The bar was set 20 years ago by its Japanese parent JTB. Today, even though there are fewer Japanese customers, City Circle still maintains the same standards. Quality is key
London operator City Circle was initially started by Japanese company JTB in 1999 to serve incoming Japanese tourists, as it was struggling to find the right quality and quantity of coaches.
They were very discerning travellers and expected a certain level of customer service. Back home in Japan coach drivers wore white gloves and hats.
Managing Director Neil Pegg says: “Setting up City Circle solved a problem and for the first two or three years we solely did our own parent company work.
“We quickly got a good reputation in the incoming tourist market and business grew over the years to a point where we were taking on clients from many different nationalities.
“Today we handle clients from all corners of the globe, mostly international. Most of our work is incoming tourist business.”
Around 40% of the fleet is in contract colours for incoming tour operators.
“The American market is the biggest and most lucrative,” adds Neil. “We tour around the UK and Ireland but also take coaches of tourists sightseeing in London, do transfers from airports and ports, and the cruise ship business is very big for us.”
Over the years the European market has changed. “That business is not there anymore,” says Neil. “They’re all on the cheap airlines doing it themselves.
“In a previous life we would be sending 30-40 coaches a day to meet tour passengers at Harwich, Stansted and Gatwick, all coming from Germany and Scandinavian countries.
“But we do have a lot of European businesses that will hold conferences here so will need to be met from their flight or train, but that’s a business purpose, plus entertainment, sightseeing and evenings out.”
City Circle’s proximity to London is an advantage even out of season.
“We are still busy in the winter,” adds Neil. “We do some rail replacement, but London is good as an all year-round destination and clients bring in more budget-priced winter packages.”
Over the last 20 years the fleet has grown to a total of 64 premier coaches, which are also used for transporting business executives to high-end corporate functions, promotions, conferences and product launches.
The fleet changes
In 2013 Neil made changes to the fleet, which at the time consisted mainly of Neoplans.
He says: “We were looking for some 36-seat, 10.8m vehicles and Scania Irizar was able to build one to our specification. They didn’t exist at the time and we started with four of them.
“The relationship worked well and then we managed to do a deal. We buy quite a lot of vehicles at any one time as the fleet policy is to keep the vehicles for three years, four seasons, so we’re primarily replacing about 20 vehicles every year.
“We fell in love with the Scania Irizar as our product. It’s very stylish and we have them highly specified. The support from Scania is excellent, the vehicle is reliable, the deal was right and it has looked after us very well. It appreciates the size and the volume of our business and we get the level of service and attention, both at point of service and aftersales that warrants orders of that size.
“We’re just coming to the end of the second three-year agreement and there’ll be 20 new Scanias arriving this year. One of them will be the 100th Scania Irizar that we’ve had.
“When a vehicle goes out of here after three and a half years it’s as good as the day it came in. We look after them well, maintain them well and present them well.”
Two years ago the business moved to its current purpose-built premises in Hayes. Land is at a premium around Heathrow Airport and it took a while before a suitable place was found.
Neil says: “As we grew as a business, we ended up with three distinct sites and started looking for somewhere to pull it all together. We were looking for the best part of ten years.
It took two years to be built but now everything is pulled together under one roof.
“There is plenty of office space and workshop capacity for whatever comes in the future. We’re looking at steady growth and will look at all opportunities whether they be from organic growth or acquisition.
The firm’s workshop looks after its own fleet but is also run as a commercial enterprise.
Around 140 vehicles are on contract maintenance from other operators, as well as ad hoc maintenance, and the company acts as agents for Irizar and Yutong so can do warranty repairs.
Neil says: “Our workshop is growing by reputation as we charge a fair price and do a good job. People who bring their vehicles here are happy with what we do and how we maintain them.”
He adds: “Other operators can use our facilities here. We have secure overnight parking, toilet drop and wash. The parking facility is ideal as a lot of groups are now staying out of London, particularly around the airport because city centre hotels are so expensive.”
Growing the business
In 2007 City Circle set up a branch in Edinburgh with 25 of its coaches based there.
Neil says: “We bought a small operator up there that had six vehicles to get us an established base. This has grown and is now one of our USPs.
“What that means is that a lot of our customers will have two stops – two centre stays in the UK so they might travel up and tour Scotland and have a seamless service either end of the country.”
Becoming an approved training centre 12 months ago was another string to the bow.
“We encourage training,” says Neil. “Going forward we will be looking at apprenticeships.
“We do our own DCPC training for our staff which was taken up by everybody last year getting ready for the September 2019 deadline.
“But we also invite other people to our courses and are doing that on a semi-commercial basis.”
Drivers are highly valued and Neil wants to recruit the best, in return offering them an excellent package.
He says: “We try and be as flexible as we can with contracts for new drivers so we can attract the best.
“The most important thing for all drivers is that there is security and stability.
“We want drivers that are the best and if we can get those drivers it’s in our interest to make sure they’re here this year, next year and into the future.”
Pride in the name and the operator’s reputation means that drivers aspire to join it.
“We have a fabulous fleet of coaches out there – I like to think it’s one of the best in the country,” adds Neil. “Drivers will never be driving anything that’s more than three years old. All of the vehicles are identical so no-one has a better coach and they are all to the same high standard.
“We have one of the best mixes of work from a driver’s perspective that they can have – lucrative and rewarding as well as enjoyable. We have good conditions, in terms of pay and salaries and the company is stable.
“We’ve invested in our premises which is another benefit from a driver’s point of view as he or she can see that every vehicle has its own parking space which means the driver can take their vehicle out and put their car in there.
“Plus we’ve got all the facilities here. There’s an automatic wash, there’s a toilet drop, a drivers’ kitchen and rest room, the yard is clean and tidy and well-kept so they’re not walking around in puddles – we try our best to create the best working conditions.”
Neil explains that London frightens a lot of drivers and is becoming a hard place to drive.
He says: “There are traffic wardens, cameras, restrictions, cyclists and all manner of distractions. Every box junction has a camera on it and it’s not just speed cameras; its parking, the red lines on the red routes and the type of work that we do.
“But our drivers are rewarded well for doing it.”
The business is always open to challenges although Neil says Brexit shouldn’t complicate things too much. He says: “The business can be affected by outside events. Over the years we’ve had bird flu, foot and mouth disease and terrorism. Incoming tourism can be adversely affected by many things.”
City Circle has come a long way in the last 20 years despite the issues the industry has thrown at it. But the strong company ethos of looking after its drivers, the quality of its service plus a solid reputation has carried it through and seen it go from strength to strength.
And the pride in the company glows from its Managing Director who is still as passionate about the business as the day he set it up from scratch for the Japanese.