The Conversation: webinar explores business after lockdown

Our webinar, The Conversation: When there are no doctors  brought together three experienced operators, two vehicle dealerships and the legal expertise of Stone King LLP to look at strategies for success when the government aid runs out. Enjoy the video, or read the summary


As the country starts easing out of lockdown, Stone King in conjunction with Bus and Coach Buyer led an online seminar to discuss the affects of COVID-19 on the industry. Taking a different style to the standard seminar, ‘The Conversation’ aimed to be just that, a candid discussion about the current situation and its future impacts: from what dealers are doing to help during the pandemic, how operators are finding these unusual times and what the aftermath of COVID-19 might be. Over 100 digital attendees heard how the industry could come back post-pandemic.

Chaired by Peter Woodhouse, a Partner at Stone King, the speakers were a mix of operators, vehicle dealers and legislation experts: Richard Grey of Greys of Ely, Andrew Banks of Stone King, Danny McGee of EVM Direct, Irizar UK’s Julie Hartley, Mark Anderson from Anderson Travel and Richard Bamber, MD of Anthony’s Travel.

The full video of the online discussion is available above, but the following is a round-up of the salient points.

Reset, not restart

What will it look like once the industry starts to reactivate? Richard Grey said: “This will be a reset, not a restart.”
He believes the situation provides a good opportunity to look at your core values and where you could take the business. “It’s going to be very important to be proactive and to let your current clients know you are still there.”

It is important customers have confidence in your product once they start to come back. He notes the industry has been concerned about the financial position of the industry, with the likes of CPT’s Back Britain’s Coaches campaign. Operators have been posting about this online, but Richard believes clients should be careful as it could lead to a lack of confidence among clients if they feel the business is struggling.

He said: “Share the positivity and everything you are doing. Share those key messages. We have recently purchased a new coach; it’s just a positive story in the industry. Emphasise your strengths.”

Mark Anderson said: “We have been able to maintain contact with customers. Clean and concise information has got to be the way forward.”

Reports on the situation on TV are giving mixed messages, Mark believes. “It just leaves the viewer concerned and confused. We reach out and talk; we put our angle on what we think the government and DfT are telling us.”

‘Something that COVID has created is a good feeling about being local. Every operator is positioned in their local community’

Anderson Travel will be looking for new markets. Mark said: “One of the last things to come back will be international tourism.” With this the case, he identifies the domestic market as one worth targeting.

When it comes to marketing your business during the pandemic, Richard Grey said: “Social media is our primary channel. You will have a tone that represents the business when you talk to clients. That has to be the same. People are hungry for content. This is an opportunity to talk about all the good things you’re doing.”

Julie Hartley continued the topic of how to market your operation during a pandemic: “I believe being able to demonstrate your safety is very critical. We are going to have a massive persuasion job to get people to travel. Being able to demonstrate safety in a very friendly way is something every operator should consider.

“Something that COVID has created is a good feeling about being local. Every operator is positioned in their local community. Being part of that community is something that can be marketed.”

Appetite for enforcement

With greater risk management expected onboard coaches and buses, how much appetite is there among officials for enforcement actions? Andrew Banks of Stone King has been working with operators and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of late. He describes the HSE’s enforcement as “ultimately a light touch.” However, during its initial enquiries into a case he finds HSE has required a lot of information. Complaints to the Executive often come about when staff or unions have not been fully consulted over requirements.

Andrew has found some clients have deliberately disengaged unions in this manner in the fear they push back against their new policies.
There have been no examples of enforcement actions Andrew knows of. “Although they have very inquiring minds, there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for enforcement. HSE only has finite resources and COVID is stretching them to the max’.”

Risky business

More focus on risk management might be an area we see a lot more focus on in light of the pandemic. Vehicle cleanliness will be a part of this. Operators have been keeping their vehicles clean all along of course, but the pandemic has put even more focus on this. Greys of Ely put in a new cleaning process around five years ago. Richard Grey said: “The best system we found was to use a pictogram for the level we require for cleaning standards. Then we made sure we covered off as much as we could for COVID-19. You should have a lot of these things in place, it will just be slight adaptions to suit the current situation. A clean coach is going to be so, so important.”

The role of the risk assessment when carrying passengers may take an even more prominent place in the minds of operators in the post-pandemic world. Richard Bamber said: “The risk assessment is a constantly changing document. It’s immediately out of date as soon as regulations change. With a risk assessment, it has to change and adapt accordingly.”

