Over the past 20-plus years, one of the best-attended and considered most valuable events conducted during UMA Motorcoach EXPO has been the Maintenance Interchange.
Kevin Whitworth, the retired President and CEO of Whitworth Bus Sales in Miamisburg, Ohio, coordinates the Maintenance Interchange each year. His role as Moderator and Director of the Maintenance Interchange also includes the Maintenance Competition.
Bus & Motorcoach News sat down with Whitworth for a Q&A about the Maintenance Interchange and Competition. Here’s how he responded to our questions:
Bus and Motorcoach News: For the uninitiated, what exactly is the Maintenance Interchange? Who attends? Who does not?
Kevin Whitworth: It’s a closed-door gathering of maintenance personnel, operator management and motorcoach owners. Anyone that works for a motorcoach operator is welcome to attend. No vendors, OEMs, manufacturers or third-party repair facilities are permitted. Attendees submit topics for discussion prior to EXPO. The closed-door atmosphere fosters open and frank discussion among attendees.
BMN: Where is it conducted, how long does it last and what does it cost to attend?
KW: It’s a one-day event held annually at Motorcoach EXPO, and it’s free to those that register. The 2022 UMA Motorcoach EXPO will be Feb. 23-26 in Long Beach, California.
BMN: How many people attend the Maintenance Interchange? What effect did our industry shutdown have on the Interchange last year in Orlando?
KW: Our early years, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, saw 35 to 50 attendees each year. Once we got rolling in the mid-2000s, it was not unusual to see 85 to 125. Our biggest years saw upward of 140 to 150 in attendance. Last year’s participation was proportionate to overall EXPO attendance. We had 15 attend last year’s session. The exciting part was, we went nonstop for four straight hours. Add to that the fact that we had four new mechanics in their 20s attend. And the 20-year-olds dug in and got with it from the very start.
BMN: Is everyone required to submit questions? Or, can they just sit, listen and absorb for the day?
KW: A. Whether you send in one or multiple topics is entirely up to the attendee. It’s perfectly acceptable to attend without submitting questions. Sit, listen or absorb is not a problem. You can participate at whatever level you are comfortable with.
BMN: What should I expect when I walk into the Interchange?
KW: When you walk into the room for the first time, you’ll quickly notice two things. First, there’s no head table. Our room is set up as a hollow square. Everyone faces each other. Second, we don’t use microphones. We tried it one time and found that some attendees are not comfortable with a mic in hand. We tell everyone, “Just use your shop voice when speaking.” Once seated, the person on your left may have 40 years of experience, while the person on your right might have less than a year. It’s not unusual to have 1,500 years of maintenance/motorcoach experience seated around those tables. The networking is there for the taking. At the beginning of the session, we have everyone introduce themselves, share their hometown location, as well as what type(s) of equipment they operate. We’ve lost track of the stories where an operator finally meets a fellow operator that helped them out from years past.
BMN: In the 23 years that you’ve moderated the Interchange, what are a couple of the biggest challenges that operators have faced?
KW: The challenges have varied over the past couple of decades. The current two hottest topics have been emissions and electronics. Our operators fight these battles every day. I’m sure a new item for the upcoming Interchange list will be parts shortages. We can’t afford to have 45-foot paperweights sitting in the back lot. We’ve been through enough.
BMN: What about day-to-day maintenance and shop issues? Can I pick up ideas that can be used every day on the job?
KW: Day-to-day maintenance will light up the room as quickly as any topic. Many of our great operators have helped other operators simply endorsing the value of preventative maintenance, versus post-breakdown repair. It’s simple math, comparing a $1,000 preventative repair that would cost $15,000 to fix with 50-plus passengers on board.
BMN: The Maintenance Competition has also been around for a number of years. Who’s eligible to compete, and how does the format work?
KW: To compete in the Maintenance Competition, you must be employed by a motorcoach operator that is a member in good standing of UMA and registered for the current EXPO. There are no exceptions. The competition has two parts. First is a written exam that is given at the end of the Maintenance Interchange. The second part of the competition takes place on the trade show floor the next morning. Competitors come head-to-head with two coaches that have been rigged with multiple defects. One coach is elevated, the second is static on the floor. The written exam and hands-on inspection each count as 50% of the final score. A number of years ago, ABC Companies stepped forward to sponsor the Maintenance Competition. Not only did the prize money go from $800 to $4,000, but ABC also had custom trophies made for the first three places. When the competition moved to the convention floor, we faced the issue of how to get under the coach. Stertil-Koni has been kind enough to supply the lifts for our competitors each year. And, last but not least, Louis Hotard, Director of Maintenance for Hotard Coaches (All Aboard America), has prepared our written exam each year. Many, many thanks to these generous partners that help us each year.
BMN: I’ve heard the phrase “That just paid for my trip” relative to the Maintenance Interchange. What exactly does this mean?
KW: Attendees to the Interchange have shared that phrase numerous times in the past 23 years. “Paid for my trip” could be a repair resolution their shop has been fighting with. It may be over new or used motorcoaches they’re considering. One paid-for moment happened a couple of years ago when an operator had been repeatedly told there were no serviceable parts for a piece of shop equipment. He was told his only option was a $30,000 replacement. Another attendee had contact information that got the equipment repaired. Another motorcoach company owner shared with me “it pays for my trip because I can’t afford to make a half-million-dollar mistake.”