Steady nerves and innovation will win out, say tour operators

VisitEngland let four coach operators explain their blueprint for success as the UK emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic in a webinar, Coach Travel: building towards recovery.

The event saw Robert Shaw, of Harry Shaws, John Johnson of Johnsons Coaches, Lucy Osborne, UK Product Manager for Leger/Shearings, and Paul Cartwright of A&P Travel urge operators to hold their nerve, hold on to their cash, to innovate and not to forget the basics to be ready for a tourism surge.

In an entertaining presentation, Robert Shaw brought with him some famous quotes to illustrate his points. ‘Out of adversity comes great opportunity,’ ascribed to Benjamin Franklin, is a reminder that the next few months are an opportunity to develop and adapt to the market, said Robert.

“The vaccine roll-out is progressing well and we will get to a stage where clients will have the confidence to travel,” he said, and added that the coach tour industry must be ready to meet the challenges as the seats begin to full again.

“I’m wondering how management consultants can justify their fees during this situation. After all, they haven’t any experience of it.”

Robert said this is a time to cut costs: “You have plenty of time to analyse what you do and make savings, and perhaps learn new technologies,” said Robert. He added that Baroness Vere, at the Coach Conference last week, made it clear that grants would not be available: “It was clear that the government is not in the business of subsidising fun. It’s up to us to get on with it now.”

John Johnson echoed many operators in saying that he was expecting 2020 to be a record year until March of last year: “But we’ve committed to a full brochure again in 2021,” he said.

Johnsons had been busy, refunding and dealing with deposits but said customers had stayed loyal, and many left their money with them: “We now have around £500,000 in unallocated funds,” he said.

This had been achieved by contacting 800 loyalty club members by phone, individually: “We got a great response,” he said. “There is huge pent-up demand to get away for a few days.”

John said some challenges will remain after the vaccine programme has inoculated tour customers, because many drivers and staff will still be waiting, and susceptible: “But we’re gearing up for VisitBritain’s Good to Go and will be very careful about procedures”

Last summer, Johnsons’ tours managed 28 to 30 passengers per trip by allocating seating depending on the pattern of singles, doubles and groups. Currently, it’s running a zero-deposit, book now, pay later offer and is getting good buy-in.

Lucy Osborne of Leger/Shearings explained the way in which the company will be differentiating the two products, with Leger tackling both UK and European tours, and Shearings focused more on domestic holidays. She said the experience of some Shearings customers, who had been denied refunds by he previous management, had given them a challenge to rebuild trust. £12 holiday deposits and explanation of the trust accounts it uses to guarantee refunds are among measures taken

Paul Cartwright, whose company runs only tours and excursions with its five coaches, had managed last year to run 25 holidays and 90 days out despite the pandemic: “In July we offered local day trips just to rebuild confidence. The first was to Stamford, just 18 miles down the road, but I remember that being as stressful as an Alps trip; I really wanted it to go well. We continued through August and the number kept growing.”

With the closure of travel agents, this year’s brochure is now being distributed through shops and service stations, said Paul.

REGISTER HERE to see a recording of the whole webinar, including a lively Q and A session

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