Relating to this, Andrew Banks said: “I’m getting far more enquiries for health and safety. I suspect that will continue after this time. Risk assessments do need to be treated as live documents. There are a large number that don’t have that mindset, but they may do moving forward.”

Danny McGee says protecting drivers and passengers has been something EVM has been concerned about: “Right from the early days, we have had driver protection and passenger screens.”

EVM has developed a suit of COVID-19 protection measures. Read more about them here.

Raising awareness of how PSV air conditioning systems work will help, according to Julie Hartley. She said: “There has been some new information on air conditioning on vehicles, which says it is unsafe. But it’s quite the opposite.” See a video and explanation if the Irizar developments here.

She says that a coach’s air-conditioning system takes air in from the the top and out trough the vents on the floor. “A coach’s air can be refreshed in between three to six minutes. Bioaerosols find it difficult to get to people because they are dragged to the bottom of the vehicle.

“Coupled with that, vents above passenger’s heads create an air tent around the person. Anything coming from the outside of that can’t penetrate it. It helps create a safe environment to travel.

“It’s a no-cost option, but you can market it. Every vehicle is equipped with air conditioning and they work in a similar way.”
When it comes to providing passengers with PPE, Richard Bamber said: “It depends on the quality of the items.”

He is also concerned about investing in it due to the fast changing nature of regulations: “What applies today may not be relevant next week.”

On screens being fitted onboard coaches, he said: “I don’t think that will be acceptable. Travel will lose its enjoyment and become an endurance.”

He suggests more emphasis on cleaning.

More focus on better promoting the industry is required, according to Mark Anderson, who has produced a video explaining the measures taken by Anderson Travel to combat infection. See it here.. “We as an industry have never been good at publishing how good we are. This is an opportunity to highlight and demonstrate how good and clean we are.”

He is cautious about investing in equipment to improve safety, saying: “I wouldn’t be spending fortunes on it in the short term. You could end up spending on something that could no longer be required.”

Answering a question posed about what measures are going to be temporary and what will be here for the long term, Mark said: “I notice in Spain there is no more social distancing on coaches. We are running two to three weeks behind that. So I do expect things to slacken, especially if they want to open pubs and restaurants and air flights, providing there isn’t a second spike.
“As a coach operator, you can’t run a successful excursion with 14 people on it; it won’t work.”

Emerging market

Grey’s of Ely has set up an app-based contactless ticketing system, with Zeelo, a technology Richard Grey believes there is an emerging market for in this industry. It can be used for a variety of services, including inter-urban and schools. He said: “This is possibly finding its feet and traction. You can do contact tracing through it.

“Look at your different customers and see if products like that are suitable to get them back on your vehicles.”

Peter Woodhouse asked what the coach industry can do to cope with the fact it is effectively facing two winter periods due to the lockdown. What ways are there to achieve cost savings? In response to this, Mark Anderson says he has looked at home to school work.

The current situation has given the industry a chance to go through home to school contracts with a fine-toothed comb. He says it has highlighted the inconsistencies in this area, with varied responses from schools: some operators continuing to be paid, others not.
Mark mentioned another challenge that has not gone away: “The underlying issue of PSVAR in combination with COVID is a real problem.”

On when we are likely to see more activity in the market, he said: “I feel September will be when we need to go back, with single vehicles unless there is a second spike.”

He described a further issue: “The government doesn’t want to talk to each other.” As an example, he said on top of PSVAR and COVID-19, there is the zero-emissions agenda. He is concerned the positive statistics of falling air-pollution in London during lockdown may make the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, advance clean air plans to the detriment of the industry. Mark said: “Some joined up thinking would help us.”

Julie Hartley reminded the audience that Brexit is still something to not lose sight of.

Where will the funding for the measures to be put in place in light of the pandemic coming from? Richard Bamber said: “It’s coming from ourselves. Everybody is going to struggle.”

He believes local authorities having to put three to four vehicles in service will not be a valid possibility. “It is not sustainable, not unless you have the odd client with money to burn. The operator has to pay for it themselves. In the long term, is it worth it? It’s a very individual business model.”

Weathering an 18-month winter

Whether or not there is a need for further lobbying for support for the industry was discussed. Julie Hartley said: “In the coach industry and the greater leisure industry facing an 18-month winter, there needs to be affective monitoring. There is no way they can resume business as usual as the main season has gone.”

