On recent weekday afternoon the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Ronkonkoma is empty, but in a short while it will be packed with New York City commuters returning home for the day.
It’s not a stop on the Long Island Railroad, and there’s no MTA bus depot at the Marriott. Rather it’s the result of a private partnership between the hotel and Bolt Bus, a transportation venture that launched in Suffolk County this past December.
Bolt Bus has set up shop in three locations throughout Suffolk: the Hilton Garden Inn in Riverhead, the Courtyard Marriott in Ronkonkoma and the Park & Ride lot at Exit 49 on the Long Island Expressway in Melville.
Weekday mornings dozens of New York City commuters file into the Courtyard lobby and wait for the 44-seat coach to arrive. When it does, passengers will board the bus and ride into Manhattan in the coach’s leather seats, which come equipped with a personal coffee cup holder, electric outlets for portable devices and free Wi-Fi access.
After passing through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, passengers are dropped off along 3rd Avenue at 40th Street and 59th Street. On the way home, the Bolt Bus will pick passengers up at Lexington Avenue at 40th and 59th streets before heading back out to Long Island.
“We wanted to differentiate ourselves from the rail service by offering east-side access,” said Mike Schoolman, president of Bolt Bus Long Island. “A lot of folks work on the east side and want to get a direct connection to meetings and locations on the east side.”
Schoolman, a Stony Brook resident with more than 10 years experience in transportation, says another big difference between Bolt Bus and the LIRR is that the amenities make for an accomplished commute.
“You can plug in your computer, you can get work done, you can get onto the Wi-Fi; you can be productive on your trip back and forth to the city as opposed to not being productive," he said.
Schoolman also notes the price points. Prices on the Bolt start at $7 and then grow from there based on demand, similar to the airline or hotel industries. Prospective riders purchase tickets off the company’s website at BoltBusLI.com. The earlier a seat is booked, the cheaper the ticket. As the bus gets filled, prices can go up, but never more than the $17.50 one-way peak from Ronkonkoma that the LIRR charges, according to Schoolman.
Once tickets are purchased, customers receive a code that can be sent to their smartphone or printed. Riders show their code to the driver and they’re on their way. Schoolman said the buses are averaging anywhere between 60 and 90 minute arrival times, which is in the ballpark of the LIRR’s schedule.
Additionally, Bolt Bus runs a frequent rider promotion whereby commuters who register through the company website receive a free ride after every eight ticket purchases. Then there’s the “Bolt For A Buck” promotion available to all customers. The website grants a $1 charge to one customer at random for each bus trip. For a regular commuter, Schoolman says the frequent rider discount and the $1 lucky ticket translates into significant savings in monthly commuter costs. Customers can also use their company-issued TransitChek to make ticket purchases.
The LIRR, Bolt Bus’s principal competitor, according to Schoolman, currently charges $35 round-trip peak from Ronkonkoma to Penn Station, and $363 for the Monthly pass. Rich Kruse, who executes Bolt Bus’s PR and marketing strategies, says the company not only offers a better price, but a better product.
“Any commuter knows, you can get a cup of coffee at the LIRR, but once you step on that train, you’re holding that cup for an hour and twenty minutes,” Kruse said. “You can’t do anything else. You can’t plug in your laptop; you can’t work on other things.”
Kruse said the company is doing some advertising, but is promoting itself mostly through social media, guerrilla marketing, word-of-mouth and events. The company currently has a kickoff event planned at the Riverhead location on April 24. Last month, the Ronkonkoma location held its kickoff with more than 300 attendees and free food and drinks provided by the Marriott.
“Once they try us, they keep taking it,” Kruse said. “It’s just about getting them to try it.”
Going forward Schoolman said Bolt Bus is looking to push into Nassau County with pickup locations, but is looking to find spots with adequate parking. At some point, he said the bus service will likely look to make intra-island routes between hot locations within the island, such as Melville to Riverhead or Nassau to Ronkonkoma. For now, the young franchise is focused on building up its New York City commuter market, by presenting itself as a better alternative to public transportation.
“This is a great product,” Schoolman said. “It’s a great service; it’s a viable alternative to taking the train or driving your car and we think that there’s a place for it in the market.”