Why be busy fools when you can run a profitable business with just a modestly-sized fleet? The textbook example of how to do this is Austin Travel, based in Earslton in the Scottish Borders
Some coach operators expand their fleets as they grow turnover. Others don’t. Instead, they spread their work across several baskets, keep their small number of vehicles busy, and don’t accept lower rates just to keep the wheels turning.
If done properly, with the appropriate vehicles, the right drivers and the courage to say ‘no’ when required, it works.
And Exhibit A is Earlston-based Austin Travel, which trades as Scotline Tours. It has 10 vehicles and was crowned Small Coach Operator of the Year at 2016’s routeone Awards.
routeone visited Austin Travel’s premises in the Scottish Borders during what is the industry’s quiet period. The coaches present demonstrate where it positions itself in the market.
Apart from a mid-life Bova Futura for a contract, the others were all new or nearly new: Beulas-bodied MANs, two VDL Futura 2s and an UNVI Vega GT-bodied Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
Austin Travel’s facilities are equally impressive. It is at the end of a move from more compact accommodation to a 2.6-acre site with potential for further development, besides giving excellent scope to look after the fleet. What’s the story behind it all?
Coming a long way
The top-spec, high-power coaches of today are a long way from the company’s roots. Austin Travel was founded by Alec Austin in 1966, and today the business is managed by Alec’s sons Barry and Douglas.
Alec started with a Duple-bodied Thames Trader. “It was a beautiful coach, a 41-seater that went far better than a Bedford did,” he says.
Even so, Bedfords formed the backbone of the fleet in the early days, but the first foreign-built coach arrived in the early 1980s. It was a Volvo B58 with Van Hool body. “We used to complain to Volvo that it didn’t go so well on hills,” says Alec.
“But I got caught out by Sandy Glennie, who was a senior man at Volvo. I was heading back from Blackpool in the B58 and Sandy tucked in behind in his car.
“He followed me to Carlisle at 75mph. The coach never wavered. That was the end of telling Volvo that it lacked power.”
At the time that the B58 was purchased, Austin Travel was working closely with one of Scotland’s largest operators. This partnership had partially instigated the move towards foreign-built coaches.
That relationship’s end initially looked troublesome, but it drove Austin Travel towards the varied spread of work that it has today; at around the same time, it also lost a number of school contracts.
There then began a move towards generating its own business. Day trips were strong, and a tour programme started, albeit slowly. The ‘big bang’ for the latter came with the purchase of Edinburgh-based Scotline Tours, although Austin Travel already worked with the business.
“We had been helping Scotline for many years before buying it,” says Douglas. One of the most attractive aspects of the deal was the location of Scotline’s office: It is on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and coaches can pick up outside.
Eggs and baskets
Day trips are now a major part of the business, and in the summer they make good use of the fleet’s two high-capacity front-line coaches. Both are Beulas-bodied MANs: A 62-seat Glory interdecker and a 59-seat super-high Mythos.
Other work includes holidays under the AT Travel brand – another company purchased by Austin Travel – and incoming tourism is also prominent.
Short-distance airport and restaurant transfers in Edinburgh are also undertaken, along with private hire and some contract work.
Covering all that with just 10 coaches is an art form, but mastering it has paid dividends.
While Austin Travel encounters the same post-Christmas slowdown as any operator, Edinburgh’s peak season starts early, and when it does, it’s all hands to the pump.
“In the busy months, coaches can be out for 18 hours a day,” says Douglas. “One may leave Earlston at 0600hrs to go into the city to do an airport transfer.
“After that, it will go to our office on the Royal Mile and do a day trip. When it returns, it’s cleaned, we change drivers and it works the rest of the evening on short-distance transfers, coming back to the depot at anything up to midnight.”
Peak season is factored into the holiday programme. “People may ask us why we don’t have any holidays departing in June,” says Barry. “The answer is because we have so much other work then, so we have neither the vehicles nor the drivers.”
“That’s how we generate the revenue in the season – by working the coaches hard,” adds Douglas.
“Some transfers are for tour agents, and their representatives often comment on the standard of our vehicles. There is lots of tour work available from agencies, but they’re not willing to pay our rates. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s horses for courses.
“Coaches cost up to £300,000. Ours are top-of-the-range vehicles that we have invested a huge amount into, and we are not running them just to turn money over.”
There is little chance of missing Austin Travel’s coaches even in Edinburgh’s crowded streets.
A move to the current metallic orange livery came about by chance; until then, a more modest scheme had been used.
“In 2011 we were at Van Hool finalising the specification of an Astronef,” says Barry. “I saw a finished coach for a French operator in orange. It looked stunning so we went over to it.”
The upshot was that orange was adopted, but there was some consternation about how the decision would be received back in the Borders.
“I was on the phone to the boys while they were at Van Hool and it took a lot of squeezing to get the colour out of them,” says Alec. “I kept asked them ‘what colour is it?’ and they kept changing the subject.”
The orange theme continues inside the coaches, and thanks to fleet evolution all now carry the striking scheme.
Besides looking smart, it also presents a very strong image to potential customers, says Barry.
Although the fleet is modern, it is looked after entirely in-house. “I don’t see the value of R&M contracts,” says Barry. “Some main dealers only want to look at a coach in a week, or something similar. That’s no use when we have work for it in the meantime.”
Heavyweight coaches are supplied by Moseley (PCV). “That’s my first stop when I’m in the market,” he adds. “The service and backup are first rate, and Stewart Binns in aftersales is excellent. Couple that with our own engineer, who has extensive experience, and that’s all we need.”
A new addition this year will be a second MAN RR2-based Beulas Midi Cygnus, expected next month. The Midi Cygnus is a 10.8m coach, and while some operators see little benefit in such vehicles, Barry and Douglas have plenty of work for the type.
“The Midi Cygnus is small but it is still what you could call a ‘proper coach’,” says Barry. “Rates are little different to those for a full-size vehicle and it is useful on day trips, either at quieter times or when the bigger coaches are elsewhere. Then, we only sell 40 seats.”
Although new purchases in recent decades have been top-spec coaches, neither Barry nor Douglas is against adding more workaday models if the need arises.
“Growing the contract base is something that we would like to do, but again, the money has to be right,” says Douglas.
“If we could secure work to justify two or three 70-seat Plaxton Leopard- or Irizar i4-type coaches, we would have no problem buying them. We have the capacity at the new premises.
“But a school contract is around 180-200 days’ work per year, and that has to pay for the vehicle. Anything else that you may be able to use it on is the cream on the cake.”
What is striking about Austin Travel is that, while still a small business – not over-committing is a priority for Barry and Douglas – it has evolved greatly and grown its turnover without letting things run away.
The two agree that much above 10 coaches would become more difficult to control, and as Austin Travel has done so well with a modest fleet, that is very difficult to argue with.
Alec Austin sadly passed away on 17 March aged 86.