In May 2024, five coach operators will be debuting JG Travel Group’s new ‘JG Explorer’ coaches on Just Go! Holidays and National Holidays tours. But why launch a new product now and why have the five operators gone down this road?
It’s often been said that there’s not a great deal you can do to improve the interior design of a coach that’s not already been done. But where such improvements have been made it’s usually because an operator has identified a clear level of customer demand, or a wish list, that would make such a move worthwhile.
In September, Cheltenham-based JG Travel Group (JG), the parent company of Just Go! Holidays and National Holidays, did just that, announcing JG Explorer, a new product entirely focused on the on-board experience.
With a reputation for quality and customer service, JG already has a strong on-board offer, so what’s going on?
As the company says: “JG Explorer is a brand-new deluxe coach, thoughtfully designed to provide an elevated coach experience and ensure your journey is special and memorable.”
The company goes on to say: “On-board entertainment throughout your journey is easy to find on the JG Explorer. You will have access to Azimut, our wireless media system, providing films, music and quizzes. Simply bring along your smartphone or iPad and enjoy this entertainment interruption-free, with the use of our extra reliable wi-fi, free to all passengers and a handy USB port at each seat.”
Paul Mason, JG’s Director of Operations, explains the thinking behind the development of the product.
“We initially discussed a product like this back in 2018,” he says. “But then last year as we saw more customers trading up, a group of us, including JG Chairman Luis Arteaga and our Chief Executive, Chris Simmonds, were once again having a chat about luxury coaches. We questioned whether there was a place for them in the JG business. We’d noticed people across the tourism and holiday sectors trading up and wanting to spend a little more on a deluxe experience. Our own research had shown that our customers would pay a little more for a more luxurious experience.
“In January and February this year we went out to operators to ask them for their own views. We then spent time with manufacturers and coach suppliers discussing how we could come up with what I would describe as the ultimate, thoughtful touring coach design specification. Out of all of that came ‘JG Explorer’, a luxury proposition for the coach that will deliver an enhanced experience. It’s a bespoke design, exclusive to the Group. The name ‘Explorer’ was chosen as it was felt it was an extension of the company’s long-term vision for its customers to ‘Get out more in life’.”
Identifying manufacturer and operators
With a specification in place, Paul and the team started discussions with European coach manufacturers.
“We wanted a floor-mounted toilet at the rear of the coach,” he says. “We also wanted a rear kitchen/servery and the option of a fresh water supply to allow passengers to fill up reusable water bottles. After many conversations it was Irizar that gave us what we were looking for. In this first instance the standard JG Explorer vehicle will be a 44-seat, Scania Irizar i6S Efficient 13.2m tri-axle coach. The padded seats, supplied by Irizar, in 2+2 configuration, will feature faux leather seat edging with a moquette centre.”
Paul says the initial order for five coaches are due to go on the Irizar line in January and will arrive in the UK in April in their base metallic blue livery. They will then go to AD Coach Systems in Staffordshire to have the floor-mounted toilets and kitchen/serveries put in. The final element will be the application of the JG Explorer vinyls. The vehicles will then be delivered to the five operators who are spearheading the new initiative.
“We spoke with a dozen or so of our longest serving and most trusted operators, explains Paul. “Out of those we chose Alpine Travel of North Wales, Crosskeys Coaches of Folkestone, Hunters Coaches of Leeds, Prospect Coaches of Stourbridge and Taylors Coaches of Yeovil. The coaches will debut on 24 May 2024 with tours in the UK, and to Ireland and continental Europe.
“Choosing which five of our best operators would lead the project out was difficult. Part of that was a need to ensure a geographical spread. However, all the other operators have shown a great interest in the project and they’re in the queue to have a JG Explorer coach in their fleet as the initiative develops.”
The M62 marks the line
The development of JG Explorer is the latest example of product development following the acquisition of the National Holidays brand and assets in 2020.
“We recognised that National Holidays, which had and has a very loyal customer base north of the M62, would complement our own strengths south of the M62,” says Paul. “In 2021 we relaunched the National Holidays product, tweaking the product bit by bit to bring it into line with the Just Go! Holidays product. We’re now offering four main brands across both products: Classic, Super Value, Events, and Showtime, each pretty much doing what it says on the can.
“Pre-COVID-19 we, along with many of the large coach tour operators, were chasing volume. We’ve stopped that and changed tack. Our marketing now focuses on encouraging our customers to trade-up, from Super Value to Classic, and from short breaks to longer holidays. We used to have lots of two-day short breaks in our programme, but we’ve scaled that back now. We’re moving to longer breaks. Interestingly, our operators tell us they prefer that work.”
Hiring everything in
JG hires in every coach it needs, whether that’s for Just Go! Holidays, National Holidays, or its two smaller businesses: Omega Breaks, offering London breaks and niche astronomy tours, and Albion Journeys, a high value brand focusing solely on inbound business from North America and Australia.
JG uses a core cohort of some 40 coach operators, of which around 60 vehicles carry the Just Go! Holidays or National Holidays liveries.
“At peak times we hire in from another 50 to 60 operators,” explains Paul. “But we’re always looking for new operators who want to become part of the JG family. Our standard coach specification calls for a maximum of eight years old for domestic work and five years for continentals. We look for 53 seats in a 12.9m configuration. The relationship with our operator family is hugely important and we spend a lot of time getting to know them well. We also have our JG Drivers’ Academy. It’s not about training a driver how to drive, it’s about them understanding the JG approach and style of operation. We show drivers our call centre and let them listen in to what customers are saying.”
Paul emphasises the importance of dealing fairly with operators.
“We’ve worked with many of our operator family for a long time now,” he says. “When the fuel prices increased we felt their pain. We took action, giving a fuel surcharge. Equally, when things work well, we feel their joy.”
Prospect Coaches, one of the five operators that will start operating JG Explorer in May, says the company was excited to get involved in the project. “This feels like a natural extension to the relationship,” explains Managing Director, Nathan Hadley. “We’ve only been working for JG since late 2021, so it’s good to see our own commitment to quality and service delivery being recognised by being part of the Explorer roll-out.”
In North Wales, Alpine Travel already has two coaches operating for JG. Joe Lewis, Alpine’s Head of Business, says that he was delighted to get involved with the Explorer project.
“We’ve worked for JG since 2011 and took on a National Holidays contract in 2022,” he says. “JG is an excellent company to work with. The team give us continued feedback. If something isn’t right, with the driver or the vehicle, then we’re told. I feel that with Explorer, JG has done the right thing, testing the water. For us it guarantees income, at an enhanced rate, and offers job security and variety for our drivers.”