Redemption for Party Bus Industry Too Late?

Big Kahuna Party Bus | BCBusiness
The Vancouver Party Bus “Big Kahuna” has two dancing poles, LED and strobe lighting, hardwood flooring, subwoofer sound system and a 40” plasma TV.

Party bus and limo companies hope next week’s graduation ceremonies will help boost record low sales

Early this month, the B.C. Coroners Service determined that drugs and and alcohol were not a factor in the February death of 16-year-old Ernest Azoadam while riding a “party bus” in Surrey, but the furor around the investigation has left Vancouver’s car service industry reeling.

Tomasso Cuscito, president of Vancouver Party Bus Ltd. and Front of the Line Limo Ltd., has a history in the business that dates back to his time working as a valet at the Century Plaza Hotel. He was tossing around the idea of starting a car service business when a serendipitous phone call from Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger’s manager set him on the road to entrepreneurialism. “I drove Chad Kroeger to a hockey game and he liked me, so [his staff] kept requesting me,” says Cuscito, who eventually became the band’s full time driver. “One day we happened to be driving and they suggested that I open my own company. Two months later, with their support I started looking for vehicles.”
That was in 2008. Business for Cuscito was steady enough—despite the economic downturn—to expand his fleet to 11 busses over the next few years, but since February’s tragedy Vancouver Party Bus is experiencing a 60 per cent loss in regular business, and at the time of this interview rentals for graduation celebrations were half of what Cuscito usually expects.

Business at Phat Cat Limousines Ltd. is just as bad. “I’ve already had to sell off one bus to cover losses and I’m looking at doing the same next month,” says general manager Todd Curley, who at the time of this interview hadn’t paid himself a salary since April. “Last year at this time we’d made around $70,000 to $90,000 for the season. This year I’ll be lucky to bring in $25,000.”

Many industry insiders point to provocative former Transportation Minister Mary Polak’s pre-election campaign as delivering a devastating blow to the hired car industry. Her campaign took to the media in protest of the alleged underage drinking that was thought to have led to Mr. Azoadam’s death.

As a result, says Cuscito, “parents do not want their kids on party busses anymore,” despite the fact that his company maintains a zero tolerance rule for underage drinking aboard all vehicles.

Curley says that it’s a practically a “full time job taking alcohol out of the kids hands” who board his busses, and that “if a driver is dealing with a group who refuses to observe the no drinking policy and calls in the police, it’s he who receives the ticket—not the underage passengers.” It was a legal quagmire he had intended to put in front of Polak, but never had the opportunity.

Polak, now the freshly minted Minister of Environment, was not available to comment on the results of Mr. Azoadam’s recent toxicology results that should alleviate the party bus’ responsibility in the young man’s death.

“It’s terrible what happened to that young man,” says Curley, “but the damage from all that [negative] media has already cost me over $100,000… It’s not fair, but what am I going to do, fight the government?”