The groundswell of feeling among coach operators that their ongoing plight is being ignored by the government was evident in Blackpool on Tuesday 14 July with the second Honk for Hope gathering in the UK, concurrent with a smaller demonstration in West Wales.
In Blackpool, over 190 vehicles, from minicoaches to double-deckers, descended on the tourism-dependent town. They demonstrated still further how intrinsic a part of the leisure sector the coach industry is. Many Fylde business owners also showed their support.
Organisers Sam Archer of local operator Archway Travel, Matthew Forsyth of MJ Forsyth Travel and Jenna Rush of North East Coach Travel successfully pulled together a road run ahead of the gathering. It saw all the coaches involved rendezvous outside Blackpool. They then proceed via the full length of the promenade before congregating at Yeadon Way car park.
Blackpool Council assisted with the smooth running of the event, illustrating that it understands the importance of coach tourism to the town’s economy. Operators from England, Scotland and Wales were represented.
Honk for Hope Blackpool underlines coach industry’s diversity
Honk for Hope again underlined the financial difficulties faced by the whole industry, and particularly its members that are not active in the home-to-school market.
It is likely that more dedicated vehicles will be required when schools return to mitigate reduced capacities on local bus services. However, Ms Rush – who with Mr Forsyth jointly organised the first Honk for Hope event in the UK, held at Lightwater Valley in North Yorkshire on 1 July – points out that such growth will be of little use to some operators.
Those that are not already part of local authority (LA) supplier frameworks may find it difficult to join them in the time between now and the new academic year, she says.
Additionally, for those operators to carry out home-to-school contracts, it is likely that some of their drivers would need to be vetted. With a reduced resource in place to carry out those checks, one LA has already told North East Coach Travel that it is unlikely that the process would be completed for all its drivers by September.
Some segments face a prolonged recovery period
Some other operators have reported a slow but generally positive start to reintroduced day trip programmes. Those that are not in that segment are less fortunate. Private hire bookings are almost non-existent, some say, and another key area of business for many coach companies – the transport of football supporters – is also absent.
“Every Newcastle United FC away game is a big event for us. We have lost all of that work, and there is no sign of it coming back,” adds Ms Rush
Nevertheless, the Honk for Hope movement has painted the coach industry in a positive light. The earlier Lightwater Valley gathering generated coverage in both the mainstream media and on social channels.
In an indication of the reliance among suppliers on a successful and fully functioning coach industry, advice has been given to the organisers by Backhouse Jones. The transport legal specialist was one of a modest number of suppliers represented at the Blackpool gathering.
“Some people thought Honk for Hope would fail. It was put down by some individuals from the start, but how the industry has come together in such a short period of time is excellent,” adds Ms Rush.
“What we are trying to convey is just how bad the situation is for some operators. In some cases, people’s houses are on the line where personal guarantees have been given for vehicle finance arrangements.”
A grim story told in figures by Tyrers Coaches
Among many Lancashire operators supporting the event in their home county was Tyrers Coaches of Adlington. While parked, its VDL Futura FHD2 carried a simple message illustrating the havoc wreaked on coach tourism by the pandemic.
In June and July 2019, Tyrers took 14,552 people to Blackpool. That equates to over 270 coach loads of customers who will all have contributed to the local economy. In the same months this year, Tyrers took no passengers at all to the resort.
The support of businesses in Fylde and other bodies in the town was welcomed by those attending the gathering. They, too, are facing crises of their own. They are among the many companies and organisations that will rely on the coach industry as part of their own recoveries from the pandemic.
Honk for Hope in Blackpool was held one day before the Confederation of Passenger Transport met Transport Minister Baroness Vere and representatives of other government departments to further underline the coach sector’s case for support.
It must be hoped that by then, politicians have finally recognised two things: One, the extent of the coach industry’s troubles, and two, how many parts of UK PLC need it to be fit and healthy in the future – whether they know it or not.