Leisure Group Travel publisher Jeff Gayduk sat down with Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association during the organization’s annual Marketplace in Louisville, January 9-12.
During your opening session with Chairman John Meyer you both talked about the drive to attract millennials. What disturbs me about that is we’ve spent the last 15 years talking about “Let’s get baby boomers on-board.”
Are we chasing a new market at the risk of losing the one we have fought so hard to build?
I think you’re absolutely right. We’ve been saying let’s get the baby boomers; we’ve got to focus on that audience and you can’t pick one over the other. Where I see millennials is a long-term strategy. Because if I look back 20 years, we weren’t carrying baby boomers on our buses, we were only carrying seniors and students. The baby boomer generation abandoned us. And so we’re all sitting around saying, “We need to get those baby boomers on the tour.” I agree 100 percent: They’re coming of age, you know, they’re at the point where they should be traveling. We’ve got to focus on that group.
But we needed a pipeline of people that continue to travel and I think that millennial group is that pipeline. I might even call it the pipeline generation as opposed to the millennial generation in terms of group travel because where the baby boomers said, “I’m not riding the bus; I want to drive a car. I now have the money and, the autonomy to do that.” The millennials are saying “I don’t want to drive a car. I’m getting rid of a car and moving into the city and getting rid of my driver’s license. I don’t want to do any of that.” And they are group travel-friendly. They are predisposed to group travel, whether it’s city bus, whether it’s traveling from Washington, D.C. to New York on a scheduled bus. But they’re group travel-friendly. And so now I think the opportunity is if we create product or have product that embraces the way they travel, which we haven’t typically had, I think we’ll keep them in the pipeline as opposed to the baby boomer generation that left us in their 20s and now we’ve spent 20 or 30 years trying to get them back.
One of the complaints I hear from the supplier side of the market is the buyer base is stagnant. Speaking to the growth of the market, who are you excited about seeing here buyer-wise this year?
Well, I’ll say a couple things: I don’t think we have a stagnant buyer base at ABA. We have over 325 buyer companies taking appointments. We always have some new and fresh ones coming in. So, as opposed to some other shows for whatever reasons that are the same buyers every year or because of their structure they’re limited in how many buyers and who those buyers are, it’s a different model here. The challenge that chairman John Meyer and our strategic marketplace committee have talked a lot about is who is the new buyer?
We believe that they’re tour operators or bus operators of course, but we think there are an awful lot of buyers who aren’t tour operators, who aren’t the bus operators, who aren’t the traditional travel industry individuals. They could very well be doing a marketplace because those travel professionals need hotels. They need transportation, they need restaurants, they need places to entertain. But if I went to them and said, “Well, here’s the categories of membership I have. Are you a tour operator, a bus operator? Where do you fit?” They’d be like, “What’s that?” So we think there’s a lot of kind of “What’s that?” out there of people that we ought to be bringing to the table and we need to be doing it now. That’s a focus of what we’re going to be investing in over the next couple years.
In this aspect, should ABA take on the role of educational lead? Not just continuing education for suppliers in the industry about social media tactics and employment practices, but how to run a group tour business. Nuts and bolts information on how to reach millennials, how to develop travel clubs. Should you be teaching charter bus companies how to create a 21st century tour department?
I think you’re absolutely right. We need to take a leading role in that. Our job as an association is to obviously help our members first, but also to help the industry. And so the better we can educate the industry about the changes that are going on and how to address and/or sell to and/or market to those changes is going to be important. And then to stay on top of it. As an organization, we cannot be responding to change. We’ve got to be looking for the changes coming and address them as they are being created as opposed to after it’s happened.
Considering this is such a high-touch industry in an increasingly high-tech world, does this segment run a chance of becoming obsolete?
The other evening I was chatting with a woman that I was riding over to the event with on the bus and she said “You know, I love booking stuff online. I enjoy doing that.” But she said, “There’s something different about being here. Being able to look the person who’s going to be handling my group, seeing that hotel or that restaurant, being able to talk to them and get the feel from them of whether they’re going to be able to take care of my group in the same way I would if I was there. She said, “I have standards, obviously, and on paper, they can meet the standards, but it’s different when you see people in person.”
Technology is going to be a bigger part of the way we do business. But the face-to-face is going to have a critical role. You know, if you or I go online to Yelp and we make a reservation at a restaurant and it’s a bad experience, then we don’t go again. We put a review on Yelp and everybody can learn from that experience who’s thinking about going to that restaurant. If I bring 50 people to a restaurant and it’s a bad experience, I’ve not only made those 50 mad who have paid a lot of money to be on the tour, but I may have lost them as a customer. And I may lose them because their friends are going to tell people, “Hey, this is not a great tour operation.” So there is so much more at stake than just going online and making a reservation and having a good or bad experience. That’s why the face to face is so important.
ABA and NTA are obviously jockeying for buyers and supplier attendance. With their move to a December show in ’17 and being that first out of the gate mentality for the buying season, how does that change your marketing and your approach to marketplace?
We certainly have the greatest respect for NTA. They’re good friends and good partners. I love working with Pam Inman, their new president. She’s been a delight to work with and, and we are on the phone at different times sharing information.
The old chasms that might have been there have been bridged, so that’s very positive. We look forward to whatever they want to do that helps their business. If moving to that fall space is good for them then that’s their decision. But really doesn’t have any impact on what we do. We’ll continue to be the first show of the year. And it really is a benefit to the suppliers because they’re not moving from show to show within a one or two week period. They’ll have a much longer window before they move to their next show.
Last year when we talked I asked you what’s keeping you up and night and you told me, “Jeff, I’m sleeping pretty well.” Are you still sleeping pretty well, or what is keeping you up at night right now?
2015 was a fantastic year for the organization, for the industry. I think people are doing business, I’m hearing great stories on the marketplace floor about how wonderful their 2015 was. But you know what? It’s a new year and new challenges, new opportunities. We’re always looking at how we can improve on what we do. Right before marketplace started, we just concluded a two-day board meeting here in Louisville our board’s got a lot of ideas about the direction of the association. The one thing I can assure you that will not change is we’re going to be fairly steady in everything we do. But we’re always looking at how to improve.
You will certainly see some changes over the next 12 months in terms of some of our products and programs. It may look a little different. We’ll be adding some. We might be taking some away. Making sure we do that correctly is going to keep me up some nights.
What’s the update on the legislative front?
We came out of a long legislative year and a big part of what we accomplished is the transportation bill. We hit that one out of the park. There’s so many good things in there that benefit not only bus operators but the tour and travel industry as well, so we’re excited about that. Now they have to implement it in the various agencies, especially the department of transportation. So we’ll be extremely involved in that implementation process and regulations that come out of it. So we’ll be busy. Every year is busier than the last year.