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November 29, 2023

Decades old and family-run, a Maine charter bus service changes hands

Photo / Peter Van Allen VIP Tour & Charter, a for-hire bus service in Portland, has sold to a New Hampshire scenic railroad company. It also has an exclusive option to now buy the land VIP occupies in Portland's Bayside neighborhood.

VIP Tour & Charter, a for-hire bus service that began in Portland nearly 40 years ago and had been family-run ever since, now belongs to a New Hampshire company.

Conway Scenic Railroad acquired the VIP business, including its fleet of 15 motorcoaches and vans, in a deal that closed last week, VIP said on Monday. Neither company would disclose terms of the transaction.

In addition, Conway has an exclusive option to buy the one-acre property VIP owns in the Bayside neighborhood, at 129-137 Fox St., which serves as headquarters and bus depot.

That purchase could happen "in the future at a time that works for all parties involved," said Jason Briggs, VIP vice president of business development. The railroad's plan "is to occupy this premier location for many years to come," according to a news release from Malone Commercial Brokers, the Portland real estate firm representing VIP.

For the bus company, Conway Scenic Railroad is "the perfect match," said Lana Sawyer, chief financial officer and manager of VIP.

Her father, Raymond W. Penfold Jr., began the business in 1985 with a single 32-year-old GMC motorcoach. Today VIP employs about a dozen people, and its vehicles range from 55-passenger coaches to a luxury van with leather seats for eight.

Courtesy /
Raymond W. Penfold Jr., who died in 2016 at age 89, founded VIP Tour & Charter in 1985.

VIP will provide Conway a link between cruise ships docked in Portland and the railroad's excursion trains, which run from North Conway, N.H., through the White Mountains. The bus trips will take about an hour and be timed around the ships' arrivals. Conway hopes the seamless, scenic bus-train tour will attract some of 230,000 cruise ship passengers expected to come ashore in Portland next year.

The integration of VIP's services with the train tours will allow Conway to offer cruise lines more competitively priced excursions, the company said. In addition, it plans to launch bus tours in Maine.

"The business is scalable," Conway co-owner David Swirk said in an industry publication earlier this month. "Whatever it takes, we will make incremental investments to support it. I want to get to 1,000 [cruisers] a day or even more."

Conway currently operates 25 vintage train cars, carrying 135,000 passengers a year through the New Hampshire forests and mountains, and has added four cars with a total capacity of 364 specifically for the cruisers.

A long road

Penfold had worked as a trucker and entrepreneur for more than 40 years before launching VIP. He founded Penfold Trucking Co. and Ra-Ma Equipment, based in Pittston, before moving the business to Portland in 1977. There he operated the Exit 7 Truck Stop.

"As the paper mills were going on strike, the work was thinning and the long, rigorous routine wore on Ray, he had an idea," the VIP website explains. "Why not purchase a motorcoach and transport people? The freight walks on and off itself, yet he’d still be able to drive, a passion of his."

Since then, VIP has carried generations of tourists, teams, clubs, students, wedding guests and other private parties throughout Maine and as far as Boston and New York.

Penfold died in 2016, but the business has continued under the leadership of Sawyer and Penfold's wife, Pat Penfold, as president. Three other family members have served as shareholders.

Pat Penfold, Sawyer and Briggs work in the VIP office. "We do the work of five, but the three of us get it done," said Briggs.

No immediate changes are planned for the business, he added, and the VIP brand will stay.

“Dave felt that the VIP name was essential to maintain as it has such a long and outstanding history in the transportation industry since they began 38 years ago," said Karen Rich, of Malone.

Sawyer will continue in her role for some time to help transition the business to the new owner. Her plans, according to Briggs, are "retirement eventually but not immediately."

Rough ride

The sale of VIP comes as bus companies throughout the U.S. still struggle with the aftermath of the pandemic.

At the start of the health crisis, restrictions on travel and the cancellation of large events decimated the motorcoach industry. Passenger volumes plummeted from 536 million in 2019 to just 125 million in 2020, according to the American Bus Association.

Courtesy / VIP
The VIP Tour & Charter fleet includes 15 vehicles of various sizes.

Nearly a quarter of the 2,454 carriers in the U.S. went out of business by the end of 2020. More than a third of the industry's 75,000 workers lost their jobs.

Since then, travel has rebounded, and some forms of transportation — such as commercial airlines — are now carrying more passengers than ever.

But for bus companies, most of which are small or family-owned, it's been a rough ride.

Amid labor shortages, hiring back trained drivers has been difficult. Many have retired. And there are big capital challenges; a 55-passenger motorcoach typically costs over $500,000.

The obstacles are especially tough at private, for-hire bus companies that can't rely on government-funded contracts to provide public transit.

Swirk hopes the combination of VIP and Conway Scenic Railroad will help bolster the bus business.

"This is so rewarding to me. It's so unique. It brings joy to my heart to see people enjoying this," he said. "You want to feel like you did something to make a difference in the world. This makes a difference."

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