By Rick Coates
It seems like a simple proposition on the surface. Simply spend $45
(if you are in Traverse City and live in Interlochen) if you have been
enjoying a night on the town with some adult beverages, or risk
getting behind the wheel of your vehicle and driving while
intoxicated. If caught, expect to spend $5,000 to $8,000 in legal fees
and increased insurance fees -- or even worse yet, you could kill
someone if you drive while intoxicated. It is this proposition Celtic
John offers daily in the Traverse
Nicknamed Celtic John by his radio friends Omelette & Finster, John
OBrien launched Celtic Transport Logistics (a.k.a. Celtic Shuttle &
Tours) on St. Patricks Day 2006 in Traverse City. In four years he
has seen Celtic Transport grow from one to seven vehicles. When he
hatched the idea Traverse City had one of the highest DUI arrest rates
per capita in Michigan, and according to a police officer friend of
Celtic Johns, that rate has been lowered since he began offering his
Celtic John started his shuttle business as much to fill a need for
him as he did for the community. I needed a job and there were not
many jobs at the time in Traverse City, so I started this shuttle
service, he said.
In addition he has been driving school buses for TCAPS, a job he says
may be in jeopardy if the schools end up privatizing their busing
As he prepares for the busy High Holy Days of St. Patrick (look for
him in the St. Patricks Parade on Saturday and around town next
Wednesday on St. Patricks Day with his shuttles) he took time to
reflect on the past, present and future of his business.
Northern Express: What inspired you to start Celtic Transport?
Celtic John: When I was living in Ireland I would go to weddings and
everyone would drive themselves to get there and everyone would take a
bus home. First time offense for drinking and driving and you lose
your license for two years, second offense and you lose it for life.
When I moved back to Traverse City there just wasnt a lot of jobs, I
started driving buses for TCAPS, so I thought this concept might work.
NE: Well has it worked?
Celtic John: They say it takes five years before a business turns a
profit and I am definitely proving that theory. The expenses from fuel
to maintenance are tough, last year I spent over $40,000 in
maintaining and repairing the vehicles, the roads around here are
tough on the vehicles. I also spent $15,000 on insurance. But I have
seen the business grow from one to seven vehicles and in the
summertime I have been turning business away. So I think in 2010 I am
going to finally make a profit.
NE: Does 2010 look good?
Celtic John: No, it looks great. Going into 2009 I had six bookings.
At the start of 2010 I had 30 bookings for the season. Plus the phone
has been ringing off the hook and we are way ahead of bookings from
this time last year. In many ways my business is recession proof,
people are still going to get married and people are still going to
NE: So weddings are a big part of your business?
Celtic John: Yes, they make up 50% of it and winery tours make up 20%
and the rest of the business is private parties, corporate shuttle
service, event shuttles and bars.
NE: Speaking of bars, are you still offering late night shuttle service?
Celtic John: Yes, but not by having a shuttle out driving around from
bar to bar on the weekends anymore. I like to say it was the best
marketing campaign I launched by accident. I stopped having the
shuttle out driving around on weekends a year ago, I was losing money.
Sure, it gave me a name but I had to be smart about it from a business
perspective. So now bartenders encourage patrons to call me when they
need a ride. It is a lot more cost effective.
NE: Your biggest challenge?
Celtic John: There are a lot of them. I like to consider myself one of
the spokes in the wheel that helps to promote tourism. Not everyone
has this perspective. For example, some wineries have labeled the
guests I am bringing as bus people and they do not want them. They
have stereotyped everyone based on previous experiences. But these
people are valuable to our economy, they come here and spend money in
our hotels, restaurants and shops and many of them spend a lot of
money at the wineries as well. We have had some embarrassing
experiences and some situations that have had a negative impact on the
perception of Traverse City.
NE: Do explain?
Celtic John: Fortunately most wineries do not operate this way. We
also call ahead and get permission. We recently brought a group of
professionals out to a winery and even though we had permission we
were greeted in the parking lot by a winery employee who said we were
not welcome. The guests were frustrated but we agreed to go elsewhere.
Despite being treated poorly they wanted to get a picture outside
before heading off to the next winery. Well as they got off the bus
this employee starting yelling at them and told them they were asked
to leave and to get back on the bus. These guests were so incensed
that they said they would never come back to Traverse City and would
never buy another bottle of wine from that winery ever again. They
also said they were going to tell everyone about their experience.
NE: It seems odd that wineries wouldnt welcome you with open arms. Is
it getting better?
Celtic John: I agree, after all, these people have already made the
right decision of touring the wineries with a designated driver. The
wineries that like us are the ones that have the bigger picture, they
also see themselves as a spoke in the tourism wheel.
We see patterns in our tours and where people buy wine and where they
dont. We hear time and time again oh this winery was so friendly as
they walk out with bottles or cases, or this winery was not friendly
and they treated us as an inconvenience.
When someone calls me about my services I have to sell them on what I
offer, I cant expect that just because they called they are going to
do business with me. I see this with some wineries; they expect that
everyone who walks through their doors is going to hand over their
wallet. Sometimes it isnt about having the best tasting wine; it is
about having the friendliest staff.
NE: So what is in store for the future for Celtic Transport Logistics?
Celtic John: We are in the process of expanding, looking to buy a
facility to work on our vehicles. We are looking to buy a trolley and
some executive vehicles for corporate transport. I am even working on
some tours of Ireland.
With the schools looking to privatize bussing we are looking at how
that might work in our business model. We have been offering a morning
and evening shuttle service for the college and NMC officials have
said it has helped with parking issues on campus.
We also see ourselves more involved with event shuttling. Now some
private schools have been approaching us. The Film Festival and the
recent Winter Microbrew Festival have contracted with us for event
shuttling and we see more of this happening with other events. We are
also now doing brewery tours. As we grow -- and I say we because it
is more than just me as I have a great customer service oriented team
-- I see us being the number one and best tour guide service in the
NE: Tips for selecting a transportation service?
Celtic John: Make sure their vehicles have the State inspection
sticker. All of our vehicles have been inspected by the state, which
means they are going through a regular maintenance schedule. Plus it
means we are properly insured and our drivers are certified. That
isnt always the case with some operators so do your homework. We also
pride ourselves on the little things that make a difference, like
being flexible for our customers. We succeed based on our reputation;
it is why we do little in the way of conventional advertising as we
have hotels, wineries, the Visitors Bureau, bartenders and others who
For additional information on Celtic Transport Logistics go to
www.celticshuttles.com or call them anytime at 231-313-KILT (1760).