In February, the American Bus Association (ABA) announced its longtime leader, Peter J. Pantuso, will retire in September 2024.
Since joining the ABA in 1996 as president and CEO, the association’s membership nearly tripled in size and its annual convention, ABA’s Marketplace, grew to be the leading domestic packaged travel event in the industry. He also created the Bus Industry Safety Council and the Bus Maintenance and Repair Council to highlight and promote the highest ethical standards in the bus industry and to increase industry safety and was instrumental in forming the African American Motorcoach, Women in Buses, and Hispanic Motorcoach Councils.
METRO Executive Editor Alex Roman had the chance to talk to Pantuso about his plans for the next year at the ABA, some of his accomplishments over his 27-plus years at the association, and much more.
So you are a little less than a year away from your officially resigning your post, what do you hope to accomplish before leaving the ABA?
That’s a great question. Everybody has been asking me if I’m counting down the days, and I’ll tell you there are absolutely too many days to count between now and then. There is a lot of things going on right now in the industry that ABA is working on, for example, we are visiting congressional members on Capitol Hill to try to get more security money for the motorcoach industry, as well as trying to get some of the CERTS taxes back that members paid on some of the money they got during COVID.
There are also a tremendous number of regulations that are starting to pop up that will impact the motorcoach industry — many of them from the environmental field. For example, the regulation California has that would essentially eliminate some of the engines operators can buy — they won’t have access to them potentially for about three years, even if one of the engines they already have were to go bad or something. It's a bit of a long, convoluted story, but it deals with the air regulations in the state, which go far beyond what the EPA is requiring. On top of that, other states are beginning to pick up on some of those same regulations, so there’s much going on in that arena.
We are also trying to get motorcoaches exempted from the congestion pricing scheme that New York City is putting into place, because it’s going to add to the cost travelers and tourists have to pay to go into the city to visit the theaters or some of the typical tourist attractions. You know, it’s expensive to stay in the city, so many of these tourists will stay in New Jersey and take a coach into the city every day, which would require an operator to pay the same fee for the same vehicle each time.
There are also many other regulations happening in Washington, D.C., which will have an impact on the industry, such as how employees are classified in terms of requiring whether or not they have to be paid overtime. That doesn’t just affect the motorcoach industry, but all businesses, really. Also, what we’re seeing right now with the Biden Administration is similar to what we’ve seen with other administrations, which is that Congress will not pass too much legislation ramping up to an election year because the House and Senate are so divided. Therefore, what the Administration will do is suggest more regulations. If you just look at the Federal Register, which publishes all the regulations that are being considered, you will see they are growing exponentially every single day. So with all that, there is simply too much going on to count down the days until I leave.
Looking back, did you think you’d be a part of the ABA for close to 30 years? What were some of the keys to keeping you onboard for so long?
There are two ways of looking at it. Some people in my position come in, and the day they start the job, start looking for the next job, because that's just the way they are. When I came aboard at the ABA, I knew I had a job to do. Over the years, I have had opportunities to either go places or look at other options, but it always seemed like there was something going on here that I didn't want to walk away from at that time. Because of that, what would have been a seven-year career for most association CEOs, ended up being almost four times that for me because I loved what I was doing and didn’t want to walk away at an inappropriate time.
Can you talk about some of the accomplishments during your tenure of which you are most proud?
I have to predicate it by saying that, like most things, you build on the successes of the people who went before you. When my predecessor George Snyder took over as CEO, the association was really struggling financially, and he was able to really stop the bleeding and get the ABA on stable footing. Because of that, it gave me the opportunity when I came in to take it up to a new level. At the time I took over as CEO, we had a very small travel show with about 600 or 700 people, at the most — probably not even that many. Now, we are expecting about 3,000 people to attend Marketplace, which is roughly the number we were getting before COVID. The same goes for our membership. When I came on board, our membership was around 1,200 people. Prior to COVID, we were almost up to 4,000 members, but are now at about 3,200 and continuing to slowly grow.
Over the years, I have also been so proud of being able to build the professionalism of our association. We have a first-class staff that is incredibly knowledgeable at what they do and has made my job easier because of the hard work they put into our organization. Being able to hire the right people for the right job has been a priority for us over the years, and in turn, has allowed us to better serve both our members and the industry as a whole. And, I’m proud of the work we’ve been able to do. We have been able to help members not only collectively but individually. Obviously, getting the industry over a billion dollars during COVID was certainly helpful. When I look back, there were less than a handful of industries that got specific dollars that were dedicated to their industry, so we are proud of that. We are also proud of some of the regulations we have been able to work on and modify over the years to make them more favorable for the motorcoach industry.
Like I said, though, the most satisfying accomplishment is being able to serve our members and bring them what they need. It’s not rocket science — if you listen to the customer, they will tell you what they want. I think we’ve done a great job of listening to both our members and the industry and developing programs and products that fit their needs and help them to be successful.
Aside from that, can you also talk about the formation of BISC, BusMARC, and the other councils you’ve been a part of?
