Fifty years ago, a dozen small bus and motorcoach operators decided they had had enough of struggling to grow and prosper while major companies — like Greyhound and Trailways — dominated the industry and worked to keep the little guys down.
At the time, the American Bus Association (ABA) mainly represented large bus companies, and the industry was regulated in favor of the big boys at the expense of small, independent mom-and-pop operators, who were restricted from running trips across state lines.
So at the advice of then-U.S. Transportation Secretary John Volpe, the operators contracted with Washington, D.C.-based trade association manager Wayne Smith in 1971 to launch the United Bus Owners of America (UBOA); which changed their name in 1996 to the United Motorcoach Association (UMA), in an effort to raise the profile of the motorcoach.
“The long-haul guys ran the show, and the small operators decided ABA wasn’t in their best interests,” said Amador Stage Lines owner William Allen, whose father, Alex, was one of the founders of UBOA. “They were trying to get somebody to stand up for their issues and needs.”
Smith turned out to be just the man for the job. He was well-connected in Washington and managed various other trade groups, including the American Trial Lawyers Association, the National Grocers Association, the National Child Care Association, the International Spa & Fitness Association, and the National Limousine Association.
“We held meetings across the country and brought in 50 or 60 operators, charging small dues,” said Smith, now 81. “We were trying to build more of a cooperative to address issues such as financing and insurance. Together, we had group buying power.”
First industry trade show
UBOA’s membership continued to grow, and in 1976 the association held its first trade show, the beginning of what would become the annual EXPO event. Members were charged $76 to attend the show, with the amount increasing by $1 per year ($77 in 1977, $78 in 1978, etc.).
“The shows were small, and we went to ‘B’ cities like Nashville and Columbus,” Smith said. “We put on some fantastic shows.”
In those days, issues addressed by UBOA included giving small operators the authority to take groups throughout the country. Legislative issues included compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other small-business-related topics. Smith has been described as a one-man lobbying force.
“We also spent a lot of time with coach builders, trying to get more market share in the U.S.,” said Smith, who will speak in April at UMA Motorcoach EXPO 2021 in Orlando.
Coexisting with ABA
Although the main catalyst for the creation of UBOA was the unhappiness among small operators with ABA and its bias toward large companies, some small operators managed to coexist with ABA and reap some of the benefits enjoyed by the big bus companies.
Paul Keeshin, an original UBOA board member and former owner of Keeshin Charter Service in Chicago, also was an ABA supporter and served on its board from 1979-82.
Even though most small operators were shut out of interstate service and struggled to grow, Keeshin managed to get the authority to operate trips in 48 states through his affiliation with ABA, he said.
“We needed some equality to run with the big guys,” said Keeshin, now 84 and living in Wyoming.
Ron Eyre of Eyre Bus, Tour & Travel in Maryland also was an ABA supporter, even though his father, Harry, was one of UBOA’s founders. Ron was an ABA board member for nearly 25 years and also was a member of UMA.
“My father was a big advocate of bringing the two associations together, but it never happened and probably never will,” Eyre said. “They have different focuses. UMA EXPO is a bus show featuring engines, parts and seats. ABA Marketplace focuses on travel and tourism. Both are needed to help the industry.”
Eyre said ABA was always a better fit for him because of its sales and marketing emphasis, “but I think UMA is great. It provides a great service to its members and it has a great trade show. My dad stayed with UMA, so we were well-represented in both associations. Dad was really proud of being a founding member. We thought it was beneficial to have good relations on both sides.”
The 1980s to today
Deregulation in the early 1980s helped the motorcoach industry grow, and UBOA grew along with it. “We were doing things we had never done before with EXPO, and many of the creative things we did were copied by other trade associations,” Smith said.
In the early 1990s, the association purchased a condo office building in Alexandria, Virginia, which remains its headquarters. UBOA’s name was officially changed to the United Motorcoach Association in 1996.
Things seemed to be going along fine for Smith until he decided to merge his trade association management company with the National Tour Association. “The UMA board decided it was a conflict of interest, so in 1998 we parted ways,” he said.
The association subsequently hired Victor Parra as president and CEO, and UMA entered a new phase in its 50-year history that involved an increased emphasis on safety, education and actively lobbying Congress on issues affecting the motorcoach industry.
Parra retired from UMA in 2017 and was replaced by Stacy Tetschner, who left three years later to head the American Traffic Safety Services Association. Interim President and CEO Larry Killingsworth, a former MCI executive, replaced Tetschner in March 2020.
Two weeks later the COVID-19 pandemic brought the motorcoach industry to a screeching halt, forcing UMA and Killingsworth to refocus the association to address the needs of struggling operators. That involved increased information-sharing on such crucial topics as equipment safety and financing.
UMA began speeding the information flow by making Bus & Motorcoach News a digital publication that is updated regularly, sending a daily email NewsFLASH to members, and launching a weekly virtual Town Hall to keep members informed. Membership dues were waved for a year.
UMA also launched a major lobbying campaign to convince Congress to pass the CERTS Act to provide the industry with much-needed financial report. Lawmakers have since allocated $2 billion in aid to the passenger transportation industry and UMA has continued pushing for even more funding.
As a result, UMA has become more relevant to the industry than ever, and operators have responded positively. Membership has increased by 150 in the past six months, pushing total membership to more than 1,200 operators, associates and travel partners, Killingsworth said.
“The impact to our industry has been devastating, not only for businesses but mentally because of the isolation,” said Killingsworth, who is now officially UMA’s president and CEO. “What began as a transition to new leadership changed to transitioning UMA to the next normal for our members. That is our mission.”