With a new livery, young people coming into the business, and a strong mix of work, Alpine Travel is a business in a good place for its future
Coach tourism is dead. Long live coach tourism!
It’s a strange paradox that an industry that takes up so much time, effort and cost, and is by most accounts in decline, can still be wholly worthwhile. But that’s the opinion of Chris Owens, Managing Director at Alpine Travel, the Llandudno coach operator that has grown over 40 years by acquiring smaller coach companies and tour operators.
Often those businesses were sold as a result of their owners retiring, as with Alpine’s most recent acquisition, Jones Holidays, in January 2017 – an acquisition that was made somewhat bravely, as Alpine had recently been burned by acquiring Silver Star Holidays.
“It was a good lesson for us,” Chris says about Silver Star. “Running a coach holiday company and running a coach company are as different as making cars and running a restaurant. They’re polar opposites – they need a completely different approach.”
A tale of two tour firms
Silver Star was a good coach tour operator in its day, but its market was lower-cost short breaks that didn’t fit with either Alpine’s customer base, or Chris’s ethos. “One of my problems was that I wasn't happy providing something that was cheap,” he says. “I've got to be going with quality. I can't deal with complaints – I take them very personally.” Silver Star was also cancelling around half of its tours, a trend that Alpine tried to reverse – but the damage to customers’ trust was already done.
Jones Holidays is a different story: Its customers expect longer, more luxurious tours, and it has a reputation for excellent quality and customer service, so it fits well with Alpine’s brand. It was in Alpine’s best interest to acquire it, as it was the preferred coach operator for Jones and had work booked with it, as well as five coaches in the Jones livery.
Alpine has taken on four sales staff and the tour manager from Jones Holidays, plus its Llandudno holiday office.
Happily, the Silver Star acquisition hasn’t been a total failure: that part of the holidays operation has been rebranded as ‘SuperSaver’, and is marketed as value holidays and short breaks.
“So many businesses that go to the wall have been involved with the holidays side,” says Chris, noting that it’s easy to get “carried away” when planning tours, and forget how much it costs in time and effort.
While other businesses in the area have failed, Alpine has survived and flourished – and that’s because it has moved with the times. “I’ve always been really keen that we as a business try to reflect what's happening in the sector,” says Chris.
Alpine Travel – named for the evocative idea of Snowdonia as a 'Little Switzerland', and for its place in the phone book – was started in the small town of Llanrwst by Chris's parents, Bryan and Pat Owens, in 1972. Pat sold her hairdressing business so they could buy local operator RO Edwards & Sons with its six coaches, and operate school contracts and private hire.
Through the years those have continued to be key baskets of work, but the business has always had a good eye for diversification and changing trends, and it has always grown by acquiring little businesses. “My father was very enthusiastic and very compliant,” says Chris. “It was all about doing things right.”
He talks about Alpine Travel in the 1970s and ‘80s, its involvement with Saga Holidays that brought it down the valley into Llandudno, its day trip arrangements with other coach companies during the regulated era, when customers were happy to do the same day trips year in year out – but those days are gone, and Chris makes it clear there’s no point hanging onto them. “I closed the excursions side in 1997,” he says: The market had changed, and Alpine has changed with it.
The perfect blend
Today, it runs a lovely 1950s Leyland Tiger Cub on excursions around Great Orme; it runs a two-vehicle City Sightseeing operation through the season; it works with GTO clients who come into Llandudno by rail; it works with Cruise Wales, an organisation aiming to increase the profile of the country’s ports, to win work from the burgeoning cruise market. But these things can’t be businesses in their own right. “It's about the product mix,” says Chris. “We aim for a good blend of products that work together.”
As part of that blend, Chris can see the business acquiring another one or two tour companies, to give it a decent market share. “We need to keep doing it, and doing it well, to drive revenue for the coaches,” he says.
“If we elate the customer, if we satisfy people, we can improve our margins.”
The Alpine mix has involved diversifying into different areas in the past. When bus deregulation came along in 1986, the company started Alpine Bus Services, which was a successful operation. However, the bus side took up a lot of time and investment, starving the coaches of investment between 1990-95 – at which point the bus operation was sold to British Bus.
“It was a good move for us,” says Chris, and he describes how the deal included Alpine acquiring the coveted Guide Friday open-top sightseeing operation from British Bus – an operation still going strong today, under the City Sightseeing brand.
New blood incoming
As Alpine moves with the times, Chris is keen to get new blood into the business to keep the momentum and fresh thinking. He is eight years away from retirement, and as anyone who knows him can imagine, his will be an active and busy retirement – he has no intention of hanging around the business.
The management structure and succession plan within the business is very strong – Chris trusts the staff to look after everything when he’s on holiday. “If something happened to me, Alpine would run as before,” he says. “No one person should ever be key to a business continuing.”
He mentions that he likes the idea of employee ownership, a route that so far in the coach tourism sector, only Alfa Leisureplex Group has taken – but with excellent results. “It's up to the people coming in how we'll move the business forwards,” he says.
Flexibility both ways
To find younger people, Alpine uses a recruitment agency – there’s a little more cost involved, but it’s worth it because the quality of candidates is so high.
One such recruit, Rob, came in as a graduate trainee in January 2016 and was promoted to Joint Operations Manager before his two-year training was even completed. Young people have also been recruited into operations, sales and administration roles this way.
Every year Alpine takes on apprentice mechanics, and for those that don’t make the grade as a mechanic, there is the opportunity to be trained as a driver instead. Often, those drivers will then recommend the company to their friends, so it’s almost a snowball effect.
Alpine does a lot of its own driver training – “It's easier to train a nice person to be a driver, than to teach a driver to be nice,” Chris says.
“Operators worry that they'll invest in training and people won't stay. But if people don't stay, that's your fault. You need to make it an environment where people want to stay.” That involves being flexible for your employees as well as expecting them to be flexible for you – it's when you're “pigheaded and dogmatic” that people let you down, says Chris.
Good place for future
Alpine Travel is a large business employing around 100 people, one of the reasons it's attractive to new recruits.
It's based over three operating centres – a small base in its birth town Llanrwst, where the MoTs are carried out, the main depot in Llandudno and a depot in Rhyl. It runs 70 vehicles, most of them either Plaxton-bodied Volvos or Mercedes-Benz Tourismos, for commonality of parts as well as familiarity for both drivers and mechanics. The skills of the workshop are evident in one of Alpine's sightseeing buses, which has just been converted with a glass roof to keep customers dry.
Thanks to Chris's love of technology, the business is also up to date with the latest efficiency-generating kit – including a full suite of Distinctive Systems coach operation software, driver telematics from Greenroad and Lytx, and online marketing tools employed by Beverley, the Marketing Manager taken on in summer 2017.
A rebranding exercise started last year, replacing the white-based livery with a modern and striking red-based theme – with a similar look in blue for the Jones Holidays coaches. The repainted coaches instantly present a refreshed appearance to customers.
Simply put, it's a business in a good place for the future. “I don't want to retire and be worrying about who's driving what coach on Monday morning,” says Chris. “I've got eight years to make sure everything's in a good place” – but by the looks of it, everything already is.