SAN ANTONIO — Asking another motorcoach mechanic to take a fresh look at a problem often reveals a solution that could have been obvious.
Sharing your challenges with a roomful of experts might prevent problems that have yet to surface.
That is the theory behind the Maintenance Interchange, a popular feature of the annual UMA Motorcoach Expo. The 20th running of the interchange is scheduled for Expo 2018 in San Antonio.
“Sometimes when you have a problem on a coach you need to take a step back and have someone else put another set of eyes on it. That is what the interchange is about,” said Scott Greteman, vice president of Windstar Lines in Carroll, Iowa.
“The main difference is, instead of having another guy in your shop diagnose the issue, you have 100-plus seasoned mechanics who may have seen that exact same problem. Even if you weren’t experiencing the issue being discussed on your coach, you will gain the knowledge of what to look for,” he said.
Maintenance Interchange is a daylong closed forum, without vendors, salespersons or any formal presentations. Participants submit topics and the mechanics discuss them.
The interchange first appeared at the 1999 Expo in Houston, said Kevin Whitworth of Whitworth Bus Sales in Miamisburg, Ohio. Whitworth, who was a motorcoach operator at the time, has assisted in organizing the interchange every year since then.
Maintenance Interchanges have allowed mechanics and operators to identify common problems as well as best practices.
“The networking is there for the taking,” Whitworth said. “You are in a room with 100 to 150 people who may have 1,000 to 2,000 combined years of bus experience. Sharing that knowledge, you can quickly come to resolutions. You will find you are not the only one having a problem. There is a good chance somebody else already has solved it.
“The session goes all day. We get endless coffee and water and soft drink service and just keep going,” he said.
One rule of interchange has fostered frank, sometimes blunt, discussions about vehicles, parts and supplies: “The Maintenance Interchange is an operator-to-operator exchange, with NO vendors, manufacturers, suppliers or sales professionals permitted to attend.”
“I have no idea what the topics in San Antonio will be,” Whitworth said. “We may be talking about regulations, shop equipment, new or used coaches. It is an open forum to exchange basic ideas without any pressure from a salesperson or manufacturer in there.”
Occasionally the discussions have identified a widespread problem, he said.
“It is not unusual for people to get together the day after interchange and set up a time to visit that supplier.”
Operators may join their mechanics to seek advice on major purchases.
“With new motorcoaches costing more than half a million dollars, the guy doesn’t want to make a mistake,” Whitworth said. “In that room he will find a couple of dozen people who have bought what he is thinking about buying. A phrase comes up every year: ‘Tell me the good, the bad and the ugly.’”
More often the motorcoach sages in the room share lessons and tips.
“I bring back a lot of useful information, sometimes about things I hadn’t even thought about,” said James Wishon, garage manager for Burke Christian Tours in Newton, N.C. “There is a whole lot to learn about — when to do certain maintenance items like when to check wheel bearings, what type of coolant to run and what is the life cycle of electric motors.”
For example, Wishon said, his fleet has never had issues with wheel bearings, but he heard talk of other carriers experiencing failures at 400,000 miles. Wheel bearing replacement at that mileage now is written into Burke Tours maintenance schedules.
Wishon also heard positive reinforcement for his choices of high-quality lubricants and additives. While some carriers were having emission system problems, his shop wasn’t.
“That meeting is the only reason I go to Expo. I think a lot of people only go for that,” he said, adding that the sessions also are valuable for operators or maintenance managers who have not previously worked as mechanics. “It helps them to know if their mechanics are telling them lies or not.”
De Palm Tours in Aruba, the Dutch Caribbean, considers Maintenance Interchange so valuable it sends maintenance manager Cesar Luque across the ocean to attend.
“We find the Expo and interchange time well spent,” said Warren Stanley, general manager of De Palm.
Luque said he benefits from resources he could never find in Aruba.
“I interact with approximately 100 garage managers of motorcoach companies and learn from their experiences,” he said. “I also exchange experiences of the new equipment on the market.”
As operators have joined the audience the scope of conversations has expanded, Whitworth said. “It has turned almost into a whole motorcoach business interchange.”
Electronic media and the Internet have made it much easier for mechanics and maintenance managers to share information, but the Maintenance Interchange dialogues continue to be irreplaceable, he said.
“I have been told so many times, ‘My boss lets me come to Expo because this is the single most valuable thing he can spend money on each year.’ When your mechanic returns, the things he learns might pay for his trip tenfold. They might pay for his trip while he is still there.”