ADVERTISEMENT

Encore Luxury Coaches builds buses at the new Cornelius factory

ADVERTISEMENT

Kyle Egle builds the freshwater skid for an Encore luxury coach at the company's Cornelius bus factory on Tuesday.

Kyle Egle builds the freshwater skid for an Encore luxury coach at the company’s Cornelius bus factory on Tuesday.

[email protected]

Musicians on tour spend a lot of time on the road, traveling from one place to another. And it’s Justin Ward’s job to make sure they get to their destination as quickly and comfortably as possible.

ADVERTISEMENT

Ward is CEO of Encore Luxury Coaches, a tour bus manufacturing company he runs with his partner, company president Amanda Williams. The Charlotte Observer toured Encore’s new factory in Cornelius on Tuesday, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the first two buses on the production line at that site.

When complete, each bus weighs about 60,000 pounds, more than four and a half adult African elephants.

“They are beasts of a machine,” Ward said.

A typical bus designed for a musician’s crew seats between six and eight people and includes amenities such as a lounge, shower, and television. The sleeping area has bunk beds stacked against the walls.

On buses designed for the musicians themselves, Encore’s highest-end product, called a star coach, performers can get a full-size bed. They can also request a variety of other amenities: Some have requested recording studios, stripper poles, cedar-lined closets, and even fireplaces.

An Encore bus could sell for more than $1 million, Ward said, though the company only leases them. Ward declined to say how much they cost to build or how much they rent for.

ENCORE_BUS_04.jpg
Kyle Egle builds the freshwater skid for an Encore luxury coach at the company’s Cornelius bus factory on Tuesday. jeff syner [email protected]

careful construction

Encore is based in Nashville, Tennessee, but decided last year to move its construction operations to Cornelius when a property that fit the company’s needs became available near Ward’s home.

Construction of the first buses at the Cornelius factory began last month. About a dozen people are employed there, in fields such as carpentry, electrical and plumbing.

At full capacity, it will take about five weeks to transform a bus from a shell to a finished product, Ward said. But as the construction crew adjusts to the new site, that number remains eight to 10 weeks per bus.

ENCORE_BUS_01.jpg
Justin Ward, CEO of Encore Luxury Coaches, and Auggie, a mini goldendoodle, inside one of the company’s buses at its Cornelius factory. jeff syner [email protected]

It is a complex process to assemble each bus. Encore focuses exclusively on the interior: You get the outer shell directly from Canadian bus manufacturer Prevost, and Encore does the rest.

While most of the Encore buses are nearly identical, the Star buses are custom built to the artist’s specifications.

Encore won’t build one until they have a lease on the books. Once the lease is signed, the construction team goes to great lengths to accommodate the artist’s requests.

“We do everything we can do inside a 45-foot tube,” Ward said. “But, no matter how crazy the request is, we will never reveal them or call anyone.”

Although Encore was founded in 2020, its leadership team has been in the entertainment industry for over 20 years.

That experience made it relatively easy to build a steady client base of touring musicians, Ward said, including country music artists like Gabby Barrett and Joe Nichols.

ENCORE_BUS_02.jpg
Work continues on two of the Encore luxury coaches at the company’s Cornelius factory. jeff syner [email protected]

Mr. ‘American Pie’

One Encore customer is “American Pie” singer Don McLean, who, in an interview with The Charlotte Observer, said that being on his bus is “kind of a non-stop party.”

Back on the road after a concert, McLean said, “drinks and food will be out, and the TV will be on, and we’ll be telling stories and thinking about what happened at the show that night. It’s like a mobile party.”

He said his aversion to flying has nothing to do with his classic 1971 song about “the day music died,” referring to the 1959 plane crash that killed three musicians.

For McLean, the appeal of the bus is simply avoiding the hassle of airports.

Although it’s a slower way to get from one place to another, “it’s an infinitely better experience to be on the bus,” McLean said. “The whole operation is first class.”

ENTER-MUS-MCLEAN-NRA-CONVENTION-LA.JPG
Don McLean, seen here in a 2014 file photo, is a fan of Encore’s buses. Allen J. Schaben TNS

supply chain concerns

Encore operates 15 buses at this time. While the company plans to double that number by the end of the year, the mounting pains of moving to a new factory combined with widespread supply chain disruptions make that goal seem more aspirational than practical.

One area where Ward feels supply chain delays is in the wood that makes up the interior structure of each bus. Encore uses Baltic birch plywood, which Ward says is the most durable type of wood for buses that average 15 years on the road.

But Encore’s Baltic Birch comes from Russia.

Amid heavy economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Western nations in response to the Ukraine invasion, the price of such timber has more than doubled in recent months, Ward said. Shipments have also taken longer to arrive.

ENCORE_BUS_05.jpg
Christian Taylor, left, and Avery Hyman install insulation inside a tour bus. When complete, each bus weighs about 60,000 pounds. jeff syner [email protected]

However, for the wood that is available, it is the head carpenter Néstor Rondón who makes sure that it is put to good use.

“This man is the brains behind all of this,” Ward said, grabbing Rondón’s shoulder and pointing to the buses under construction.

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 floor during the Observer tour, agreeing to have his belly rubbed by anyone who paid attention to him.

Drivers included

Encore doesn’t just provide customers with a bus. It also feeds the driver.

For Ward, that’s one of the key components of Encore’s business, and one of the least appreciated.

Encore employs about 25 drivers right now, Ward said, though he expects that number to grow along with the bus fleet in the coming years.

Regrouping after COVID

When the pandemic hit, the music industry shut down.

“It was scary,” Ward said. “Whether he’s a supplier or he’s the artist, everyone’s world has stopped.”

With no touring artists, business collapsed. But while the leasing company Ward previously worked for didn’t survive the pandemic, he and other leaders there regrouped and founded Encore.

Now, there’s more demand for buses than Encore can deliver, Ward said, especially in the country music scene, which is where his business is concentrated.

Ultimately, Encore’s role is to help artists make their fans happy, Ward said.

“Hopefully,” he said, “not only are they demanding an encore for the artists, but the artist is demanding an encore from us.”

Gabe Castro-Root is an intern on the business desk at The Charlotte Observer. Originally from San Francisco, he studies journalism and sustainability at American University in Washington, DC

sniloans