Connections – Credibility is the key
Recent high profile collapses of coach hire brokerages have done nothing for the reputation of the coaching industry in the eyes of the public and have made many operators wary of accepting work through third parties. In contrast, the Connections coach travel management operation has gone from strength to strength and through its professional approach is strengthening many corporate coach users’ impression of the industry. Stuart Jones spoke to Danny Elford and Ian Fraser, Directors of Connections, part of The Kings Ferry, about how the business is progressing.
Ian stressed that Connections is not a coach brokerage, saying, ‘Connections manages coach hire for businesses. The work is predominantly business to business, probably in excess of 90%, but with a small element of business to consumer, which we handle in the same way.’
The basis of the operation is extremely simple. The Connections team approaches businesses with a requirement for coach hire and offers its vast experience in the field in managing bookings and procuring the services of operators to carry those bookings out. It is the same team that goes out and wins bookings for The Kings Ferry’s own fleet but it is not restricted by the size of that fleet, the vehicle types it contains, the geographic region it serves, nor the existing booking commitments it has. Perhaps surprisingly, the success of Connections has actually resulted in a small reduction of the size of The Kings Ferry’s fleet from over 80 to 67, including the five based in Bristol, and these are kept busy on a fairly consistent basis throughout the year.
Some very high profile contracts are held, not the least of which is one with the BBC for its coach hire requirements, a relationship that now goes back more than eight years and generates around 2,500 individual jobs annually. Another is with the Metropolitan Police for its needs, which during the period of the London Olympic Games saw Connections take responsibility for the movement of over a million police officers. In 2011 and 2013 it did most of the coaching work associated with the Champion’s League football final. Slightly different is the festival work of SeeTickets, in addition to which there is a wide variety of other hire requirements from organisations of varying sizes. Danny estimates that they probably post around 10,000 jobs on the system annually.
The origins of Connections as a specific professional business seeking contracts to manage on behalf of its customers go back to around 2004, although it could be argued that it in reality the roots go back further because, in common with most operators, The Kings Ferry had always subbed out work that it could not handle to other operators. Danny explained, ‘we branded it as Connections because we wanted to be seen and treated as a customer, not just as an operator subbing a bit of work.’
Currently on the Connections books are over 500 individual operators divided into 14 separate regions, four of which are in Scotland with a further two in Wales. When they sign up, each operator chooses a primary region but can also be listed in adjoining regions, picking up work in both. Jobs that become available are posted on the site and it is up to the operator whether they want to apply to operate them or not and submit a price.
With the winning of the contract from the BBC to handle its coaching requirements, there was a need to formalise arrangements with terms and conditions and other paperwork that had not hitherto been necessary.
In theory, the fact that an operator holds an ‘O’ licence should provide all of the necessary assurance to a hirer that they will be supplied with a safe and suitable vehicle for a job. Unfortunately, as Danny observes, ‘the customer often needs a little more confidence than the ‘O’ licence as an indication in its own right. They are seeking some sort of enhanced proof.’ We have seen numerous schemes launched to address this such as Coachmarque, BUSK, Bus-Safe and the Guild of Coach Operator’s audit schemes, but he does not believe this fully answers the need. It isn’t only that hirers want the assurance, quality operators also want to be able to demonstrate that their businesses have high standards.
The Kings Ferry is part of National Express which has long used an auditing process to verify the standard of the contractors operating on its express network. Now Connections is progressively adopting the same enhanced auditing procedures to demonstrate the quality of the operators it uses, and inevitably uses the standard set by The Kings Ferry as its benchmark. ‘Our customers are not just using our services. Whoever is doing the job the standard has to be the same, whether the coach is yellow, red or blue. We won’t risk the customer’s satisfaction to drive profit.’
There is already a standard audit process which all operators working for Connections must comply with. It includes an ‘O’ licence check, OCRS details, a document check, road risk and £5m public liability insurance cover as well as a compliance statement. The details for all of these can be submitted on line by PDF.
Danny explained, ‘there is also an enhanced audit carried out by our National Express Audit Team. This is a physical audit of vehicles, maintenance history records, facilities and processes.’
Some issues that come up are ones that an operator may never have thought about. ‘It is usually processes,’ said Ian. ‘Things like spare wheel storage and wheel fitment policies. The compliance standard is very clear and we always work with the operators and steer them in the right direction.’
‘As we go forward, we will increase the number of operators we have audited by our National Express Audit Team. Last year, the companies who operate 75% of Connections work were audited. We audited those operators who do the most work for us first. Some initially failed and have addressed their systems to ensure that they now comply,’ said Ian. ‘We will re-audit annually and increase the number of operators we audit by 10% this year.’
‘The future growth for our own customers and operators is linked to the requirement for auditing. I think the business will grow and our operators alongside it. I think within the industry procurement terms will become more prevalent which means that not all operators will be in a position to win this kind of work. We are sharing the success and growing the market for the operator,’ said Ian.
Danny added, ‘We do have customers who will now only take audited contractors and therefore our requirement for audited operators will grow alongside the demand from operators to get on the system. We are constantly asked by operators how they can get more work from us and this is one way that can help.’
As Danny notes, ‘by helping people through our auditing processes we have received positive feedback that it has helped the efficiency of their whole businesses.’
Connections is a dynamic business, with ongoing input into improving the way it works and its attractiveness to customers. Among the latest investments is a relaunch of the website with enhanced and additional features. Danny explained, ‘we’ve upgraded the operator profiling so that operators can update their logos, host fleet images, provide more information on the size of their fleets and specify the size and capacity of the vehicles they operate. It enables us to be more targeted in what we send out. We already target by region and we thought we should target by fleet as well. The new filtering means that operators don’t get offered work for double deckers or minibuses if they don’t operate them.’
‘It’s not purely altruistic, it’s a business and we do need to see a return on our investment,’ said Ian who pointed out that ‘we spend a lot on marketing to win contracts for work that we pass on to operators.’ He added, ‘We have customers with budgets and for some customers we are responsible for delivering them best value. Ultimately, it is the operator who decides the price and whether or not to do the work. Sometimes there is discussion. We have seen growth in the prices of jobs we do regularly.’
‘We firmly believe that there has to be a profit margin in it for anyone we work with. If there is no incentive the job will not go right,’ said Ian, adding, ‘we have regular payment dates and payments go out on the 15th of each month.’
Connections is always interested in attracting more operators to join, but it isn’t for everyone. Danny commented, ‘it’s a balance, we can’t have too many because we couldn’t keep them all fed. We need coverage, but if we have too many it becomes unwieldy. There are times when the operator requirement will increase for large jobs, we’ve a big one coming in August, but afterwards it will drop back again. And we do get people in and out of the market all of the time.’
Greater professionalism is the way forward to attract the kind of work that enables fleet investment and the development of coaching businesses. Danny and Ian believe that Connections has an important role to play in fostering this because, as Ian notes, ‘It enables operators access to work that they would not even be able to pitch for.’ And if, as a result, customers have increasing faith in the industry and its operators, then Connections can rightly claim to be doing its part to raise standards.
By Stuart Jones