“Unprecedented times”

How the coronavirus is affecting the industry.

Irish operator Philip O’Callaghan of J. O’Callaghan & Sons in County Kerry told Bus and Coach Buyer that just four days saw the business come to a halt.

“On Monday I talked to the staff about business difficulties and on Thursday, I had to lay them all off. We have no business. No schools, no sports club, no tourism. It’s been shocking. I don’t know what to do,” Philip told Bus and Coach Buyer.

Philip said calls from fellow Irish operators in the same situation have been ‘like counselling sessions’: “We’re all in the same boat. I’m just here in the office trying to do some admin. There are no words to describe what we are going through.”

Sanders Coaches could make cuts to its timetables in response to the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Owner, Charles Sanders, said: “We are based in the second highest area in the UK for OAPs. So of course, a lot of my customers are pensioners. They are the highest at risk and most vulnerable. At the moment, we are seeing a drop in concessionary pass levels.

“We are now starting to suffer cancellations to private hire. A lot of the places the schools are planning to go to are closing, they tend to be events, which are being called off. Sports are all gone; we did Norwich City away game travel. It’s going to hurt every business.

“I think people are just going to have to get through. Hopefully, they will come out of the other side and be here to pick up the pieces when it starts again.”

“We will manage as we go on, week to week. Unfortunately, it’s going to get bad. But we will have to see how it goes on a week to week bases. I have three drivers in self isolation this week.

“We have to work our way through it. It’s unprecedented times.”

Band bus specialist Star Cruiser, which operates six vehicles, says every part of the business is now at a standstill.

It’s Managing Director, Paul Coleman, told Bus and Coach Buyer: “The business has just been brought to a stop; everything has been cancelled. It’s looking pretty grim.”

He said the loss of his most imminent booking had cost him £27,000: “But like everyone, I still have leases to pay.” The reaction from his bank has been to allow him a small overdraft but he now plans to approach the bank again and utilise the government’s loan guarantee scheme, described elsewhere on these pages.

Among operators making cancellations in the wake of the coronavirus is South Wales-based Edwards Coaches.

In a post on its Facebook page, the company said: “Edwards would like to reassure our customers that we are closely following the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for the latest travel advice across Europe and in the UK. Yesterday (9th March) the FCO updated their advice advising against all but essential travel to Italy due to an ongoing outbreak of coronavirus in line with various controls and restrictions imposed by the Italian authorities.”

It has cancelled its Lake Garda, Grand Tour of Italy, Tuscan coast, Venetian Riviera, Tuscany and the Isle of Elba and its grand tour of Italy. It is offering affected customers a 15% discount off any other Edwards holiday. The Facebook post continued: “The health and safety of our customers is of paramount importance and their wellbeing is at the forefront of any decisions we are making now and in the future.”

At the time of writing, Edwards is liaising with Disney regarding its status for its upcoming Disneyland Paris excursion. It also reassured customers all UK holidays will be going ahead. It has advertised a price slash on its Cornwall Coast to Coast tour in April, dropping from £379 to £249 per person.

Sandhurst-based Hodges Coaches is preparing itself for its own ‘self isolation’ as it faces cancellation of its bookings.

Director Paul Hodge told Bus and Coach Buyer it, too, saw business shutdown at frightening speed: “Our private groups have all cancelled and are not arranging any trips, and schools are heading for the Easter break. It remains to be seen if they will open again. This situation is desperate.

“If you have no work, you can go to the wall. We’re pretty resilient here but it’s not good for anyone.”

The Managing Director of Heathrow-based City Circle, Neil Pegg, told Bus and Coach Buyer the speed with which business was affected by the coronavirus shut-down was surprising.

“The speed that this escalated in just five days was shocking. This is an unprecedented situation which the industry has never faced before. It’s almost a complete wipe-out of all work,” he said. “Schools have escaped so far but if that work goes, that’s the all the rest of the work.

“Nothing we have ever seen has generated such a shutdown in business. We have to make the assumption that we will have no work, and then make some tough decisions.”

London operator Mark Anderson, of Anderson Travel, says he had football teams aboard coaches when the FA announced the cancellation of league football, effectively ending one of few remaining income streams for the company.

“It’s not just this company. We are all suffering equally, and this comes after a difficult winter,” he said. Anderson Travel has in recent years reduced the proportion of inbound work, now forming only 40% of turnover.

“Our domestic work was OK until this morning,” he said. “That was when the FA decided to stop the football. We still have five non-league clubs but we don’t know when they will stop playing. We now have bookings until the end of school term. And I think schools will be closed next.”

Mark said he’d just returned from a tourism meeting in Prague: “The Hungarians there had to be kept away from pointed implements; they’re suicidal. They depend very heavily on tourism, and there is none.

“This coronavirus will finish some operators. The opportunity to release some equity by releasing vehicles doesn’t exist thanks to the low-emissions policy and PSVAR. The used coach market is paralysed. We have vehicles which still have some equity but there is zero demand for them. After 36 years in this industry, I never thought it would come to this.”

Mark was sharply critical of the Mayor of London for the LEZ and of the DfT for persisting with home-to-school PSVAR: “I was at the recent meeting with them. I have never sat in a room where the DfT is saying to us ‘Build it and they will come,’ like the Field of Dreams movie. I can guarantee that if I got a child on to a wheelchair lift into a coach, the very next day their parent would be calling the LEA demanding they get a taxi back.”

Mark said that, if he has to lay off drivers, at least they have the option of filling the many bus driving jobs in the London bus fleet, but that drivers in more rural locations won’t have that option.

“I know we will survive this but it’s going to be very difficult,” said Mark.

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