For Tom Benjamin, who has travelled all over the world, there’s no place like home. Using his intimate local knowledge and natural showmanship to showcase the Cotswolds to tourists, in just a year he has established a reputable business, as Jessamy Chapman finds.
It’s rare that passion and experience in travel, and an intimate knowledge of a local area, come together in a coach business.
But then, Go Cotswolds is an unusual business. Owner-operator Tom Benjamin, who lives in Alcester and grew up in Temple Grafton, is passionate about the Cotswolds, even though he has spent years travelling abroad.
For the past year he has made a great success of a simple premise: Picking up customers directly from their hotels in Stratford-upon-Avon and taking them for a day’s tour of the Cotswolds.
Most of Tom’s work is based on methods he has seen himself as a traveller. â€œThe first time I travelled, I stayed in Sydney in 2004 and saw the Blue Mountains in a minibus,â€ he explains. â€œIt was off the beaten track and I thought then that it’d be such a brilliant thing to do in Stratford.â€
No job satisfaction
Tom, 34, has a degree in marketing from Middlesex University and spent a few years in marketing before starting to travel in 2005. He travelled around the world on and off for the next few years, meeting his wife Lisa, a fellow traveller, in Argentina in 2007.
In 2010 they settled back down in the UK and to avoid static office work, Tom took a job as a travelling salesman at an engineering company based in Redditch.
However, the weekly ritual of the two-hour Friday evening moan about their respective jobs wore down both of them, and Tom was ready to seize an opportunity.
â€œI thought to myself that I had two choices. I could set up a rival company to the company I was working for. But I didn’t really enjoy the industry.
â€œSo I decided to jump in at the deep end with tours around the Cotswolds instead. I’d always had the idea of working with tourists. It was a passion and I knew it would eat away at me if I never did it. I didn’t want to look back on my life and this to be the one thing I regretted.â€
He left the Redditch firm in April 2013, and started up the slippery slope to become an operator.
Knowing it well
â€œMy USP is that I know the Cotswolds really well,â€ he says. â€œI do an introduction in the minibus of who I am, and why I do what I do. I’m a local and that makes people feel that they’re getting an insider’s view of the local area.â€
Armed with only his enthusiasm and local knowledge, Tom immediately faced the problem of having to comply with strict regulations and not having any idea of where to start.
â€œI thought it would be a case of ‘buy a minibus, find customers’,â€ he says, smiling.
â€œI had it in my head to start up a ‘backpackers’ bus’, but there’s no backpacker market in Stratford, or in England really. I decided to get a PSV licence for a 16-seater, with individual travellers.
â€œAs a backpacker myself, I knew that the only options are usually to get a bus to just one town, or hire a taxi for 300 a day â€“ not an option on a traveller’s budget. So I wanted the minibus to appeal to people coming in as affordable.
â€œThen I sought the TCs’ advice, but they’re so used to dealing with people who are already in the industry that they couldn’t give me much help. I didn’t even have a driving licence and didn’t know where to start. I was on square one.â€
Luckily, Tom had previously worked with a man whose wife worked for Dudley’s Coaches in Radford’s Worcestershire.
She put him in touch with MD Chris Dudley. â€œHe’s the nicest bloke,â€ says Tom. â€œHe sat me down for an hour and told me everything he knew, explained what to do, and said how he could help.â€
He also introduced Tom to Colin Rowe of consultancy Clockwise Briefings.
â€œIt’s something I instantly found in this industry, that people are willing to help you,â€ says Tom. â€œThere are so many people who are happy to go out of their way to help you out.â€
Colin was able to take Tom through his application, and offered to go on the licence as interim Transport Manager (TM) until Tom passed his own TM CPC, which he did in August 2014.
At the same time, Tom was learning how to drive a minibus, which included the Driver’s CPC qualification from scratch. He was funding everything from his savings.
Working with Colin, Tom drew up a business plan and put his application for an O-Licence to the Traffic Commissioner in February 2014. A nine-week wait followed, then without further ado, the licence disc came through the post in May.
The guinea pig
â€œBy that point I’d got the name Go Cotswolds and was Facebooking and Tweeting to get to know the Stratford tourism industry,â€ he says. â€œI met someone who owns a B&B in Stratford and he introduced me to the people at Shakespeare’s England. They’ve been really enthusiastic and supportive.â€
He adds: â€œWhat I found is that people had tried to do this sort of tour before in Stratford, in various different ways.
â€œThe O-Licence application process puts so many people off, they don’t do it the proper way. They try to hire a coach and sell seats on it, and if it hasn’t sold enough seats, they cancel it.