Mark Anderson is pleased of the letter sent to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, warning that without further support many operators could go out of business. The letter was signed by 550 operators, who filled out a questionnaire concerning their costs. Mark said: “For once, we had it backed with real and obvious facts. There are an awful lot of businesses in tourism asking for special circumstances, but at least we have had a chance to ask to be considered for it. The issue will be whether we will be listened to or not.”

‘When you’re on that treadmill, you get complacent. Continuing costs go unnoticed’

On the subject of costings, the lockdown has given Richard Bamber more time to look at his outgoings. “It’s amazing having more time on your hands to check on things you would take for granted. It’s given me time to check on every single outgoing I’ve got.”

“I would second that,” Richard Grey said. “When you’re on that treadmill, you get complacent. Continuing costs go unnoticed.”
Contract hire work has picked up well at the moment for Richard. He said: “My concern is as so many people start working from home, as an operator, how will we be involved with that? Will there be smaller vehicles?”

Richard Bamber added: “Now might be a good time to make investments.” Taking the example of onboard wifi, he said companies providing that sort of equipment might not have had many enquiries over the lockdown period. There may be deals to be had.

When it comes to quoting for a hire, how many vehicles should it be priced for? Mark Anderson said: “I have to price based on the current legislation today. If social distancing is relaxed, then we won’t need the number of vehicles we first thought. We have the same attitude for risk as we have always had, but we have to put that proviso in when quoting. I feel things will very much soften as we go through the summer.”

Despite this softening, Mark does not foresee much happening in the industry before September. On making a necessary 600-mile round journey to Liverpool recently, he saw four coaches on the road. He said: “Events have been cancelled. The market will not start getting going until schools go back in September. On the back of schools, we will see business.”

Richard Grey warned not to treat lockdown as a reason to stay closed. He notes a lot of people are moving bookings forward. “Don’t turn your phone system off,” he said. “The last thing you want is to be the last one to the ball and miss conversations with clients.”

Suck it up

When it comes to getting passengers back onboard, how do you change the narrative that public transport is dangerous? Richard Grey is pleased about the strongly worded letter recently sent to the Chancellor. “There is a lot more dialogue going on, raising public transport awareness. I don’t want to see that drop off.”

On how the industry should react to the Prime Minister’s statement not to use public transport when it can be avoided, Andrew Banks said: “At the moment, the industry just has to suck it up. The minute the lockdown is lifted, I think there will be a lot of mileage for the green benefits of public transport.”

Julie Hartley suggested sharing some technical details from the manufacturers about how vehicles operate in a safe, clean and green way. “I’ve been sharing that with CPT and telling them to take these more technical points to the government.”

Silver lining?

There could be pent-up desire to travel once all of this is over, Peter Woodhouse suggested. But how does the industry capture that?
Richard Bamber believes there will be a big increase in domestic travel. “But it’s going to take a few years for that to evolve. It will take a while for the industry to reset again. It’s going to be hard for people to begin with. The market is going to have a few troubles. But when we get there, it’s going to be about climate change.”

He aired the idea of a scrappage scheme for pre-Euro V coaches. He said: “We need to emphasise the environmental benefits and bang the drum about how much we bring into the economy.” He believes the figure stands at around £6bn.

“Decarbonisation is very much on the agenda,” said Julie Hartley. “We had a meeting with LowCVP about what funding will there be for green technology going forward. There is definitely a conversation in the background. It’s going to grow in the coming years. I believe this green message is untouchable, but we can’t lose sight of it.”

You are far better and more talented than the press allows you to believe you are

Mark Anderson is keen the PCV sector is considered part of the solution rather than the problem of air pollution. “We are a talented industry that doesn’t get the praise it deserves.”
Something he does not want to see is with the sudden arrival of Shearings’ and National Holidays’ approximate 245 vehicles on the market, seeing phoenix-like start-up companies coming onto the market, leasing these coaches and creating a descent to the bottom with rates.

As the market does emerge, Richard Grey said to ensure all the dialogues operators have with local MPs are kept open. “Keep that conversation alive. Keep them aware. Don’t lose those relationships. Ensure they know you are here for the future.”

Andrew Banks suggested keeping the green agenda going. “People have been encouraged to go out on bikes, but we are not going to see the same number of bikes out in December.”

He presented some encouragement to the industry: “You are far better and more talented than the press allows you to believe you are.”

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