Franklin-based bus company scores political transportation points

Premiere caters to campaigns seeking luxury motor coach service

During the past year’s election cycle — the most expensive in the country’s history — Tennessee was so solidly red that both candidates largely ignored it, as their expense reports prove.

Combined, the official campaign committees of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama spent a paltry $1.8 million in the state, according to the most recent expense filings released by the Federal Election Commission. To put that in perspective, taken as a percentage of both campaign’s total spending, which topped $1 billion, Tennessee made out with just 0.16 percent of the pie. And those numbers do not even include spending by deep-pocketed Super PACs like the Republican Restore Our Future and Democratic Priorities USA.  

But one state-based company, Premiere Transportation, hit it big when Mitt Romney selected its luxury motor coaches as one of his primary forms of transportation.

Of the aforementioned $1.8 million spent in Tennessee, the Romney campaign spent $1.4 million of that total with Premiere Transportation, a Franklin-based bus rental company that, during the last 10 years or so, has become the go-to ground transportation for campaigning political elites from both parties.

“We are really just a small, niche company that hits a bonanza once every four years,” said Ken Fitzpatrick, the company’s president and one of its three full-time employees.

In 1994, Duane Ward founded Premiere Transportation to rent buses to touring entertainers. But with the competition proving fierce, the company moved to corporate and political rentals about a decade ago.

“Entertainer bus rentals was a much larger and established industry, so we thought corporate rentals were a small market that we could make work,” said Fitzpatrick.

Today, the company that once drove N’ Sync and Janet Jackson now rents to the likes of Republicans Romney and Newt Gingrich and their Democratic political rivals Obama and Hillary Clinton. That political focus is an integral part of Ward’s burgeoning Franklin-based empire, Premiere International.

Nashville has long been the center of the entertainment bus rental world. Country and gospel acts were some of the first to use buses to tour, spurring the industry to emerge via Nashville, according to Fitzpatrick. Now even West Coast acts get their tour buses from Music City, and Fitzpatrick estimated that about 80 percent of the industry is Nashville based.

There are other perks as well. The city is centrally located, and the critical mass of rental companies means Premiere has access to shops, mechanics, drivers and other support services it could not get anywhere else.

Premiere’s 10 buses offer everything a campaigning politician, or otherwise, could need, and then some. Named after political giants including Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan, the bus amenities include marble floors, tables and countertops. Cabinets are crafted from wood, while the commodes are porcelain. There’s “luxury mood lighting,” the DirecTV comes with NFL Sunday Ticket and ESPN College Gameday, and the buses can be fully wrapped in a custom image for as little as $8,000. For all this mobile comfort, clients can expect to shell out about $1,900 a day. 

Unlike entertainers, who typically expect their drivers to simply be drivers, corporate and campaign rentals expect a limousine experience. They want their drivers to act in a service-oriented capacity, making sure the bus is stocked and the drinks are iced down, said Fitzpatrick. With this in mind, the U.S. Secret Service has vetted all Premiere drivers. 

Because an incumbent uses Secret Service buses during the campaign, the big fish every four years is the challenger. For example, premiere rented to both John Kerry and Obama. And this year, at the height of his campaign, Romney was using five of Premiere’s buses to canvass swing states looking for last-minute votes. Those photos of Romney and Paul Ryan getting to know each other were taken on a Premiere bus.

Fitzpatrick estimates that about 70 percent of the company’s business took place on the campaign trail this year. That number is inverted when the White House is not being contested.

“We have to hustle pretty hard during the other three years to make sure we keep busy,” said Fitzpatrick. “We do some [mid-term election] campaigns, but it is certainly not to the same scale and scope of the presidential campaign.”

During the midterm election cycle, Premiere’s political clients are usually gubernatorial and Senate candidates, as well as a few issue-driven campaigns.

The rest of the company’s business is derived from corporations that use Premiere vehicles as mobile headquarters, traveling college sports teams, family vacations and game-day trips to various Southeastern Conference hometowns.

One market in which Premiere wants to expand is local day trips. There is a lot of potential renting otherwise unused buses to groups looking to motor in style to dinner, enjoy a trip to a wine tasting and arrive to prom in style, Fitzpatrick said.

Such light-mileage trips, Fitzpatrick said, offer a lot of potential for growth and are a welcomed change of pace — as long as it is not an election year, that is.

— Nicholas Hunt