Exploring new opportunities, maintaining the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) new Charter Bus Rules and the worldwide economic downturn were the constant themes being discussed at the United Motorcoach Association’s (UMA) Expo 2009.

“Preserving the charter bus rules will be a battle,” said Victor Parra, president/CEO of the UMA, citing pressure from transit groups to make changes to the recently finalized rules. During the Opening Session, Parra also discussed that the secret to successfully picking up more charter work may be to partner with local operators that have historically been looked at as the competition. He called the new mindset, “Coop-itition.”

Continuing with the theme, the “Dawn of a New Age” session focused on the impact of the Charter Bus Rules and how important it can be to the motorcoach industry’s future.

“The concept seems difficult for some operators to wrap their head around once transit posts an opportunity,” said Mike Waters of Coach America/Franciscan Lines about the difficulties some operators are having in understanding how the new rules work. “As an operator, if you want the business they are offering, you have to go in and take it.”

The panel, which also included Tom Ready of Ready Bus Line and Dale Krapf of Krapf Coaches Inc., and was moderated by Parra and Steve Klika, president, International Motor Coach Group, took turns discussing their experiences both in dealing with today’s economy and in responding to new work opportunities. Each urged the audience not to become complacent, and to be prepared to fight to maintain their recent victory.

Krapf also urged the audience to get to know their local Congressmen and transit agency board members and form a working relationship that will help make them aware of their cause.

Belt-tightening tactics

“This worldwide economic downturn is different then anything I’ve ever seen,” said Krapf. “A large part of the populace is scared.”

That sentiment was echoed throughout the Expo, which was held January 21 to 25 in Orlando, Fla., whether it was during sessions, breaks and networking opportunities, or on the show floor, with many panelists, attendees and suppliers discussing what they are doing to cinch their proverbial belts.

“We were considering purchasing a new coach since the latter part of 2008,” said George Childers, owner/operator of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Magic Carpet Ride. “Now, it’s definitely on the backburner, at least for the immediate future, and, who knows what’s going to happen in the distant future.”

One solution thrown out quite a bit was reassessing your office and scaling down the operation wherever you find it feasible.

Despite the economic storm clouds, a few silver linings were uncovered. The “New Places to Recruit New Drivers” panel revealed that the economy and subsequent poor job market has generated a growing number of driver applicants, turning the problem from how to find drivers to how to find the drivers that will be most capable.

The panel, which included Gary Bauer of Bauer’s Transportation, Jeff Greteman of Windstar Lines and DATTCO’s Pam Martinez, stressed the importance of the interview process, citing references and stringent background checks as some of the tools to making sure an applicant is the right fit for your operation.

The group also discussed some of the innovative places they are finding new, preferable applicants, including the recruitment of retired or retiring principals and school teachers, firemen, policemen and soon to be discharged military personnel. They also cited job fairs, which are found on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Website, and employee referrals as being beneficial in the search.

[PAGEBREAK]Federal Updates

FTA, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) representatives were on hand for the “Legislative & Regulatory Update” session.

The primary drafter of the Charter Bus Rules, Linda Lasley, assistant chief council, FTA, was on hand to discuss the newest developments at the federal level, including the transit agencies’ attempt to tone down or make changes to the rules. Lasley, who also served as the lead attorney for the FTA’s negotiated rulemaking for the charter service regulation, as well as the agency’s resident expert, was also given an award by the session’s moderator, Ken Presley, for her support to the industry.

Meanwhile, Kathryn “Kitty” Higgins, member of the NTSB, explained what the NTSB does and how they work with the motorcoach industry to improve safety. She also discussed the recent landing of a plane on the Hudson River, which ended with zero casualties.

“The key to the ‘Miracle on Hudson’ was training,” Higgins said, before urging the audience to follow the example by keeping its drivers well-trained.

Higgins also spoke about the NTSB’s suggestions to the motorcoach industry to help improve safety, giving unacceptable marks to this point on efforts to prevent medically unqualified drivers from operating commercial vehicles and for not installing on-board electronic recorders on all coaches. Higgins did note that positive — however, not completely acceptable — progress has been made by the industry to prevent motorcoach carriers from operating if they put vehicles on the road with mechanical problems or unqualified drivers behind the wheel; enhancing the protection of passengers, including structural improvements and the use of seat belts; and the restriction of cell phone use by drivers unless there is an emergency.

Show floor highlights

Suppliers and manufacturers were out in force showcasing their products in the exhibit hall, as well.

Daimler Buses North America brought a vintage Setra S 6, which originally made its debut at the 1955 Geneva Motor Show, to help celebrate its 25th year in North America. During a press conference, President/CEO Andreas Strecker and Chief Commercial Officer Pat Scully gave a company update for 2008, which included a 16 percent increase in revenue —­ a new record — and 10 percent increase in transit sales.

Prevost launched the European award-winning Volvo 9700 for the U.S. and Canadian market and introduced the redesigned H-Series coaches, featuring a new front end. The 9700 features the Volvo D13 engine as well as the group’s I-shift gearbox, which lowers fuel consumption. “If an operator wants to set himself apart from the competition, the 9700 is the coach to do it,” said Michael Power, marketing product line manager, coach, for Prevost.

Meanwhile, SafeGuard, in partnership with American Seating, introduced the Premier, a new seat featuring a 3-point seat belt and SafeGuard’s SmartFrame technology, which protects both belted and unbelted passengers through compartmentalization.

“We’ve introduced the product, the first shipments left the assembly line this month and the first coaches will ship next month,” said James Johnson, director of sales for the SafeGuard division of IMMI. “The response has been very positive.”

IC Bus LLC was also on hand to introduce its new 40-foot Concept Coach that will meet the EPA’s 2010 emissions standards without using urea.

On Friday night, during the 6th UMA Annual Vision Awards Banquet, UMA and the National Tour Association officials announced that the two associations have begun exploring the option of co-locating their shows in the future. Next year’s show will be in Las Vegas Feb. 23 to 27.