For decades, Conestoga Tours has brought the excitement of travel and exploration to its far-reaching community, but at the end of 2022 this long-lasting business will close its final chapter. Since the 1980s, the company has given folks the chance to explore sights all over the United States and in Canada through one-day and overnight trips that include the best in accommodations, attractions, restaurants and transportation. The company has been a community fixture since well before it launched its national tours, with a history tracing all the way back to 1899 — and now, as Conestoga Tours wraps up the last year of its existence, customers can say goodbye with one last day trip to New York City on December 28.
The company has seen much success over the years. It originally started as simply public transportation for the local area, operating trolleys and then local buses in the first half of the 20th century. In 1946, Thomas Meredith Sr. joined the company after returning home from World War II, and he quickly rose through the ranks to become head of the company. During the 1950s, the company began a charter bus service and a local tour service, and Conestoga Transportation Company became one of the most recognizable transportation companies locally. Over time, Meredith and his family purchased enough shares to take the company private and dedicated their careers to maintaining the excellent reputation it had achieved.
Despite the brand recognition and the customer trust that was earned, the company still had to weather many storms. The first tours the company conducted were four-hour excursions into Amish country, every year taking over 100,000 tourists who were staying at big, nearby hotels — but after the accident at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in 1979, when there was a partial meltdown of one reactor, people feared that radiation would be present in the area and they avoided taking unnecessary trips to Lancaster.
Problems like that demanded new business ventures in order to adapt to the changing market, and Tom Meredith Jr. was given the task of finding new sources of income for the bus company after the 50% decline in passengers that the Three Mile Island issue had created. He tried a novel idea he had picked up at a convention: expanding the tours they sold to include day trips and much longer trips, like to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. Taking 20-some busloads of passengers to the fair put Conestoga Tours on the map for cross-country tours, which helped keep the business going for the next 40 years. The company’s motorcoaches were much more luxurious than what most people envision when they hear the word “bus,” too: in addition to having comfortable seats for long rides, they were equipped with restrooms, DVD players and WiFi.
However, like many other transportation-based companies, Conestoga Tours was not prepared for COVID-19. The hospitality industry shut down almost overnight, and even if people were willing to travel soon after, too many restaurants, accommodations and venues were closed to make it worth going to most places. Even after the lockdowns were lifted, long-lasting effects on the industry have remained: labor shortages, supply chain issues, economic troubles and the shuttering of businesses that had once helped the industry thrive means that tours are more difficult to carry out than ever.
Tom Meredith Jr., now the president and owner of Conestoga Tours, explained in an interview with The Lancaster Patriot that the rates of many motels and hotels have skyrocketed and these places are so short-staffed that it takes multiple phone calls and emails to even get in touch with customer service, when in prior years it took almost no effort to confirm that rooms were available for trips. Even once rooms are reserved, a lack of cleaners on hotel staff means that he hears complaints of dirty rooms. There are also fewer restaurants open, and reduced staff in the restaurants that remain means that many can no longer accept busloads of people all at once. Many attractions also have reduced their hours or are closing their doors on different days of the week. “The planning of these tours, which used to be something I really enjoyed, has become a nightmare,” Meredith said.
Meredith grew up in the bus industry — he has memories of sitting in the driver’s seat of a bus and trying to turn the huge steering wheel when he was only 5 years old — but now that he is nearly 70 and has stepped back from running a charter bus company to solely run the tour company, he sees the current state of the hospitality and bus industries as a final push for him to retire.
His main regret in closing the company’s doors is for the people who still want the chance to travel in such a communal way. “Most of the people who go on the trips are older, the older generation,” he explained, “and a lot of them, their kids have moved out of the area and life is a little bit lonelier than it had been when they had their families with them. One of the benefits of this type of travel is the people you meet on the tours. So I’ve found that a lot of our customers have developed pretty long-term friendships with people they met on these tours, and a lot of them now even travel together.”
Fortunately, the service that Conestoga Tours has provided will not entirely disappear just yet: Meredith’s former head driver, Lou DiPerna, and his wife, Linda, one of the tour directors, have decided to offer tours next year under the name Lou and Linda’s Adventures. The DiPernas will take travelers to favorite destinations that Conestoga Tours offered over the years.
For his part, Meredith said that it has been an honor to transport the many customers his family’s company has served through the years. “We enjoyed having them on all our tours and taking them to destinations all across the country,” he added.
“Since 1980, my company has worked to give them the very best travel experiences they could have at a very reasonable rate,” he said. Although organizing trips can be hard sometimes, it is worth it in the end. “The satisfaction I got is the realization that a lot of these people would never have been to these destinations and seen the sights that we took them to if we hadn’t offered this type of service. They had no intention of ever driving their cars to California or to Arizona or to Yellowstone Park or the Black Hills. They never would have seen these sights without Conestoga Tours providing this service. So it gives me a lot of satisfaction to think I helped enhance their lives a little bit.”
He also thanked the employees who helped make it possible to offer such services to the public. The drivers, mechanics and other staff worked long and hard to make sure every trip was a success. “I owe 47 years of gratitude to so many people,” he said. “It’s hard to let that go.”
On Wednesday, December 28, Conestoga Tours will take three buses on a tour of New York City for one final hurrah. There is still time to purchase tickets to join in on the fun. For reservation information, you can call 717-569-1111 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.