GRAPEVINE, Texas — Some 1,800 tourism professionals attended the American Bus Association’s Marketplace, January 8–11 at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center. The event marked ABA’s first major in-person meeting in two years and is the largest post-lockdown gathering of the tourism industry to date.
ABA president and CEO Peter Pantuso said the attendance was lower than normal but that there was a palpable enthusiasm among those in attendance.
“The 1,850 people we had register is a little smaller than normal — we’re normally about 3,000,” he said. “But I’m really pleased with the number, and I get the sense from people that they’re thrilled to be here.”
Though many people who often attended the conference in the past were not at this year’s event, there was a noticeable contingent of delegates attending for the first time.
“The number of first-time attendees is off the charts this year,” Pantuso said. “A lot of people in the group travel business lost their jobs, so the manager or director of sales is now doing it because they didn’t have the resources to bring someone in. Or there are brand-new people who have picked up the job who are new to that position. A lot of those positions that went away are starting to be filled.”
Labor and staffing issues were among chief topics of discussion during the conference, as many delegates in attendance reported continued challenges in recruiting and retaining frontline service workers. Motorcoach drivers are among the most sought-after employees in the industry, already in high demand before the pandemic and now even more difficult to find.
ABA addressed the driver shortage in educational sessions and offered a number of resources to help coach companies fill open roles, including some put together by the association’s Women in Buses Council.
“The Driving Force program that Women in Buses did is really at the top of the list,” Pantuso said. “It’s a really well-thought-out program for how you can bring people in. Ads and videos are part of that package, so it’s a real one-stop shop for companies struggling to hire people.”
Pantuso said Women in Buses is working to create standardized training programs for on-boarding new drivers.
The association also spent time bringing attendees up to speed on its lobbying efforts in Washington. Though motorcoaches weren’t included in the initial CARES Act of 2020, the industry got some pandemic relief with the passage of the $2 billion CERTS Act in 2021. That number was about 20 percent of ABA’s target, so the association is now working to try to secure billions more in additional congressional spending.
“In 2022, we have a lot of momentum for getting more money for the industry,” Pantuso said. “We’re working with Senator Ben Cardin, who is on the Small Business Committee, on something that would hopefully provide some more relief. I think there’s a real opportunity to get some money there.”
The 2022 Marketplace came amid the omicron wave, as the highly infectious but less virulent strain of the COVID virus caused high case numbers worldwide. But Pantuso said it was important for the association to hold its meeting anyway.
“We’re an industry that wants people to get out and travel, so we ought to be leading by example,” he said. “We also want to be safe, so the vaccine or testing requirement was another part of the decision. We said, ‘we’re coming hell or high water,’ and I’ couldn’t be happier that we did.”