National Coach Network: Redefining an established model

National Coach Network team line-up

Suppliers that act as intermediaries to provide work to coach operators are commonplace, and competition among them is keen. National Coach Network (NCN), which has a small but motivated team based in the Ancoats area of Manchester, is among them. NCN believes that its model adds value to partners’ businesses, and it is on a mission to prove that to more of them.

NCN can trace its history to 2013. Early years were spent as a brokerage, but by 2016 Directors Matthew Atkinson (pictured, second from right) and Stephen Chesters identified issues around the oft-maligned straightforward broker model, including operator resistance. “It was at that point that we decided to develop the product to offer more than work alone to the industry,” says Matthew.

National Coach Network product offering centres on web portal

Matching customers with operators is still core to NCN’s business, but the supplier is keen to highlight the elements of its product that are beyond that. NCN is built around a web portal. Operators sign up free of charge.

Documents submitted as part of that process include a copy of the O-Licence, while OCRS score and evidence of public liability insurance are among compliance items that are audited. Vehicle details are collated, including emission class and PSVAR compliance if applicable. Work is handled via the portal, which generates 100,000 job leads per year, although there is an option for offers to come via email.

Premium Coaches works with National Coach Network
Premiu Coaches is among the over 1,100 coach, minicoach and taxi operators that work with National Coach Network as of March 2022

Operators and customers interact only with NCN ahead of a job being undertaken. Feedback from hirers is sought afterwards.

While some contracted work is available via the portal, most is private hire. No minimum commitment is needed from operators.

Usage of NCN can extend from regular work to ad-hoc one-offs to fill an otherwise empty leg. Jobs are audited by NCN staff before being passed to operators.

The portal has other tools that integrate with the above. Available work can also be searched using specified parameters. Among those are vehicle capacity and acceptable total mileage, along with radius from a defined point. That enables operators with downtime when away from home to look to fill it with work local to that area, Matthew adds.

A further utility of the portal applies when an operator has difficulty covering a job that they have arranged outside of NCN. Such work can be added to the web portal by the operator concerned immediately. It is then sent to appropriate alternative NCN members. A passenger recovery capability in the case of breakdown is part of the offering also.

Payment in advance part of National Coach Network model

As of mid-March, 1,145 operators were registered with NCN. They include taxi companies, but the majority are coach and minicoach businesses. Matthew explains that minicoach work forms a major part of what NCN does. Partners that work with NCN extend from large operators to single-vehicle owner-drivers.

Why engage with NCN, though? “We understand complaints that some coach brokers have taken little care in the work that they offer,” he continues. “We have enhanced our service to well above that of a standard broker. Operators can specify various parameters in the type of work they want us to notify them of. They can also tell our system of days when they are fully booked, and they will not be notified about leads in those periods.”

One of the keys to NCN is that it pays operators in advance. That requires mutual trust, but it has worked well. Cost pressures have already seen rates rise by around 20% over those from summer 2019, Matthew continues. He notes that there is a general acceptance among hirers of such increases. “Some make a fuss, but on the whole, they are understanding.”

Carbon neutral travel brand is coming later this year

NCN spent much of its downtime around COVID-19 working to further refine its model. A restructuring of the business was undertaken, and the staffing resource received attention. That, Matthew believes, leaves it resilient and well placed to introduce further planned developments.

Sounds Travel of Rochdale works with National Coach Network
Sounds Travel of Rochdale is another operator to work with National Coach Network; the partied have been collaborating since 2020

Two of those are particularly notable. One will see the debut of a carbon neutral travel brand later this year. Carbon offsetting will be used to achieve that headline point.

From an operator’s point of view, undertaking work that is sourced by NCN via the carbon neutral brand will be no different to that which comes through the conventional channel, although partners will be informed of the relevant offsetting details.

Customers such as festival organisers are expected to find such an offering attractive, although Matthew believes that the number of environmentally conscious businesses is increasing rapidly. Tied in with that in the long-term will likely be the option for a customer to request a zero-emission coach, although Matthew accepts that such a step is some years away.

Further development in the pipeline for National Coach Network

Another long-term aspiration is to integrate NCN’s platform with third party coach management software. That would allow existing diary blocks to be considered by NCN’s portal automatically, and if an operator has no availability, no work leads would be sent for the period in question.

NCN also aims to further an existing commitment to corporate responsibility that it exercises via the charity sector, and to establish an advisory board made up of operators. January and February have already seen work volumes grow by 15% over the same period in 2020, which leaves NCN confident that its model suits many operators – and that it is a far cry from the traditional brokerage approach.