Don’t Travel Empty
Major enhancements at crunch development stage
I’ve been meeting up with Anthony Marett of Don’t Travel Empty from time to time over the past five years as he has worked to get his on-line coaching community project off the ground. Throughout that time I have been impressed with the commitment and belief he has shown. The idea of creating a system that enables the identification of jobs that coaches can do when they would otherwise be travelling without passengers was always a good one, with a clear benefit to both operators and the environment, but, as Anthony has found out, implementing the project successfully has required the surmounting of a considerable number of obstacles.
Along the way, the site has been redesigned a number of times, with each upgrade intended to make things easier for the user. A major one at the beginning of 2012 saw the original orange and black colours abandoned in favour of a much fresher green and blue that has proved popular with members. Another upgrade followed in February this year and this week Don’t Travel Empty Version 5 has gone fully live after its impending launch was promoted at the recent Coach & Bus Live exhibition.
It marks one of the most significant developments of the system to date because included within it is a new Coach Records Module (CRM), a basic, easy to use, coach management system intended for those operators that do not already use one of the proprietary systems from companies such as Roeville, Travelnet Services, Renard, Distinctive Systems and Travelmaster.
He commented, ‘With the latest version we’ve given operators really good reasons to use DTE as a management tool.’ Running through them Anthony said, ‘for one thing, it looks very professional. It also saves them a lot of time by producing the paperwork on their behalf. His includes a confirmation letter, driver’s ticket, and a final invoice which can be printed or emailed or both. In addition, it takes the job and puts it in a diary, a feature I love, it’s brilliant; the way it works is such good fun, with a list of vehicles on the right that you can drag and drop.’ Anthony pointed out that this diary section highlights each leg of a journey separately so that a different vehicle or a different driver can be allocated to each leg.
The key difficulty that the site has always faced is that operators have to physically enter all the information on the trips they are making in order that the core matching systems know what is available. It was the desire to overcome this that prompted Anthony and his co-shareholders to develop the new CRM aspect of the site. He explained, ‘As a by-product of the above we automatically create their empty legs and their available vehicles on their behalf, which gives DTE the information we’ve been craving since day one.’
He continued, ‘we created it to give our member an additional reason to use the site. The reason we spent the money and time was to gain the information on empty legs and available vehicles that is our bread and butter. It is how the site will live and die.’
Anthony believes that nothing else is as easy to use as DTE.5’s management system and it has the potential to boost sales of the more comprehensive systems. ‘I see it as a training ground for using management systems,’ he said, adding that he planned to run a campaign pointing out the top points of other management systems to help operators choose which was best for them. ‘We are genuinely happy to joint market our system with management system providers,’ he said, though he also believes that, over the next five to ten years, there will be a move towards web based systems in preference to office based ones because of the relative costs
DTE.5 has not been wholeheartedly welcomed by some of the coach management system companies, indeed Distinctive Systems has turned off the link between the two systems at the moment. Anthony is disappointed by the move which follows Distinctive launching Coach Manager Connect which he claims, ‘does what DTE did five years ago’. He commented, ‘I think they are restricting the potential to their customers. DTE is and always will be available to be linked with all other management systems, but of course it is up to them whether they want to link with us.’
Apart from the Coach Records Module, which enhanced members have free use of along with the ability to post any work they can’t cover on line for other operators to take on, there are quite a number of other new features now incorporated within DTE.5. Some of these first appeared in DTE.4 but have not been covered in B&CB before. Among them is a search facility to locate jobs or empty vehicles that has been made as intuitive as possible by its presentation in map form.
To help operators to liaise more easily, or just chat, there is a new facility whereby any enhanced member can contact any other enhanced member through the site.
An aspect of the site that has greatly pleased Anthony is the way that it has become an online coaching community. New in the version launched earlier this year was the Coachbook social networking site and this has been further enhanced in the latest release which is located within the section headed Engage. The new version enables photographs to be uploaded. The potential benefits are huge: a picture of a part can be shown, a screenshot of a map displayed, a face put to a name or the interior of a coach shown to someone hiring in. It also has a chat facility within Coachbook that is the same as Facebook. A ‘chat’ bar appears at the bottom of your screen whenever you are logged in to DTE. On the latest version this is live as soon as you log in, providing an instant link with other operators.
Anthony commented, ‘our members have almost taken control of it and request we do this and that.’
New is the ability to manage your profile and keep up to date the information about your company that other enhanced readers can read, as well as reviewing what appears o your website. It can have SEO (site engine optimisation) advantages, helping to keep your name at the top of the list when potential customers are browsing on the internet.
Along with the new features, one capability offered previously and now discontinued is that of free vehicle sales advertisements on the site for enhanced members. ‘It was an abject failure,’ said Anthony. ‘I couldn’t believe how few people used it. We’re not afraid to try things to determine what is and isn’t needed.’
From the time it was introduced, one of the most popular aspects of the DTE site and the one that perhaps more than any other brings it to other operator’s attention, is the Passenger Recovery Service, which can be so helpful at a time of difficulty, such as a breakdown. It is available to enhanced members though other members are allowed one use only of the system before joining fully to demonstrate how worthwhile enhanced membership is. It works in a number of stages in this way. If a coach breaks down, the operator calls the DTE office where a search is made of the database for the nearest coach that can help. The requirement is posted to the DTE Facebook and twitter accounts to inform other operators, as well as to the site’s Coachbook facility. If this is not rapidly successful, there is the further cost option of emailing 2,000 coach operators directly and also texting the 1,100 members.
Anthony calculates that on average, four or five operators a week are helped in this way and in the summer peak the number is markedly higher. He expects DTE to facilitate over 200 passenger recoveries this year, with a UK success rate in excess of 95% within an hour. In Europe the success rate is lower at around 50% but that is nevertheless a lot of operators helped who would otherwise have had passengers stranded. Anthony accepts that there are still occasions when DTE members are unable to help, even in the UK, though he rather hopes that if ever Simonds of Diss experience difficulty again that they will be successful as they have been statistically extremely unlucky; on none of the three times they have rung has anyone been able to assist.
If an incident is a particularly serious one, such as an accident, not only requiring assistance in the form of a replacement coach, enhanced members are entitled to cover through DTE 24-hour Crisis Control. This gives you the services of Lexia Media, a PR company for the first 24 hours following an incident.
The European aspect of the Passenger Recovery Service is also attracting overseas operators, although only in small numbers at present. So far there are around 20 including operators in Malta and Greece, as well as the Dutch, Italian, Spanish and French operators you would expect. ‘We’ve had a Croatian operator help a UK operator who broke down in Geneva,’ said Anthony.
Another overseas aspect of the business is a new Don’t Travel Empty franchise that is being established in South Africa.