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ABA 2015 Marketplace Draws 3,000 To St. Louis

 More than 3,000 travel industry delegates met in St. Louis, Missouri, January 10-13, for the 2015 American Bus Association (ABA) Marketplace. While many of its members also run intercity and school bus operations, ABA is the largest membership organization for the group tour and charter industry in North America. Its members currently own or operate almost two-thirds of the coaches on highways in the United States.

In addition to a schedule of more than 50 educational seminars and networking sessions, the convention featured three days of business appointments yielding more than 100,000 meetings between travel destinations and ABA operators.

As with accidents in the airline or cruise industries, accidents involving buses generate media visibility and often result in public scrutiny about safety regulations, driver preparedness and mechanical issues. The industry’s reputation suffers when accidents occur involving small companies that operate under the radar using outdated or ill-serviced equipment.

“We’re longtime proponents of cracking down on illegal operators,” said Peter Pantuso, ABA’s president and CEO, in an interview. “Unfortunately, when something occurs, the government ends up going after the better carriers because they’re easier to find. The others are operating in the shadows. Our members are prominent and accessible.”

Because of that, the association is building coalitions where it can to address safety issues and the fallout they create.

“We signed a letter of agreement on October 1 with the American Gaming Association [AGA] to work together to promote safety for gambling runs,” said Pantuso. “It’s in both our interests to address that because they, too, suffer from unwarranted publicity when non-member casinos are involved.

“As part of this agreement, their members can check a database to see whether carriers bringing groups are carrying proper liability insurance and meeting other regulations for operating safely,” he said. “We’ve been able to make the case to AGA that if there is an accident, attorneys will look for the deepest pockets available and they’ll come back to the casinos for acting as sales agents for trips to their property.”

Federal legislation has passed that will require bus operators to have seat belts on any coaches built beginning in 2016. Pantuso said that the industry was successful in avoiding a requirement that older coaches be retrofitted with seat belts, which would have presented a myriad of complications.

“Coaches are already coming off the line today with seat belts, but in 2016 they’ll be required to have three-point seat belts that come over your shoulder like an automobile,” he said. “Actual usage on coaches is minimal, but I click mine every time I get on a coach.”

ABA has created a crisis management program for its membership that offers immediate assistance with handling the public relations aspects of accidents or other crises. Pantuso credits Dan Ronan, his senior director of communications, with helping to create the member benefit.

“We don’t charge for this and we can offer our expertise immediately following an accident,” he said. “Because of his background in television news and reporting, Dan has a network of media professionals across the country that can be very useful in a crisis situation. And this is not just for our operators — we’re available to help our travel industry members as well.”

Several evening events highlighted the social aspect of the convention, including two that showcased downtown St. Louis entertainment icons. St. Louis Ballpark Village is the city’s newest venue and is themed around its venerable St. Louis Cardinals baseball franchise and Busch Stadium. The Fabulous Fox Theatre, one of the most elaborate of dozens of Fox theaters built across America beginning in the 1920s, was the site of a gala evening event with music and dancing on stage.

The final evening was a Club Kentucky “speakeasy” event hosted by the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism and Kentucky delegation. Next year’s event takes place January 9-12 in Louisville.


Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.