Ohio company ferries Amish to winter getaways in Florida
While operating an automobile collision-repair business in the 1980’s, David Swartzentruber began renting vans to drivers who provided transportation services for the Holmes County, Ohio-area Amish.
During winter months, many of these vans were traveling to Pinecraft, a small community in Sarasota, Florida.
Sensing a business opportunity, Swartzentruber and a partner who is no longer involved, purchased a 47-passenger bus in 1984. The resulting company, Pioneer Trails, has been providing long distance rides for the Amish ever since.
The Amish are a conservative, traditional Anabaptist group who do not drive automobiles. They believe having speedy, convenient transportation will lead to spending more time away from family, home and the community.
Initially, Pioneer Trails existed to provide transportation for the area’s plain people to the Pinecraft community. Swartzentruber couldn’t have dreamed how the firm would grow in three and a half decades.
“Saturday before Christmas, we had 10 coaches with nearly 500 passengers arriving in Pinecraft,” he recalled recently. During winter months, more than 7,000 persons travel via a Pioneer coach between Florida and the North.
Pinecraft is a unique enclave and favorite destination for the Amish. Many of the residences are small and close together. Winter occupancy estimates run as high as 2,000 persons who crowd into limited spaces. A growing number of Amish clients scatter to beachfront condominiums ten miles away. Pinecraft’s activity centers: restaurants, ice cream shop, and a park with shuffleboard and volleyball courts, are easily accessible. Adult trikes and walking are favored on narrow streets.
Transportation service began with a weekly run to Pinecraft during the winter season. Currently, demand is such that coaches arrive and depart three times a week. Except for word-of-mouth, advertising has been minimal. Reservations are by phone only. The service area for Florida now includes Elkhart, Ohio, and LaGrange County, Indiana.
Since demand for travel to Florida in the summer is minimal, the company expanded into other areas of transportation services, offering charter services and tours. Today, Pioneer Trails consists of a robust charter service for educational institutions and other organizations, and a tour division targeting three distinct markets. Green Country Tours primarily serves the Amish community, for travelers of all ages with tours from one day to four weeks. Popular destinations are national parks and places of natural beauty. A four-week trip to Alaska for the summer of 2019 sold out quickly. Eagle Rock Tours focuses on tours for the public, targeting senior citizens. Lighthouse Tours provides service for organized groups who have a specific destination but want Lighthouse to handle all the logistics. The Pinecraft route generates less than 10 per cent of annual revenue.
Purchasing another local bus company and opening a satellite facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia helped to spur growth. The company is headquartered near Millersburg, Ohio, with more than 100 employees, including 70 drivers, and a fleet of 31 coaches.
Hiring competent drivers is paramount. Persons with excellent driving records who understand that public relations is an important part of their job are primary candidates. Most new hires are referrals from other drivers. “The drivers are the face of our company,” Swartzentruber stated. “They interact with our customers and our motto for them is, ‘safety first no exceptions.’ We always want to treat customers and employees as we would want to be treated. My Christian faith is the top of everything. That’s who I am, and that’s what I want the company to represent.”
Employees come with various work experiences. After a 30-year career in education, dispatcher Matt McMullen began as a part-time driver while finishing his PhD dissertation. On the day McMullen successfully defended his dissertation, he was offered a full-time office position, which he accepted. “It seemed like the right thing to do and I have never regretted it. The Swartzentrubers are a great family to work for, amazingly generous and kind people.”
Leon Miller, a retired business owner from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is a part-time driver who spends winters in Sarasota and wanted something to do. “I was always fascinated with driving big things, and I thought this would be fun,” he noted. “The company is great to work for, and the other drivers are a good bunch of people. It’s been great.”
David’s son Wendyl, age 45, joined Pioneer Trails in 1999. Over time, his father, who is now 73, has been turning over the company’s management responsibilities to him with the goal that he will become owner this year.
Wendyl learned some company basics growing up. “I started out washing buses when I was 12 years old,” he said. He hadn’t considered the business ownership until his 1999 return. “Coming back, I did many of the jobs necessary to run a bus company, except drive a bus.” With those tasks, Wendyl recalls his father’s lessons - keep it simple, it doesn’t have to be too complicated. “Make sure you have good drivers and equipment and treat your employees and customers well. That’s the best advertising we can do.”
Lori Yoder, a young woman from Millersburg, Ohio was all smiles when she recently arrived in Pinecraft with a friend. “This has been my sixth or seventh time coming on the bus. I love the convenience, it’s easy and there’s nothing to worry about,” she explained. “The bus comes right to Pinecraft. I’m here where it’s warm, and I’m looking forward to going to the beach.”
While the company has become more than David had envisioned, he credits Wendyl for the company’s growth over the past decade. “Getting to the age, that I am, I didn’t think it was that important to grow, but I knew if Wendyl wanted the business, he would want it to grow. That’s why we expanded.”
With Wendyl in charge, David and his wife, Irene, enjoy spending the winter months in Pinecraft. There, he meets many of the arriving coaches, welcoming and helping passengers with their luggage.
Looking to the future, Wendyl referenced the past and how his father modeled generosity by giving back to the community. “Whether it’s free tickets to Florida for benefit auctions or giving free transportation to people traveling to Florida in wheelchairs, he’s been very giving, and I plan to keep those traditions going,” he said.
While providing transportation for the Amish to Florida is a very small part of Pioneer Trails’ business today, it laid the foundation for a company that has lived up to its slogan, “Our Business is Going Places.” ◆