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Hampton Jitney diversifies service beyond its seasonal trips

Andrew Lynch, vice president of Hampton Jitney, left,

Andrew Lynch, vice president of Hampton Jitney, left, and his brother Geoffrey Lynch, president, at the company's Southampton headquarters on April 15, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

Hampton Jitney Inc. pioneered the way east from New York to the Hamptons, and carries roughly 300,000 riders on that route from April to October. Now the family-run company is looking north and south, as it diversifies beyond its iconic seasonal business.

Geoffrey Lynch, the 46-year-old president of Hampton Jitney, said the Southampton-based company makes 70 percent of its more than $30 million in gross annual revenue from its scheduled trips between the East End and Manhattan.

Recent growth moves include a contract to be the official operator of the "I Love New York" bus, a state-funded tourism initiative meant to encourage residents to visit attractions outside New York City, running to the North Fork and the Finger Lakes among others.

The company recently completed construction of a $10 million passenger terminal in Calverton built to handle growing ridership to the North Fork. It has formed tourism partnerships with local business groups and owners to promote attractions in both peak and off seasons.

And the company has already expanded into charter, tour and even seasonal "Snowbird" services beyond Long Island, going as far south as West Palm Beach, Florida, and as far north as Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"It was really all about becoming less dependent on simply the scheduled service between the Hamptons and New York City," said Lynch, whose family has owned the privately held company since 1988. "We needed other business segments to sustain us in the off season."

Ferrying passengers in the summer season to the East End -- at fares ranging from $18 to $45, one way -- has its own challenges. The company finds it increasingly difficult to hire enough qualified commercial drivers due to a small workforce pool around its East End headquarters. Lynch, who has a commercial license, ends up behind the wheel on one of the company's 56 motor coaches a few times each summer.

And then there's formidable competition posed by the Long Island Rail Road. Lynch notes resignedly that his company's payroll taxes help support the LIRR.


A staple of summer living

It's all part of doing business for one of Long Island's most recognizable institutions. The 41-year-old company's express buses, with tray table-equipped reclining seats, flight-attendant-like hosts and cell phone-free rider rules, has become a staple of summer life in the region, making appearances in New York-centric TV shows like "Sex in the City" and "How I Met Your Mother." A 2013 cover of The New Yorker depicted expensive cars disembarking onto the beaches of the Hamptons, D-Day-like, from vessels bearing the Hampton Jitney logo.

Hampton Jitney is a key cog in the tourism business, a $5.6 billion industry on the Island in 2014, with more than 9.1 million visitors, according to the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission.

"There's no question that they have a major impact on local business out here, especially in tourism," said Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council.

For the last two years, the Jitney has operated free customer shuttle services sponsored by the council through an Empire State Development grant for select weekend events on the North and South forks. Transportation partners like Hampton Jitney provide a crucial service, Bate said.

"One of the things about our region is that it's close to New York but the transportation alternatives are relatively limited," he said.

Hampton Jitney was started in the summer of 1974 by Jim Davidson, a young Manhattan advertising executive with a summer residence in Water Mill. It began as a van service geared toward driving beachgoers and their bikes between the hamlets of the Hamptons.

Davidson expected to benefit from gasoline shortages amid the oil crisis of the early '70s, but instead the company struggled due to low customer demand. That was until Davidson received an inquiry that would fundamentally change the course of the company.

A customer approached Davidson looking for a way to move belongings from a summer rental out east back to the city in the fall. Taking on the job -- and several other similar requests -- kept the van service afloat through the end of the year.

By 1975, the company had changed its business model and began running regular routes between the Hamptons and the city, dropping its original inter-hamlet focus.

The company soon outgrew its original headquarters -- a barn on Lumber Lane in Bridgehampton -- and by the late 1980s expanded from a handful of Dodge vans, with trailers hauling luggage, to a roughly $4 million company with a fleet of 15 buses and a staff of about 40.

Davidson sold the company in 1988 to Geoffrey's father, a distant relative by marriage, when he was in failing health and had no children, Lynch said. Davidson died later that year. The Jitney has been owned and operated by the Lynch family ever since.


