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MiniPlus Article
January 07 2019
By Michaela Peacock

Michaela writes for routeone and Group Tourism & Travel magazines

Small but mighty: 30 years come rain or shine

When there’s no other option but to make something work, Hailstone Travel is proof that with hard work and determination, success can be achieved – as shown by its all-Euro 6 fleet of smaller coaches

Tina and Lawrence Hailstone are recently celebrated 30 years in business

Running a successful coach operation has its challenges, and one operator that has faced its fair share of those – but has come out the other side fighting – is Wickford-based Hailstone Travel.

The family-run business has much to celebrate this year; its reached its 30-year milestone and it has completed its goal of having a complete fleet of Euro 6 vehicles. That’s no mean feat for a small independent firm.

We visited the husband-and-wife team and joint directors, Lawrence and Tina Hailstone, to find out the secrets behind running such a successful business.

From nothing

There came a time in Lawrence and Tina’s lives when there was no option but to make the business work.

It was in 1988 when the firm hit the road. “We never thought about running a coach firm. We didn’t inherit the business from parents like some in the industry – we started from scratch and built it up,” says Tina, who is also the firm’s Transport Manager.

Lawrence had been driving minibuses carrying wheelchair users, manually lifting them into and out of the vehicle,and he later developed scoliosis. As a result, he was unable to carry on with that job. It was then that there was no other option for the pair but to succeed and make Hailstone Travel what it is today. “The rule is to not spread yourself too thin,” says Tina. “That’s when things start to go wrong.”

The firm bought one vehicle at first, a brand-new 16-seater LDV Sherpa. In hindsight, the pair explain they wish they didn’t buy new at the start, because they could have saved money by buying the an identical vehicle second-hand.

Fleet investment is prominent

Although Lawrence explains that he’s reluctant to call his fleet “executive”, they are of luxury standard. He says that it’s important to make the investment in vehicles, stating “if you start cheap, you end up cheap”.

All of Hailstone Travel’s eight small coaches carry weather-related names

All vehicles are Euro 6 and none are more than four years of age, with 2015 being the oldest they operate. Each features a personalised HT (Hailstone Travel) number plate and all have their own weather-inspired name:

  • Cyclone: 34-seat coach
  • Monsoon: 34-seat coach
  • Typhoon: 34-seat coach
  • Twister: 34-seat coach
  • Breeze: 16-19-seat minibus
  • Storm: 19-seat mnibus
  • Lightning: 16-seat minibus.

The seven vehicles – to become eight with the delivery of a 68-plate in December – boast full-size leather seats, air-conditioning and good leg room, as well as on-board CCTV from Transport Technology Systems, something the team fully recommends.

“CCTV is worth the investment,” Tina says. “It’s not just for passengers, but for drivers too. I wouldn’t operate a vehicle without it now.”

CCTV has useful deterrence and investigative value. Lawrence explains how the exterior cameras have enabled the firm to see when a vehicle has driven into one of their parked minibuses, and an interior camera has allowed the directors to see and monitor when drivers have developed poor habits – such as reading a map at the wheel.

Hailstone Travel has grown with the times, evolving with new technologies where appropriate. As well as CCTV, all of its fleet is fitted with GPS tracking devices from Navman.

Lawrence says: “There are many benefits to having trackers; it’s good for seeing which vehicles are out and where they are at certain times. It’s also good to have in case vehicles are stolen.” Tracking systems also enable easy contact with drivers. Lawrence explains that if a driver is running late, those in the office are able see where they are.

Eggs in one basket

The firm, which has an O-Licence for 11 vehicles, is keen to not put “all of its eggs into one basket” – emphasising that with more vehicles comes more responsibility and greater overheads. And with a national shortage of drivers, there’s another reason why expansion is not on the table for Hailstone Travel.

Vehicles are all to a high specification; none is more than four years old

“It’s a struggle to find quality drivers,” Lawrence says. However, he adds that the business is not desperate either, and would rather make cuts to the size of the operation than hire a driver that is not up to standard – and Tina agrees with this.

Hailstone Travel has a mix of 10 drivers, both young and old that work on a casual, full-time and part-time basis. That’s not including their daughter, Holly, who also holds a Category D licence and drives for the business when she’s available.

“The mix of drivers is good,” Tina says. “The older ones would rather get their work done early and the younger ones would rather start later, so it works for us. And we’re small enough to work with the driver’s lifestyle.”

Tackling the driver shortage

Although Hailstone Travel has the drivers, Lawrece and Tina acknowledge that there is a shortage of them in the industry. Tina says that while there are drivers out there, it could be argued that some are not up to standard – especially for what is expected for drivers at Hailstone Travel.

However, Tina has an idea on how to tackle the issue of driver shortages; make it a government initiative. By doing that, she says it could take those out of unemployment – and those who want to join the industry but cannot afford gain the qualifications needed – and put them into full-time positions.

Explaining that the benefits those unemployed receive could help fund the scheme, as well as the government making income from scheme with what it receives from a full-timer worker’s taxes.

Widespread accreditation

There are many schemes and associations open and available to organisation in the industry: The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), Coach Marque, DVSA Earned Recognition (ER) and many others.

UNVI is favoured for midicoaches with the Touring GT on Atego chassis

Both Tina and Lawrence have high praise for CPT, saying that it’s “a good organisation”, but the pair think that members should be held to a certain standard if they want to join.

One scheme that does make sure operators are of a standard is ER   Members are required to regularly share information with DVSA. In return, their vehicles are less likely to be stopped for roadside inspections. Hailstone Travel is not part of ER, not because its operation is not up to standard, but because Lawrence and Tina question the benefit of it.

Lawrence says: “It works out to be quite costly; you need to have the systems, which requires investment, and then you have the auditing fees once your application has been reviewed and then every two years after you’ve joined the scheme.”

Although it has not joined ER, the firm is CoachMarque accredited, which is proudly displayed on the fleet.  CoachMarque is described as “the quality standard of the UK coach industry.” Operators need to meet “a strict set of criteria and are regularly assessed by an independent auditor to ensure compliance with the highest standards in safety, customer service and operational excellence,” it says.

Clean air zone considerations

Due to where it is based, Hailstone Travel will be affected by London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), set to come into effect on 8 April 2019. Both Tina and Lawrence had opinions on the new zone, which will see operators who don’t comply with the required standard receive a daily charge. While both felt something needed to be done to tackle air quality, a ULEZ, Lawrence felt, was not the answer.

“The biggest change we’ve seen to tackle the issue of air quality was with the removing of lead from petrol,” he says. “But with the ULEZ, you’re just moving one problem to another area; some operators will either stop going into London – which if enough operators followed suit, would give another area of poor air quality – and others will just pay the charge by adding it to the passengers’ price.”

CCTV on vehicles is not something that Hailstone would ever be without

Future ambitions

Hailstone Travel’s yard is currently rented, which Tina says is restricting on the growth of the company. Looking to the future, she says she would like for her and Lawrence to buy their own land so they can have the yard with the addition of an MoT station and the ability to hire a mechanic.

Lawrence says he’s not looking at investing in a full-size coach due to other local operators running them.  “The main reason for not getting a bigger vehicle is that we work with other local operators to share the work for different sizes,” he says.

“We did consider a 41-seater as that’s not too conflicting, but with bigger vehicles comes a bigger bill – and we understand the smaller sizes [of vehicles].”

While they have yet to decide how to celebrate the firm’s anniversary, the duo – who have been married for 40 years – are very happy with they have built up from scratch over the last 30 years together.

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