Few operators will have missed that hashtag as it spread across social media last week. Unlike much that appears on those platforms, its message is no exaggeration. The industry is knee-deep in a crisis that has been brought on by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
But those same operators will not lie down and give up without a fight. That is clear from the buy-in that the hashtag rapidly gained. #coachcrisis is the work of Helen Mayne, daughter of Maynes of Buckie Managing Director Kevin Mayne. It is a simple idea with a simple message.
Ms Mayne coined it while studying. She created some artwork that was shared with fellow operators the length and breadth of the country. They then used it as part of vital and ongoing work to ensure that the industry is heard and that its needs are met during these testing times.
Maynes’ diary has been hit hard. Mr Mayne continues to work with other operators in Scotland, and the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Scotland, to put the industry’s case for support across. It has already helped to deliver some success. But the scale of the problem is clear.
“I am involved with an informal online group of coach operators. When the extent of the issue became apparent, I quickly saw that everyone else was in the same boat as us,” he says.
“One family-owned business saw £140,000-worth of work cancelled in one weekend. As of last Thursday (19 March), another had lost £340,000-worth in three weeks. These are operators that have been in business for 100 years, yet the whole situation is out of their hands.”
For Maynes, and many other Scottish operators, the primary hit is to tourism. General private hire has also been decimated. One of the key elements of the #coachcrisis campaign is to communicate how reliant on coaches the wider tourism sector is.
“As an industry, we take people to London, Edinburgh, the Highland whiskey distilleries and everywhere in between,” says Mr Mayne.
“In Scotland we are heavily reliant on incoming visitors. As an example, last Friday (20 March), we would have had 10 coaches carrying cruise ship passengers from Invergordon. Instead, they were parked doing nothing.”
That the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has come in March is the worst possible timing. Preparations should be well underway for the coach industry’s busiest period. That is the time when many operators earn the money that sustains them through the lean winter.
Maynes saw a strong January and February, and mild weather had helped holiday sales. It was expecting to see 2019’s turnover of £3.5m rise to £4m this year. That momentum has now been lost.
What, if anything, can be done to make the best of such a dreadful situation?
The industry has already seen fine support from many of its suppliers. That will no doubt continue over the coming weeks and months.
Mr Mayne notes that it is important for affected operators to engage with suppliers. Where his business has done so, the response has been universally positive, although some operators have reported that it has not been as easy for them. In those cases, go back and ask again is his advice.
Support for Maynes has extended from its office telephone supplier to vehicle finance houses. In the latter case, “everyone I have spoken to is willing to help,” says Mr Mayne.
Maynes is not the only operator that has found finance providers willing to give a six-month ‘holiday’ on repayments. Others have received shorter duration offers on the same basis.
One operator in the Midlands has also been offered a six-month ‘holiday’. It notes that a sound business plan is vital to secure that support, but it adds that such is the depth of the situation, finance companies are mindful of the likely difficulties of rehoming repossessed coaches.
Ensuring that the difference between a coach operator and a bus operator is understood by those in positions of power is another important job that the wider coach sector can assist with, Mr Mayne continues.
To further help with that, engagement with CPT is key. He pays tribute to the efforts of CPT Scotland Director Paul White and General Manager Jeremy Tinsley. Both men worked well into the evening on more than one day last week.
“It is incumbent on CPT to step up and help us as an industry. This is our hour of need. In Scotland, CPT has done that.”
In what remains a fast-moving crisis, Maynes – like all coach and bus operators – welcomed the government’s announcement that it will pay up to 80% of furloughed staff’s wages for a maximum of three months (see News, pxx). The cap on that captures most coach drivers’ earnings.
However, that will not be enough to see off the coronavirus COVID-19-induced crisis. Grants to cover a loss of turnover are imperative, says Mr Mayne. Loans are not the answer.
“Taking loans would be suicidal,” he explains. That’s because – as with finance on vehicles once the ‘holiday’ periods offered by some suppliers expire – they may be due for repayment when potentially little money has been earned in the meantime.
“I welcome a lot of what has been announced, but I stress that without direct grants to cover loss of turnover, companies will fail. Grants would help us to cover the costs incurred while vehicles are not in use and to ensure that we are here next year.”
Community engagement is another area where groundswell can be gained. Smaller operators often find themselves appreciated as part of their local social fabric, particularly those based outside large cities. On Scotland’s north-east coast, Maynes has seen great support.
“We have received numerous well-wishers at our depot since the #coachcrisis campaign broke, down to people out walking their dogs. That is fantastic. But with the greatest of respect to them, they are not people who make decisions. It is those that we need to be engaging with.”
Mr Mayne points out that local support works both ways. His is one of many operators that are undertaking community duties free of charge. That includes transporting otherwise stranded older people to shops and delivering groceries to those unable to leave their homes.
The approach to the crisis being taken by the already-mentioned Midlands operator differs from that of Maynes Coaches. It is a lot smaller than Maynes. Except for a local bus contract and some home-to-school work, its Managing Director plans to mothball the business.
A strong balance sheet, coupled with the offer of a six-month ‘holiday’ from payments by its leasing company, allows that. School contracts will continue to run to serve key workers’ children.
“One of the local authorities that we work for is taking a pragmatic approach. It realises that if operators are no longer paid for contracts, some of them will likely cease trading. That would leave it in a difficult situation when schools restart.”
Like Maynes, the Midlands operator saw an excellent start to 2020. Strong forward holiday bookings added to that. While its MD is “absolutely confident” that it will survive the pandemic, he accepts that things will change for good in the wider sector.
“I can’t guarantee that we will have the same fleet when it is over. I also look at the industry. When I took this business on, I worked hard to build it into what it is now. Do I have the heart to do the same thing again? I don’t know.” That others might feel the same is likely.
“I thought I had seen everything in the industry and that I could handle it all. That was until coronavirus COVID-19 came along. We now have no work other than our school and local bus contracts.”
Mr Mayne concludes by saying that while the help offered thus far to the coach industry is very welcome, more is needed. Payment for home-to-school contracts must be maintained. But grants are the most important thing, he says.
“Coronavirus COVID-19 is undoubtedly the most serious challenge that we have seen. Without government support, it poses a clear threat to the future of many operators.”
More will be announced that affects the sector over coming weeks. What form most of that takes will be out of its direct control. But through the #coachcrisis campaign and advocates such as Kevin Mayne, operators can – and must – continue to ensure that their voice is heard.
That coach operators would sit back without ensuring that their thoughts, pleas and suggestions about how the impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 can be mitigated was never likely. That’s how #coachcrisis was born.
Kevin Mayne points out that the #coachcrisis campaign goes beyond any one operator. It is incumbent on the whole industry – the coaching family – to ensure that its voice is heard.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the pandemic is that it came when some operators were looking forward to a record 2020. Both of those that contributed to this article say that they saw a strong start to the year. That was in vain.
While engaging with politicians is important, having conversations with suppliers is an equally vital part of what will be a drawn-out healing process. They are willing to help, and that should not be forgotten – now or in the future.
It is a difficult time. But by pulling together the coach industry stands the best chance of getting through it