â€œI handed out loads of leaflets to say I’d be operating and people were stand-offish, because if I let the customers down it reflects badly on them, and on Stratford. So it took a while to generate interest.â€
It made Tom determined to make it a success. â€œThen I thought ‘right, I need a minibus now’,â€ he says.
The minibus â€“ an ’07 Ford Transit â€“ was picked up from the graphics company at 0830hrs on 11 July 2014, and was ready to pick up its first customer an hour later. â€œThere was only one person on the first tour,â€ says Tom. â€œShe was my guinea pig. I explained to her that this was the first tour and she was very understanding. It was a fantastic day â€“ it went exactly how I wanted it to; the timings were perfect.â€
Exploring for themselves
â€œShe left a review on TripAdvisor which gave it kudos,â€ says Tom. A quick glance of Go Cotswolds’ history on TripAdvisor reveals that the tour is perfect almost every time, with many happy customers feeling that they’ve explored the Cotswolds.
â€œAs a traveller, I always liked to feel like I was discovering a place for myself, not being shown it,â€ he says. â€œMy philosophy is that the Cotswolds speak for themselves, and people want to experience them â€“ they don’t want to experience me.â€
Every passenger gets picked up in the minibus from their hotel. â€œI was travelling in Africa once, and as there were only 10 people on the tour we all got picked up. I just devise a route around town to fetch them, and give everyone a five-minute window â€“ it doesn’t cost me much extra in fuel, but it’s an extra incentive for them to go with us.â€
Once picked up, the tour comprises seven breathtaking stops through the Cotswolds, including places off the beaten tourist track, starting at Dover’s Hill. Tom doesn’t give a commentary while driving (though he’ll answer clients’ questions); he waits until the bus has stopped and everyone’s out, then gives them some of the history and trivia of the area, before giving them time to have a look around and in some places, time for lunch or tea.
Tom’s regular tour runs on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; he has designed it so he has plenty of time for weekly rest, and can still carry out the same tour for private customers and other private hires to top up his income. The firm is listed on Yell.com as Alcester Minibus Hire, so gets more work through that.
Tom’s wife Lisa, a freelance science writer and editor, acquired her PSV driving licence over Christmas 2014 so she can work as a relief driver when needed.
Working with others
Tom has worked hard to gain the Stratford tourism market’s trust. He has invited local B&B owners on the tour for free so that they can recommend it to their clients with confidence, and he never cancels tours because of low bookings â€“ the fuel cost is relatively low, and the average number of customers over the year evens out the income.
His marketing background has held him in good stead: His efforts with social media, the branding of the minibus (yes, the boy on the livery is based on Tom) and his work with other companies means he has seen success very quickly.
One company he works with is a local brewery, Purity Brewing, established in 2005. A friendly relationship with its owners has led to the set-up in June of Brewery Tours, on the first Saturday of every month, picking up from several railway stations in the area and encompassing a trip to the brewery plus two pubs, for lunch and ale tasting.
Because the brewery is in a rural location, it’s necessary to take people there if they’re going to enjoy a drink. â€œIt’s the perfect fit,â€ says Tom, â€œtwo local companies who know each other, working together to help each other out. I love being associated with that.â€
His relationships with others in the coach industry are strong too. He is truly thankful for Colin Rowe’s support in getting him set up, and giving him such a thorough understanding of the compliance requirements. His relationship with Chris Dudley thrives to this day; his maintenance is contracted out to Dudley’s Coaches, which treats his vehicle â€œlike one of their own.â€ Another big help to him have been Chris and Jen Horsey of The English Bus, who have a similar business model. â€œThey’re what I aspire to,â€ he says.
â€œThey’ve gone out of their way to help. There’s a family feeling in this industry that makes me proud to work in it. You can phone someone up and they’re always willing to help.
â€œI’ve worked in several different industries and it’s so refreshing, the pride people take in their work. It’s rubbed off on me too.
â€œI think the O-Licence application process, the paper trail, the compliance â€“ all of it means that you have to have to be thorough and you have to have a lot of pride in what you do.â€
The hard work involved, though, is all worth it. â€œAt my previous job I had everything â€“ the money, the company car, the laptop, the mobile â€“ but I didn’t have the job satisfaction,â€ he says. â€œThis is a lifestyle choice for me, not a get-rich-quick scheme.
â€œI hope to make it a good success in the long run, but it’s always about the passion first, and the rest second. I’m pleased it’s been so successful for its first year.â€