LONG BEACH, Calif. — It wasn’t the largest EXPO on record, but nobody expected that it would be. The celebrations were less extravagant, the meals were less bountiful, and the drinks flowed less freely than in years past.
But the 2022 UMA Motorcoach EXPO in Long Beach, Calif., Feb. 23-26 not only attracted more attendees than anticipated, it also represented a turning point for the beleaguered motorcoach industry. After enduring a two-year industry depression caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, operators clearly were feeling more confident about the future.
“The energy is really good this year,” EXPO Committee Chair Scott Riccio, owner of Northeast Charter & Tour Co. in Lewiston, Maine, said during the event. “EXPO gives us the opportunity to show we’re still alive and well.”
The theme of this year’s EXPO was “reconnecting,” and people did just that. Operators, bus manufacturers and vendors from around the country and world got to catch up with each other face-to-face during education sessions, at the various parties and meals, and, of course, on the show floor.
“We are a people business and we like to be around people, so it’s good to be back together,” said Dan Holter, general manager of Rochester City Lines in Rochester, Minnesota, who has been attending EXPO since 1980. “It feels a little stronger this year.”
‘You are the survivors’
But if there was a sub-theme to this year’s EXPO, it would have been “surviving.” In education sessions, speeches and casual conversations, the topic inevitably turned to how operators survived the pandemic and what they are doing to regain market share, attract customers and recruit drivers to keep pace with the rising demand.
“The industry has been completely changed by COVID,” UMA President and CEO Scott Michael said during the EXPO opening session, noting that the number of motorcoach operators has declined from nearly 3,000 in 2019 to fewer than 1,500 at the end of 2021. “You in this room are the survivors.”
Michael said that a month before EXPO, there were concerns that attendance would be extremely low. “But in the last three weeks, we were flooded with registrations,” he said. “We got hundreds more than last year, much more than we expected.”
This year’s attendance reached 710, up from about 450 at last year’s EXPO in Orlando, Florida, held during the height of COVID when people were still uncomfortable in large groups. There were 23 buses on the show floor in Long Beach, a significant increase over last year.
And while those numbers were still below past EXPOss, they are considered more than respectable given the state of the industry.
“The attendance is great, almost double last year’s,” said David Moody, general manager of Holiday Companies in Randleman, North Carolina, who took over as chairman of the UMA Board of Directors during EXPO. “Everybody is on the cusp of returning to normal. I think we will be back to normal next fall as long as we can get enough staff. It’s a wait-and-see game.”
Adjusting to leaner times
This year’s EXPO included many of the events regular attendees are used to, albeit in scaled-back form. There was the welcome reception and dinner on Wednesday night poolside at the Hyatt Regency, and the opening session and lunch on Thursday. Later that day the ribbon-cutting ceremony officially opening the exhibit hall was held, followed by the sneak preview on the show floor and the sneak preview after-party and dinner at the Museum of Latin American Art.
Friday’s lunch was catered by In-N-Out Burger, a popular fast-food chain in California and the Southwest. It was a treat for people who are unable to get the burgers in their home states. The member appreciation dinner that night at the Hyatt was a more low-key affair without entertainment and with fewer awards, reflecting the mood of the industry.
It was all in the name of austerity, and attendees never complained and were supportive of the cost-cutting measures necessary in these unusual times. Masks were required for indoor events, and most people complied without complaint.
“I’m enjoying this show,” said Tim Stout, co-owner, along with his two brothers, of Stout’s Charter Services in Trenton, New Jersey, and a new UMA board member.
Stout, who has been attending EXPOs for 30 years, summed up the event’s theme of reconnecting, as well as the unofficial sub-theme of surviving, saying that getting together with friends and industry colleagues every year, and especially this year, makes the industry stronger.
“I’m getting a chance to see people I haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “I think the relationships made at EXPO have helped us all get through this.”