Trent Barton Mango: A fruitful enterprise

Trent Barton’s smartcard rivals Transport for London’s in its passenger convenience and behind-the-scenes complexity. But the model is based more on Tesco’s Clubcard than London’s Oyster. Tara Lepore visits to find out more.

The rise of smart ticketing over the last 10 years has recognised that passengers want a convenient choice of payment options. Many bus operators have tried smartcard technology – but there’s no operator in the country that quite matches the way Trent Barton does it.

Its smartcard, Mango, has been in place for seven years and offers much more than an easy way to pay a bus fare. Discounts on bus travel are complemented by discounts at restaurants and retail stores across ‘Trentbartonland’; the touch-on/touch-off smartcard is ‘capped’ to ensure a Mango user gets the best deal; and further discounts are available for students and young people, too.

There are 38,000 active Mango cards across the network, which ranges from Chesterfield to Leicester with a Nottingham hub.

Today, 30% of farepayers across the city have a Mango card, with almost 50% of regular Trent Barton users signed up.

Trip frequency of cardholders is higher than that of traditional cash payers, proving it as the “ultimate convenience” for passengers, according to Group Projects Manager Mark Greasley.


Idea from retail

The smartcard, introduced in 2008, offers customers maximum flexibility to travel around the region’s bus and tram network, with similarities to Oyster technology, launched on Transport for London (TfL) networks in 2003.

However, Trent Barton hasn’t solely introduced Mango to increase profitability – but to capture passengers’ data.

As well as offering discounted fares, the idea for Mango came from the company wanting to know who its 35 million passengers “really were.”

The idea came out of one of the company’s weekly ‘Thinktank’ meetings, discussing possible solutions to reward increased trip frequency for customers.

“There was definitely a desire to do something,” says Jeff Counsell, Trent Barton’s Managing Director. “We were missing a trick in engaging customers.”

The idea ultimately came from retail, not from the bus sector – it was modelled on the points-based loyalty cards offered through the likes of Tesco’s Clubcard and Sainsbury’s Nectar Card.

“If people have our smartcard in their purse, they are more likely to travel Trent Barton,” says Jeff.

“We wanted a reward card that was also an electronic purse, which we could use to engage with customers and reward trip frequency.”


Touch on, touch off

To begin with, customers were only able to top-up online – Mark admits that there was a belief that “Everybody has access to the internet and a debit/credit card.”

He adds: “TfL has a huge network of ticket vending machines – we realised that it would not suit everybody to run purely online.”

And while it recognised the shift to online ticketing, the company still wanted to offer face-to-face support to its customers, providing top-up facilities at its travel shop at Nottingham’s Broadmarsh bus station, and on five bus routes.

The comparisons with TfL’s Oyster keep coming.

Mark met with TfL in the early days of Mango to discuss the functionality of the touch-on/touch-off system – something that other operators weren’t offering during 2005-06, when the idea first came about.

“There were other smartcards available in the industry at the time, but we specifically wanted to discount single fares and enable a ‘cap’ on fares,” says Jeff.

“’Touching off’ at the end of the journey means that we can obtain maximum data from each individual passenger, including how often they travel, to where, and when.

“Many people at the beginning said that this element simply wouldn’t work.”


German engineering

Trent Barton’s specification was sent to ticketing suppliers, and it was German mobile telematics provider INIT that provided the system – a 2m investment for the operator. It had previously worked with the firm on real-time management and next-stop announcements.

INIT was already providing ticket machines for companies in Europe and the USA, but Trent Barton was one of its first UK clients.

In 2012, the management system was brought in-house, with real-time tracking, own data analysis and improved mobile data technology.

Mango’s web developer, Leicester-based Xibis, produces all interface designs for Mango, including an easily navigable mobile site. The in-house customer service team, based at the Heanor depot, handles new Mango applications and top-up queries, as the company values customer feedback, “especially when things go wrong.”

During 2012 Trent Barton also made changes to its communications system, introducing faster, more reliable technology from mobile network provider EE. The smartcard transaction time is 300 milliseconds, meaning there is no chance of hold-ups. Previously, the time taken for top-up to be transmitted to the passenger’s ‘electronic purse’ could only be guaranteed in a 24-hour period, as the company ran on a Wi-Fi connection based at its Heanor depot.


Auto top-ups

After the improvements, it now takes only two hours for funds to be transferred. There’s an option for passengers to go into a ‘one negative journey’ allowance, so if there is no money on the card it is paid next time the passenger tops up – something the company was offering “long before Oyster introduced it.

“The customer might have genuinely tried to top up and there’d been a problem in the back office, or maybe they just forgot. It seems unfair to penalise people,” says Jeff.

In response to this, Trent Barton introduced an ‘auto top-up’ feature in 2014, adding funds to the card from a direct debit account when balance falls below 5, for example, or another agreed amount. Again, this is another similarity that Mango shares with Oyster, although the minimum top-up required is half the amount of Oyster’s, offering more flexibility and affordability to customers.

