Industry stalwarts Peter and Margaret Fenn are no strangers to dealing with the challenges of coach touring. But now, like many other operators, those are prompting questions about how the future might look?
“We’ve always focused on old-fashioned values,” says Peter as I join him and his wife Margaret at their office and premises in March in Cambridgeshire. “We prefer our clients to come in and see us, or pick up the phone and talk with us. It’s how we like to do business. It’s how we’ve always liked to do business”.
Peter and Margaret set up Fenn Holidays in 1988, hiring coaches in from the parent company, D M Fenn & Sons.
“It was then that we decided to fully immerse ourselves in packaging and offering holidays and excursions”, says Peter. “We’d been involved in a small amount of private hire and other work but we quickly realised that the holidays side of the business was what we really enjoyed the most. But we also realised that to do it properly meant focusing on the detail. That commitment has stayed with us through to today.”
The focus on offering the personal approach is echoed by Margaret.
“Our customers can book online, but that generates an email that comes into the office,” she says. “We then follow that up with a phone call or email. Next year will be the 30th anniversary of that change in the business. All we offer are first-class coach holidays and excursions. It’s what we do!”
Back to 2019 levels
But now, having made significant cutbacks to their continental tour programme, what does the future hold for Fenn Holidays and the couple themselves?
Sitting with Peter and Margaret you get a feel for the frustrations that go hand in hand with working hard to deliver that quality.
“Perhaps it’s just the fact that Margaret and I are getting older, but since COVID-19 the coach tourism landscape has changed,” says Peter. “Don’t get me wrong, we still love this industry, but oh, it’s getting so much harder. Having said that, 2023 was one of our best years ever.” We’re back to 2019 levels, which in turn had been an exceptionally good year.
“We started 2023 with great enthusiasm. But we’ve had driver issues. Our drivers are absolutely crucial to the quality we strive to offer. Thanks to COVID-19 and the ideology of staying at home we lost a few really good people. Replacing that calibre of driver has been really challenging. We pay well but we’re struggling to attract quality drivers. Last year we ended up cancelling tours because we couldn’t run them to what I would describe as ‘our style’, so we’ve adapted and moved towards operating more five-day tours. It means drivers aren’t away from home for too long and can get back home at the end of the week and this is working well”.
But it isn’t just drivers where Peter and Margaret are facing challenges. The well documented challenges of continental touring have perhaps hit Fenn’s more than many operators.
“European touring has been our main strength since the 1980s,” says Peter. “But for 2024 we’ll sadly only be operating six tours instead of the usual 30 to 35. Eurotunnel let us down and the process at the ports means we can’t be sure of everything running to time. Yes of course we understand the reasons, but that doesn’t help. In the past we would have programmed in one overnight on our longer trips to Italy or Austria. Now, just in case, we have to plan two.
“In Dover, the introduction of the new Coach Processing Facility at the old boatyard by the cruise terminal to capture advance passenger information was heavily promoted by the port as reducing the time spent to travel through the port. Perhaps they thought it would work, but it was disingenuous. All it did was move the queue to the other end of the town. That meant that when you’d completed your checks you could then end up being caught in traffic queues in the town heading to the port itself. At Calais, our elderly passengers are being treated like second-class citizens in having to get off and on the coach for border control.
We simply don’t have the confidence in the Channel crossing anymore. The EU Entry/Exit System (EES), now likely to be introduced after the Paris Olympics in the summer, isn’t going to help either.
“We usually put two drivers on our continentals too, but with driver shortages, even that becomes a challenge. All of this can affect the perception of our product and quality, so if that’s the situation, why would we do it? Instead, we’re focusing on a varied and top quality domestic programme for this year. I’m pleased to say that the uptake so far is looking very promising.”
Margaret is buoyed up by the response to the Autumn/Spring programme.
“We launched that programme last August,” she says. “It’s been selling slightly ahead of the same time last year. That’s due in part to there being less competition in our area, combined, I think, with our attractive door-to-door pick-up service – our passengers like that.
“Like every industry, we’ve had to put our prices up, often quite considerably and prompted in part by increases in hotel rates. For example, we have a five-day tour to Scotland staying in Queensferry. Before COVID-19 that would have been priced around £500, now it’s around £900! That’s a lot of money, but our customers know that we offer quality. They know they’re going to get a really good tour, so we need to be on our toes to make sure that they do!”
Supporting Peter and Margaret in the office is Office Manager Catherine, and the reservations team of Sharon and Sarah. The fleet comprises four 14m Van Hool tri-axle Astrons originally specified because of their suitability for long distance touring. There are no plans at the moment to replace them.
Looking ahead, how do Peter and Margaret see the future?
“Our children don’t want to be part of it,” says Peter. “So finishing is looming. A lot of the changes in the industry are beyond our control and are often difficult to accept, so we hope that in cutting back on our continental European tours and focusing on a domestic programme we’ve made the right decision and reduced the stress. We’re both getting older and the future is unclear, but we’d love someone to come in and run things. We have a profitable business with a superb reputation, so we’re keeping going, doing what we do best!”