Like I said earlier, much of the credit for anything that has been done here goes to our staff, who have done a terrific job of listening to what our members’ needs are and responding to them. We used to have a ragtag safety committee, which under the leadership of Norm Littler we were able to formalize into BISC, and later on, also the Bus Maintenance and Repair Council (BusMARC).
As for the Women in Buses Council, that was formed after I had essentially the same conversation with two female operators, I really wasn’t familiar with at the time, within a matter of months. Those conversations were basically that they had taken over the businesses that they were partners in after their husbands passed and they didn’t have all the organizational knowledge they needed to run it. Essentially, they wondered if there were others out there like them to network with and learn from because they found themselves in a man’s world where they were being treated differently because they were women. That’s how Women in Buses was started and it has been a model program in terms of how a council should be run.
From the Women in Buses success, we started to form other councils, like the Hispanic Motorcoach Council, and most recently, the African American Motorcoach Council, as a way to recognize the diversity in our industry. Like Women in Buses, these councils give members the opportunity to network with others who may share the same experiences and challenges they are going through.
Most recently, we have formed the New Era Leadership Council, which focuses on next generation owners and the challenges they are facing after taking over their family’s legacy businesses. When we get to Nashville for Marketplace in January, we will have educational sessions aimed specifically at them and bring that group together as a one of a kind collective where they can work with one another. I really see that group continuing to grow, especially in an industry where many of the businesses are family owned. One of the biggest challenges we have as an industry is that many times the next generation doesn’t want to take over the family business and that will continue to be an issue in the future, so we hope that council will help some of those folks along their journey.
While you still have time left in office, this will be your last Marketplace. Can you talk about how you feel about that?
I am very excited. If I could have picked a place to have my last Marketplace, Nashville would be it. Coincidentally, while my first Marketplace was actually in Portland, Ore., that show was already put together before I came on and run by an outside firm. After that show, we let that firm go and our first Marketplace actually run by the ABA was in Nashville, so I really view that as my first Marketplace. While it definitely wasn’t planned, I’m excited that it will be the site for my last Marketplace, and judging from our members’ response, they are excited to come to Nashville as well.
What were some of the big issues facing the industry before the pandemic, and how have operators been able to bounce back?
Well, the issue that has been the most consistent has been the lack of drivers. We didn’t have enough drivers before the pandemic, but now it’s a pandemic for the industry in and of itself, because it’s so much worse than it even was before. There was always a shortage of drivers, but operators always seemed to get by. But in the middle of the pandemic, the motorcoach industry lost so many drivers to trucking and other industries because those drivers needed a job, or because of the nature of our business, our drivers aged out and didn’t come back. We released a study back in February that showed the industry’s 30,000 motorcoaches needed another 7,000 drivers, which means the industry’s driver workforce was down by about 25 percent. The trucking industry always talks about being down drivers, but they are only down by a few percent.
The other big pre-pandemic issue was there was a lot of capacity in the industry, which isn’t there anymore, especially on the charter and tour side. It was sad to see a number of companies go out of business, sell equipment, or otherwise have to right-size themselves. But at the same time, everybody used to complain about the rates not being high enough. Post-pandemic, the industry is seeing a classic case of supply and demand. What I mean by that is the demand for travel is back up, but the supply of equipment, drivers, and companies isn’t anywhere close to what it was pre-pandemic — so it’s a classic case of demand being up, but the supply is down so the prices are going up. Because of that, you will see operators charging substantially more than what they might have before 2020 on any given day. On the plus side, companies that operate in the charter and tour space are much more profitable now than they were before the pandemic.
However, there are still some segments that are struggling. When we talk scheduled service, for instance, they are operating at maybe 70 to 75 percent of capacity, on average, compared to where they were in 2019. The commuter segment of the industry is still struggling as well because people haven’t gone back to working in the office five days a week. Most are still going in two to three days a week, but there is an expectation that sector will continue to grow again slowly over time, although it may take several years. All that being said, however, while the industry went through a tough time during the pandemic, I’d say the vast majority of operators are much more financially healthy today than they were in 2019.
Looking ahead, what do you think the motorcoach companies need to do to be successful as the industry begins to charge ahead?
Obviously, safety is always a top priority and there are certain things you need to do to be in line with the federal and state requirements, but operators need to realize that this is a business and not a hobby. As somebody once said to me, you have to operate your business as if it’s going to be sold tomorrow. Therefore, you have to look at ways to run it efficiently and effectively to be able to maximize your profitability. I think a lot of operators who didn’t make it through COVID was maybe because of that reason— they didn’t view their business as a future venture that they needed to cultivate and grow on a day-to-day basis. Some didn’t have a choice, because it was such an egregious situation, but the lesson learned coming out of this is that you have to be prepared for whatever might be around the corner. During the pandemic, some operations found that they overextended themselves, had too many vehicles, or too many people. Now, operators are trying to not overextend and realize they don’t need to have equipment on hand that they might need down the road. More importantly, they are realizing that they don’t have to be capitalized or equipped to operate at 100 percent of demand but can operate better by being able to meet something like 80 percent of their demand, which will allow them room to grow, and protect them when there is a downturn.