ABA's Pantuso says industry remains healthy

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WASHINGTON -- The bus industry is faring differently in various segments of the industry and across geographical regions, but overall is healthy six months after Sept. 11, said Peter Pantuso, president and chief executive officer of the American Bus Association.

Scheduled service, the small segment of the motorcoach industry that includes Greyhound and Trailways, among others, is "holding its own," according to Pantuso, with business down about 5%. "Considering the state of many segments of the travel industry, that's pretty good."

The convention segment is "relatively strong," he added. "Not a lot of conventions were canceled early on. The conventions have been taking place, although not as many have been attending in many cases."

At ABA's own conference, numbers were up, Pantuso said. "The ABA Marketplace had record attendance," he explained. "In 2000, we had about 2,000 attendees; [in 2001,] we had about 2,500."

ABA's largest segment, the charter market -- which reflects tour operator and group travel business -- is coming back in the heartland but not faring as well on either coast, Pantuso said.

"The Northeast and the far West are not doing as well because a lot of passengers in those areas have experienced some fear or concern, or they rely heavily on inbound travel from overseas. Inbound travel is very hard to find right now."

City tours, especially those on the West Coast that rely on inbound Asian travelers, are down drastically, he added.

On the other hand, Pantuso said motorcoach firms stand to pick up some business from travelers who are opting to stay closer to home.

"A tremendous number of students will be traveling," he said. "Schools were hesitant to send students out of state, certainly out of the country. A lot of that travel is being converted to domestic travel."

The shape of itineraries in the post-Sept. 11 world also has changed.

"The pattern is shorter trips closer to home. It's consistent with what we see in all modes of travel. People don't want to be stranded.

"Where you might have seen a senior class go from Buffalo to Washington, now they're going to Lake Erie," he said.

Pantuso said there is reason to believe the motorcoach industry might gain some business from travelers looking for an alternative to flying.

"I get calls from student groups that, rather than travel by plane, want to use motorcoach," he said. "I've heard from companies in the Midwest that were going to band competitions on the West Coast and decided to go by motorcoach."

Families, who book much of the summer, also are likely to stick closer to home, Pantuso added, and motorcoach operators probably will get a lot of that business.

Despite America's economic problems, he said the motorcoach industry is displaying a boom in creativity, offering new products to different destinations.

"[Operators] are packaging trips closer to home, consistent with the message that there's a lot to see in your own back yard."

One year makes a difference

WASHINGTON -- The concerns of the motorcoach industry have changed radically since this time last year.

Among the concerns are:

• Last year at this time, fuel prices were a major concern of the motorcoach industry. But fuel prices have declined since then, so the issue has moved to a back burner.

• Insurance costs have jumped 30% to 50% because of stock market declines, which cut insurance company income. Consolidation has reduced competition, and the industry still is reeling from the effects of Sept. 11.

• Security itself has not become a major issue in the motorcoach industry, but new security mandates under consideration by the Department of Transportation will inevitably introduce new costs.

• Credit markets have tightened, making it harder to get financing. On the other hand, there is more used equipment on the market than a year ago, so prices are lower.

• Business failure is more of an issue because it's harder to stay in business than it was a year ago. -- D.C.

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