Julie Thiets said she and her husband, Danny, are experienced entrepreneurs who near the end of 2017 were closing their current business. “We were ready to move on to something else. We weren’t sure what it would be, but we knew we wanted it to be something fun. We were visiting Asheville, North Carolina, and had the chance to ride on a party bus there. I never had so much fun in my life. I told my husband, ‘I know this would work in Atlanta.’”
The Decatur couple borrowed ideas from the North Carolina company and modified them for the party on wheels service they envisioned. “It was a real family undertaking,” Thiets recalled. “We bought an old school bus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and my uncle and my husband refurbished it into a party bus that can accommodate a band as well as passengers.”
Thiets said when she and her husband considered a color for the bus, they agreed they wanted something bright and unmistakable. “Yellow was out of the question,” she said. “This used to be a school bus. If we painted it yellow that’s what it would look like. We agreed that we don’t like orange and we didn’t want purple, because the company in North Carolina had purple buses and we didn’t want people to think we were affiliated with them. We finally settled on lime green.”
In 2018, the couple launched Rockin Road Trip. During the bus parties, passengers may listen to live band music—Thiets will engage a three- to five-piece band or the group can engage their own—or sing along with a karaoke machine as they snack and sip beverages of their choosing, including alcoholic beverages.
“People have asked me whether this is legal. I say, ‘Of course it’s legal. We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t legal.’ As long as the driver isn’t drinking, it’s fine,” Thiets said. “We have a line in the bus that you can’t come forward of with a drink. We’ve actually pulled up next to a police car and had the officers smile and wave. I guess they’re glad these people aren’t drinking and driving.”
Some groups, Thiets said, want to be delivered to and returned from a specific destination such as a concert or a sports event. Others just want to drive around and party—a service that’s offered in three-hour stints. “We visit a couple of local breweries, which gives the passengers the chance to go to the bathroom—there isn’t one on the bus—and sample some locally made beers. We always prearrange these stops with small independent breweries.
This wouldn’t matter a lot to the big breweries, but for the little ones it’s a big deal. This is a perfect example of small businesses supporting other small businesses.”
Ordinarily, the bus follows its predetermined route, but Thiets fondly remembers a time when they agreed to stop at an assisted living home so the person celebrating could be wished a happy birthday by his mother. “His mother came out and mother and son danced while music played on the bus. It was a beautiful moment. The whole bus applauded,” she recalled.
Bus parties are popular with those celebrating birthdays—particularly milestone birthdays—but many engage Rockin Road Trip for anniversaries, reunions, bachelor or bachelorette parties or “just because they want to have a party,” according to Thiets. The bus accommodates groups of 36 with a band or 40 without one.
Thiets said the general rule is that the parties are adults only; however, they will agree to alcohol-free youth parties. “If someone has a child who just loves buses and wants to have a birthday party on the bus, we could do that as long as it’s strictly a children’s party. Also, we could do a prom-related party as long as it’s just prom-going teens. Trying to have adults and children together in a bus party just doesn’t work. It’s not fair to anyone.”
The biggest surprise, Thiets said, was the cost of insurance. “An enterprise like this is really expensive to insure. It is a lot for a small business, but we had already committed a lot to this venture, including some of our retirement savings. We were determined to make it work.”
The business was getting on a solid footing in 2020 when the unimaginable happened—a worldwide health crisis. “It was March. We had St. Patrick’s Day parties along with a lot of others scheduled, but the pandemic hit suddenly and sharply. Everything was being canceled. All of our income was gone. I remember crying,” Thiets said.
When Rockin Road Trip reopened in June 2021, it felt like starting from square one, according to Thiets. “We’ve been in business for five years, but it feels like this is just our third year. We’re still recovering from the pandemic,” she said.
Rockin Road Trip is based in Decatur but accepts clients from all over the metro area. “People ask how far we go, and we haven’t really decided. Obviously if it’s too far we’d have to say no, but we haven’t said no yet. We recently took a group to Athens,” Thiets said.