her was fabulous.”
This year, Vonlane’s revenue should be about $1.4 million with a positive cash flow, Danza says. With the expansion, he’s forecasting $4 million in 2016.
Danza and his lead angel investor, Gary Reichling, own 73 percent of Vonlane. The rest is held by a handful of friends. “We’re trying to keep it in our little investor group, but at some point we’ll have to get external funding,” he says.
Danza, who grew up on Staten Island, N.Y., earned his master’s in accounting from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.
In 2003, after a seven-year stint in consulting, Danza became president of a startup, Savoya LLC, a high-end chauffeur service focused on private-jet travelers.
“Whenever we talked to operators in the private-jet world, they’d say their two biggest challenges were ground transportation and catering. Not pilots, not weather. So we went about fixing the ground transportation piece,” he says.
Savoya now provides chauffeur services in 16,000 airports in 60 countries.
Danza cashed out two years ago and has used his million-plus bucks to tackle a different ground-service problem: city-to-city bus service.
“Old buses, not much capital to upgrade, very little technology if any, limited management expertise, the standard 45-foot-long, 56 seats and a nasty bathroom. That’s pretty much the bus industry,” he says.
Bringing bus service into the 21st century proved more difficult than he imagined. When he couldn’t find a way to refurbish existing buses to his standards, he decided to start from scratch, which was rife with hurdles, too. Luxury bus components aren’t that easy to find.
For making the luxurious seats Vonlane wanted, for example, “we finally found a vendor in Argentina,” Danza says. “They’d never done anything in the United States and now they build our seats.”
Danza is spending $750,000 for each new motorcoach.
The three new buses will be slightly more tricked out than his current fleet. But the basics will be the same: 22 oversized seats, six of those in a conference room; high-definition TVs and a galley for free food and beverages. Seats in the main cabin recline to a bed-like 150 degrees without inciting road rage from the passenger behind.
“You could spend $2 million a bus if you wanted,” he says. “But at a certain point, the cost benefits aren’t there. We have to keep our price point at the right level for our customers.”
And that’s $100 each way.
THE PARTY BUS
On a recent Friday morning, eight passengers are headed to Austin. Two are business regulars; another is making his trial run to see if he really can get work done during his three-hour commute. The rest are first-timers making weekend pleasure jaunts.
New Jersey visitor Lindsey Plewa-Schottland has been in Dallas for a business meeting and is meeting a friend in Austin. She found Vonlane on Google. “It seemed quicker to take a bus than to fly,” she says. “The cost seemed to be the same if not cheaper. And the pictures looked nice.”
She gets on board and isn’t disappointed.
Vonlane veteran Susan Russell has a business here and a second home in Austin. She hates Interstate 35. “I’ve driven it a zillion times,” she says. “You’re exhausted by the time you get there because the traffic is so crazy. This is so relaxing. You can look at the scenery instead of dodging the cars and 18-wheelers.”
July and August are tough months. Anybody who can get away from the Texas heat does. September is ramp-up time, Danza says, and the month is lining up to be a doozy, with revenue up nearly 60 percent from this month.
Vonlane can also handle requests for charters. Law firm Munsch Hardt, for example, had plans to book all three buses to pick up its attorneys in Dallas and Houston and deliver them to its office in Austin for a meeting.
And when football season arrives, Vonlane will offer game-day round trips from Dallas to College Station or to Austin for Aggie and Longhorn fans.
“You jump on here. You’re at the stadium about two hours early, tailgate, have fun. The coach is waiting for you after the game and you come right home,” Danza says. “We did it last year for UT games in Austin. It was all burnt-orange people. I’m a Texas alum, so I was back here drinking mimosas with all the Texas fans.
“We had a great time until we started losing every game. And then we definitely saw a steep drop-off, I’m not going to lie.”
That’s why this diehard Longhorn fan is rooting for the Aggies, too. “A good year for both teams would be a good year for us.”
Headquarters: Love Field area of Dallas
Began service: Dallas-Austin, May 2014; Dallas-Houston, April 2015
Ownership: Privately held with 73 percent owned by Danza and Gary Reichling
Fleet: Three luxury coaches; three to be delivered in December
Annual revenue: $1.4 million forecast for 2015; $4 million for 2016
SOURCE: Alex Danza