Links to transportation

The family's connection to the transportation business runs deep. The late J. Brent Lynch, Geoffrey's father, was a former partner of the Cross Sound Ferry before buying Hampton Jitney. Missy, his wife, hails from the New York McAllisters, owners of McAllister Towing and Transportation Co. Inc. founded in 1864, and operators of the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry.

"We definitely have transportation in our blood," Lynch said.

The company is nearly 10 times the size it was when the family bought the company in 1988, employing around 200 people today. Despite its size, both Geoffrey and younger brother Andrew, the company's vice president, said they don't shy away from helping out with less executive-like tasks when needed.

"If there's a toilet that needs to be dumped, we'll do it," said Andrew, 43, who's been with the company full time since 2005. "We both step in where we're needed and aren't afraid to get our hands dirty."

Filling in where needed when the summer rush leaves the company short-staffed is routine. During the summer season, buses in the company's fleet might make as many as 30 round trips to and from the North and South forks daily, with trips from the city on average running as often as every half hour on Friday evenings.

With the exception of its 2006 acquisition of former competitor Sunrise Bus Lines in Greenport, the company has enjoyed mostly organic growth, said Geoffrey, who credits some of its success to its area business relationships.

Richard Vandenburgh, co-founder of Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in Greenport, said the Jitney's regular scheduled service has a positive impact on his business year round.

"For us it's been nothing but positive because they have a stop right in front of the brewery," said Vandenburgh, whose business has a second location in Peconic. "They make it a lot easier for our fans and our patrons who are located in New York to get to and from us."

While Geoffrey and Andrew say working with local businesses -- which sometimes includes hosting complementary tastings of local wines and beers aboard the company's luxury Ambassador bus service -- has created opportunities for continued growth, it still faces challenges.

The limited workforce out east makes it particularly difficult to find qualified job candidates for the company's more technical positions. Many of the company's employees commute from west of the Hamptons to the Jitney's Southampton headquarters.

On a daily basis, though, the company's biggest challenge is traffic.

Geoffrey said that on some Fridays during the summer, it can take longer to get from Southampton to Montauk than it does to get from the Queens border out to the company's headquarters.

"It's really becoming an operational issue," he said.

Bill Schoolman, chief executive of Classic Coach, Hampton Luxury Liner and 7Bus motor coach brands in Bohemia, said traffic is a huge hindrance to his three bus operations as well.

"One of the most important infrastructure issues facing Long Island is traffic congestion," said Schoolman, whose Hampton Luxury Liner brand competes directly with the Jitney, running seasonal scheduled service between the South Fork and the city. "It's a nightmare."

Schoolman said the area's lack of managed bus lanes has created a barrier to entry for transportation companies, which may explain why he is one of the few direct bus competitors with the Jitney.


Rivalry rides the rails

While there are others on Long Island, they generally focus strictly on charter or tour services, Andrew said. Its biggest competitor in daily commuting is the Long Island Rail Road.

According to the LIRR, between Memorial Day and Labor Day last year, trains transported over 19,000 riders to and from its North Fork stops, and more than 286,000 to its South Fork stops, a sizable increase over 2013 summer ridership numbers.

On the South Fork, the train has enhanced service kicking off "just before Memorial Day" to the Hamptons, said LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena. Additionally, the rail service has seen a "surge of ridership" after its 2013 decision to originate its Cannonball service at Penn Station. The premium priced reserved-seat train offers bar service, snacks and rides express to the Hamptons on Friday evenings.

Despite the volume of riders the LIRR can transport, the Lynch brothers say they still have a competitive edge.

"Frequency is clearly the biggest advantage that we have over the railroad coming out here," Geoffrey said.

Going forward, the family company hopes to strengthen the core service to the North Fork, starting with the planned opening of its Calverton terminal this summer. Parking at the current terminal and headquarters in Southampton, opened in 1982, has become "like a sardine can" Geoffrey said. The new facility will give the company the legroom needed to better compete for customers, he said, and will allow it to eventually move and expand some operations into the new site later this year.

"We have a niche business here," Andrew said. "We like what we do and we think we can make it better."

As for where the Lynch brothers go on their vacations, Shelter Island and the Caribbean are top choices, though neither will have the time to get away during the hustle of summer.

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