Touring musicians spend a lot of time on the road, traveling from venue to venue. And it’s Justin Ward’s job to make sure they get to their destination as quickly and comfortably as possible.
Ward is CEO of Encore Luxury Coaches, a coach manufacturing company he runs with his partner, company president Amanda Williams. The Charlotte Observer toured Encore’s new Cornelius factory on Tuesday, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the first two buses on the production line at that site.
When completed, each bus weighs approximately 60,000 pounds, or more than four and a half adult African elephants.
“They’re beasts of a machine,” Ward said.
A typical bus designed for a band of musicians seats six to eight people and includes amenities such as a lounge, shower and TV. The sleeping area features bunk beds stacked against the walls.
On buses designed for musicians themselves — Encore’s top product, called a star coach — performers can get a full-size bed. They may also request a variety of other amenities: some have requested recording studios, stripping poles, cedar-lined closets, and even fireplaces.
An Encore bus could sell for more than $1 million, Ward said, although the company only rents them out for rental purposes. Ward declined to say how much they cost to build or how much they were rented.
Encore is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, but last year decided to shift its construction operations to Cornelius when a property that suited the company’s needs became available near Ward’s home.
Construction of the first buses at the Cornelius factory began last month. A dozen people are employed there, in areas such as carpentry, electricity and plumbing.
At full capacity, it will take about five weeks to transform a bus from shell to finished product, Ward said. But as the construction team adjusts to the new site, that number is still around eight to ten weeks per bus.
It is a complex process to assemble each bus. Encore focuses exclusively on the interior – they get the outer shell delivered directly from Canadian bus manufacturer Prevost, and Encore does the rest.
While most Encore buses are nearly identical, the featured cars are custom-built to an artist’s specifications.
Encore won’t build any until they have a lease on the books. Once this lease is signed, the construction team strives to meet the artist’s requests.
“We’re doing everything we can do inside a 45-foot tube,” Ward said. “But, no matter how crazy the request, we will never release it or call anyone.”
Although Encore was founded in 2020, its management team has worked in the entertainment industry for over 20 years.
That experience made it relatively easy to build up a steady following of touring musicians, Ward said, including country music artists like Gabby Barrett and Joe Nichols.
Mr. ‘American Pie’
An Encore customer is “American Pie” singer Don McLean, who in an interview with The Charlotte Observer said being on his bus was “kind of a party going on.”
Back on the road after a gig, McLean said, “Drinks and food will come out, and the TV will be on, and we’ll tell stories and think about what happened at the show that night. It’s like a mobile feast.
He said his dislike of flying had nothing to do with his classic 1971 song about ‘the day the music died’ – referencing a 1959 plane crash that killed three musicians.
For McLean, the appeal of the bus is simply to avoid the hassle of airports.
While it’s a slower way to get from site to site, “it’s an infinitely better experience being on the bus,” McLean said. “The whole operation is first class.”
Supply chain concerns
Encore currently operates 15 buses. While the company plans to double that number by the end of the year, the growing challenges of moving to a new factory, combined with widespread supply chain disruptions, make that goal seem more ambitious than practice.
One area where Ward is feeling delays in the supply chain is the wood that forms the interior structure of each bus. Encore uses Baltic birch plywood, which Ward says is the most durable type of wood for buses that last an average of 15 years on the road.
But Encore’s Baltic Birch comes from Russia.
Amid heavy economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries in response to the invasion of Ukraine, the price of this timber has more than doubled in recent months, Ward said. Deliveries have also been slower to arrive.
For the available wood, however, it is the head carpenter Nestor Rondon who ensures that it is used wisely.
“This man is the mastermind behind it all,” Ward said, grabbing Rondon’s shoulder and pointing to the buses being built.
Another key player in the factory is Auggie, a mini goldendoodle with boundless energy and an apparent curiosity about power tools. He ran from bus to bus and around the factory during the Observer’s tour, accepting belly rubs from anyone whose attention he could get.
Encore doesn’t just provide customers with a bus. It also provides the driver.
For Ward, this is one of the key elements of Encore’s business, and one of the least appreciated.
Encore currently employs about 25 drivers, Ward said, though he expects that number to grow alongside the bus fleet over the next few years.
Regrouping after COVID
When the pandemic hit, the music industry shut down.
“It was scary,” Ward said. “Whether you’re a supplier or you’re actually the artist, everyone’s world has come to a standstill.”
Without touring artists, business collapsed. But when the leasing company Ward previously worked for didn’t survive the pandemic, he and other executives banded together and founded Encore.
Now, there’s more demand for buses than Encore can supply, Ward said, especially in the country music scene, where his business is focused.
Ultimately, Encore’s role is to help artists make their fans happy, Ward said.
“I hope,” he said, “not only are they demanding an encore for the artists, but the artist is asking us for an encore.”