For Manheim Township-based Conestoga Tours, a journey that began on the roads of Lancaster County generations ago and stretched to the ends of the continent is coming to an end.
The bus tour company, based at 1619 Manheim Pike, will cease operations Dec. 28 after its last trips to vacation attractions around the Northeast, another casualty in a business sector devastated by the pandemic.
Nearly 50% of bus companies closed permanently during the pandemic, according to the American Bus Association. There were 3,878 bus companies in the U.S. in December 2019, and today there are 1,993, data kept by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show.
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While there has been a recovery for the remaining companies, challenges such as labor shortages and rising fuel costs persist, according to Pete Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association.
“It pulled the wheels off everybody,” Pantuso said.
Including Conestoga Tours.
Its longtime president, Tom Meredith Jr., 69, said Conestoga’s business came back strong after the pandemic eased. But with many of the existing bus companies struggling, he couldn’t find a buyer.
“If it had been a different climate, I think a lot of them would be interested in expanding their business,” Meredith said.
So, determined to retire, he has decided to close the company.
From Amish country to Hollywood
Conestoga Tours was known for transporting travelers on trips from Lancaster County to destinations from Cape Cod to the Pacific Coast, with meals and attractions included. It evolved from the Conestoga Transportation Co., which ran public transit around Lancaster County until 1976. It previously operated as the Conestoga Traction Co., when it operated trolleys from the turn of the century until 1947.
Around 1960, the company began offering bus tours of Amish country to the growing number of tourists coming to the area. The idea came from Meredith’s father, who would become president of the company.
At the same time, car ownership was on the rise and the days of profitable public transit were ending. The Red Rose Transit Authority, a public entity, took over the transit system from the company, using public funds to help pay for the service.
Conestoga focused on charter service and Amish tours. But the accident at Three Mile Island and the polio outbreak in 1979 pushed Meredith Jr. to expand tours to destinations in other cities and countries.
Overnight tours attracted travelers who wanted to see the country without worrying about transportation or hotel arrangements. With a large number of retirees eager to travel and good income levels, Lancaster County proved to be a strong market for tours.
“For a bus company, our location couldn’t be better,” Meredith said.
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When casino gambling came to Atlantic City in 1978, it was a boon to all the bus operators in the region, including Conestoga Tours, which ran three trips a day.
The company also had a successful charter business, taking school trips to historic sites from Boston to Washington and several local college athletic teams.
In 1984, Meredith’s father died. He took over the company in partnership with his brother-in-law, Darrell Gerke. Gerke oversaw the logistics of owning, maintaining and staffing a fleet of buses.
At its peak, the company had about 60 employees, half of whom were drivers. Today she has just three full-time employees, including Meredith.
In 1985, a Conestoga Tours bus was briefly featured in the movie The Witness. In the scene, actor Harrison Ford’s character Detective John Book – who blends into the Amish community – threatens a tourist who wants to take his picture. The opportunity came about because Conestoga Tours was transporting crew members during filming.
“In 40 years, no one will remember Conestoga Tours, but they will still see the movie,” Meredith said.
By 1986, the family owned two bus companies – Conestoga Tours and Penn Highway Transit. Conestoga was less profitable, so they closed it and renamed it Penn Highway Transit to continue the name.
After Pennsylvania opened its first casino in 2006, trips to Atlantic City became less frequent. But the Conestoga still made hundreds of trips each year to places like the Baltimore Aquarium, Cape Cod and Niagara Falls.
In 2015, the company sold its bus fleet and stopped offering the cards. Gerke retired, but Meredith still wanted to continue the tour business. Trips continued almost unchanged, with another bus company operating buses purchased from Conestoga.
Then the pandemic destroyed the tour business.
The American Bus Association believes that bus travel for 2022 will still be 30% less than it was before the pandemic because there were fewer school trips in the spring. Schools typically plan their trips far in advance, Pantuso said, and at the end of 2021 the variants were more prevalent. The pandemic also amplified an existing driver shortage and has led to ongoing parts shortages. The war in Ukraine has also hurt by causing fuel costs to rise.
In Pennsylvania, there is a shortage of buses on the road, according to Tammy Wolf-Baker, president of the Pennsylvania Bus Association and co-owner of York County-based Wolf’s Bus Lines. Some companies that survived the pandemic are unable to operate their full fleets because they lack drivers, mechanics and parts, she said.
Wolf-Baker, who also plans tours, said tour operators face other challenges — rising costs for hotels, meals and attractions.
“The price has gone up, and that’s what we’ve all been dealing with,” Wolf-Baker said.
Some have wondered whether the loss of bus companies and the problems they face will lead to a permanent shift away from past models. For example, in October, a major Lancaster County bus tour attraction — Sight & Sound Theater — reported that while overall ticket sales for “David” were on par with pre-COVID sales, the number of sales in groups, often on bus tours, had shrunk significantly.
The vitality of local tourism is important because the industry is a pillar of the county’s economy. Lancaster County tourism has a $3 billion annual economic impact on the county, supporting more than 25,000 jobs, according to Discover Lancaster, the county’s tourism bureau.
Conestoga recovered much of its pre-pandemic business, running 100,000 miles worth of tours in 2022. When Meredith decided to retire, he reached out to other bus operators to see if they would be interested in buying the business. While the company had no buses to sell, he pointed out to potential buyers that a tourism division could help them generate more revenue from their existing fleet.
“I thought it might be interesting for a bus company to get that kind of business. But I couldn’t find anyone to do it,” Meredith said.
Wolf-Baker said Conestoga’s lack of buses may have also hurt its sales prospects, citing a shortage of buses and drivers.
“Right now, we have enough to keep our regular business going,” she said.
Meredith agreed that it would have been easier to sell the tour business if it still had its own buses and drivers.
Knowing that the company’s history is coming to an end after a century has been difficult for the second-generation owner. The company is now preparing for its final tour of holiday attractions in New York and New England.
But as he prepares to retire, Meredith says he’s proud that he was able to transport so many people to destinations across the country that they wouldn’t have been able to travel on their own.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said.