“If your minimum balance is reached as you travel to work in the morning, Mango has already been updated with sufficient funds for your return.”


Discounted moments

When Mango began, to incentivise passengers to use it, it offered a 25% discount off the standard paper fare for passengers. The aim was to increase passengers’ trip frequency – on a basis of the more you use it, the more money you save.

“If it wasn’t encouraging passengers to increase trip frequency, all we’d be doing is reducing revenue,” says Jeff.

The discount was eventually reduced to 15%, and Trent Barton also introduced ‘caps’: meaning customers could never spend more than 5 a day if travelling after 0900hrs.

From last November, another reward was set in place for registered users – cashback. If the weekly cap is reached (30 for adult cardholders), 5 is credited back to the account.

To get more Mango cards into wallets, there has always been a specific focus on the ‘loyalty’ aspect of the card, as well as the capping ability. Mango Moments offers cardholders discounts at leading brands around Nottingham, including Wetherspoons, Frankie & Benny’s, Cineworld and Lacoste.

It costs the company very little to do, as Jeff says: “Retailers are keen to work with us. In terms of footfall, they reckon we’re promoting them.” It’s the job of Sales Manager Stuart Booth to liaise with retailers on becoming a Mango Moment brand, and it works well, as passengers only need to present their Mango card to qualify for the discounts.


Kangaroo card

Nottingham has been named “the least car-dependent city” by the Campaign for Better Transport, and Trent Barton faces strong competition on central city routes, particularly from Nottingham City Transport.

Mango has competition too. The city has a strong multi-operator ticket, Kangaroo, which has been in place since 2004.

A Kangaroo ticket ‘gives maximum flexibility’ and will get passengers around central Nottingham by bus, tram, or train, for a capped limit of 4.70 for the day – slightly cheaper than Mango’s fare, though on a smaller network.

Although currently “completely separate” products, Kangaroo will “eventually offer everyone the Mango fare.

“We want people to have the power to know they have the best deal,” adds Jeff.


Red, amber, green

For passengers, Mango is easy to use and it’s easy to keep track of funds, with a handy traffic-light system displayed at touch-on/touch-off points. Green means sufficient funds, amber signals when balance has fallen under 5, and red shows you’re into a negative balance. However, there is an option to buy a paper ticket on board, or go into the ‘one negative journey’ allowance.

The screen also displays the cost of the individual journey and the remaining balance.

For adult Mango users, there is an option to register your card online, protecting it if lost, stolen or damaged. Once registered, you can auto-top up and keep track of journey history, much like Oyster.

When it was first introduced all Mango users had to be registered, but this was dropped when the company realised not all passengers had access to the internet.

The range includes Adult, Student, 16-19 and ‘Micro’ for 5-15-year-olds. Fraudulent activity from some adults travelling on Student/16-19 cards has led to compulsory registration for the three ‘concessionary’ cards.

“One bloke was even getting away with a Micro card,” smiles Mark.

However, without email address information for adult card users, the firm felt it was missing an opportunity to communicate with customers.

“Although we get general destination data from the smart technology, it’s the individual’s journey information that is important to us,” says Jeff.

So registration is encouraged. The company has installed computers at its travel shop to encourage registration among passengers who might not have internet access at home.


Marketing opportunities

From this database, the company can send out offers, disruption reports, and even ‘birthday emails’ to registered card users.

“By knowing the behaviour of our passengers, we can increase trip frequency by offering them discounts and route suggestions,” says Jeff.

The company also produces a ‘What’s On’ guide, promoting bus travel to special events around ‘Trentbartonland’.

But Mark says there is “even more to be done in terms of marketing”, with more opportunities to look at the travel habits customers already have, and offer alternatives.

The company has already taken steps towards this, bringing in a data analyst to produce information based on the Alfreton leg of the Rainbow1 route.

“From this, we can see how far people are prepared to walk to the bus stop, among other things,” says Mark. “It’s a great tool we can use for future service planning.”


What’s next for Mango?

Since its beginning in 2008, the company has “tweaked Mango as it went along.”

A notable acquisition has been the licensing of Nottingham’s NET tram network in 2014 and the introduction of ‘transfer fares’ – offering more discounts on linking routes for passengers changing between services. The company has also devised ways to improve reporting on “the wealth of information” obtained from data analysis and customer emails.

Mango’s ‘back office’ systems aren’t simple, and the company places the “right level of support” as a high priority.

A 24-hour IT support network means all problems can be resolved quickly – providing security for the real-time system provided by EE.

Says Jeff: “What we did was cutting-edge stuff at the time, and is still pretty unique. We often find problems come from a lack of testing. We’re always wanting to do something more, something better. Frustrations come from having these ideas and wanting to push quickly.”

He adds: “This will soon be old technology. We’re looking into contactless payment and have constantly been dabbling in mobile ticketing. Something that’s come back to us is that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. Some things just don’t suit some people, which is why we’ll never go cashless.

“Mango is a complex product, but it does what the customer wants.”