Clarkes Travel – keeping friends close and connecting communities

Flexibility as a sole trader and great relationships with fellow Birmingham operators has helped Clarkes Travel stay in a strong position for a return to normalcy in 2020. In the meantime, it has been performing vital charity work for the South Birmingham community

Every struggling operator will remember the pivotal moment in 2020 when the day the effects of coronavirus COVID-19 were realised.

For Clarkes Travel of Birmingham the day of the first major cancellation was Friday 13 March, and there could not have been a more grimly appropriate date on the calendar for the operator’s luck to turn.

Clarkes Travel and The Big Bang

The start of the cancellations for owner James Clarke was the cancellation of The Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair, scheduled to take place in the Birmingham NEC on 11-14 March.

One week later, the announcement was made that schools were to close. With no contract work and local authority payments to fall back on, work soon fell through as a steady supply of educational work, general private hire and day trips dried up over the Easter period. “We had a stack of day trips organised to Weston-super-Mare, Barmouth, Blackpool and Barry Island, all of which we have had to cancel, along with a stag weekend organised in Bognor Regis,” James reveals. “Every operator I spoke to was saying the same thing at the time. Some had lost quite a bit of work when the Big Bang Fair was cancelled.”

Clarkes Travel
James estimates to have lost around £25,000 worth of bookings since 13 March

Since that Friday James estimates to have lost a total of £25,000 worth of work. A silver lining is that some bookings remain on credit, as opposed to converting to refunds, and work for some King Edward’s Foundation schools gives enough confidence that there will be work when they re-open.

Also limiting the loss is the fact Clarkes Travel did not progress with any day trip bookings beyond the initial deadline for the Birmingham Clean Air Zone implementation. That has saved it from the risk of further cancellations or refunds later in the year, while also offering more time and potentially a wider Euro VI parc to choose from when upgrading to a cleaner vehicle, as the date for its implementation has been extended at least until the end of the year.

“I try not to book too far in advance with work,” he says. “Some operators do like to get work in for the whole year but I think my approach is helping me now.”

James currently operates an Iveco minibus and a 2006 Setra 416, the latter of which he has found no support or funding for retrofit. The bridge to Euro VI is a slow one; as James says, he is not one to ‘panic buy’ and that ability to hold off has potentially seen him save money on a newer vehicle should an over-saturated Euro VI market appear.

Going it alone, always supported

Being a sole trader and doing most of the driving work by himself has given James flexibility in responding to the sudden change in circumstances.

Savings are allowing the business to ‘weather the storm’ as James puts it, though being self-employed means he is unable to access much of the help offered to other operators such as the government furlough scheme. Like many others he is waiting for HMRC to contact him if any support is available.

The two major bills are familiar ones. There is insurance to think about, and payments remain on the coach. As far as the latter is concerned, James says his finance company has offered to be flexible. “It said that it could reduce the current payments rather than offer a holiday,” he explains, “but I would rather continue to pay at the standard rate while ever I am able to.” James could have placed the coach on a statutory off-road notice, but it has not been a priority.

Clarkes Travel
Finance payments remain on James’ coach – and he chooses to pay as normal as long as he is able to

That kind of flexibility was what attracted James to starting a coach company. But going alone, and with the going getting tough, it also means he has to keep looking for the silver linings. “You’ve got to stay optimistic, because if you don’t you’ll end up digging a grave for yourself,” he says. “I’m pretty confident that we’re going to weather this as best we can, but we have backup should we need it.”

The backup he refers to is a small government backed loan – and incredible support from fellow operators, the rewards of which have become all too apparent in the last five weeks.

James bought his first vehicle from nearby Nash Coaches around two years ago, a Setra 250 Special; while another Birmingham operator – Kingston Coaches – offered him a place to park his vehicle at the time.

James says he is indebted to both operators and their owners. “They are amazing companies in the help and support they have given me, not just in the last two years but in my entire career within the industry,” James says. “And now I’m reaping the rewards because they are working with me closely.”

Both have aided James with recent charitable efforts in supplying food to vulnerable people in the community – Nash Coaches has supplied a full tank of fuel for James’ minibus and Kings Norton supplied a Ford Transit van. “That speaks volumes about the good relationship we have with them, and how important it is to have good relationships in times like these,” he says.

James now helps South Birmingham Community Food Hub to collect food donations which is distributed to the city. The hub, based at Longbridge Methodist Church, has five volunteers and is backed by charities Food Cycle and the Community Emergency Response Team.

Clarkes Travel Minibus
James helps South Birmingham Community Food Hub with collections using his minibus

“They wanted carrier bags so I took a box of them down and it was at that point I wanted to do something for the community, I wanted to help people who couldn’t help themselves. I was in a position to do so, so I did it.”

Donations come from suppliers including supermarket chains, a produce distributor and even a number of pubs across Birmingham.

It has also led to James doing Facebook Live chats with others, as a means of maintaining some connection during social distancing measures. “I will continue doing it when we come out of the lockdown,” James explains, saying it may help his business in future. “My confidence has gone through the roof and it will mean people know who they’re dealing with. A lot of people on our Facebook page have shared positive messages.”

Clarkes Travel deliveries
Donations have come from supermarkets, produce distributors and Birmingham pubs

James has since started a Gofundme page with the support of Nash Coaches, Kings Norton Coaches and Greenline Coaches to take NHS and key workers on a day trip to Weston-super-Mare as soon as they are able to. Donations are greatly appreciated.

Returning to normal

There is a long road before normality returns, James believes, and conversations with other operators suggest there are conflicting ideas on the best approach for businesses to restart operations.

“The issue that we are going to have is social distancing,” James says. “Even when we get the go-ahead to come out of the lockdown and people go back to normal, there may be restrictions in place and we could be operating half-empty coaches. Day trips may have to be charged double what they are normally – and I don’t think this will work.”

Certainly, the lack of support for the coach industry relative to bus offers a much greater risk when it comes to restarting. James’ mindset takes him to offering cheaper day trips to encourage travel when things begin to return to normal.

However, he has been criticised for such a notion. He believes he is in a strong position to make that proposal as a sole trader, with fewer overheads to worry about.

Whatever happens, so long as the perception of public transport and travel eases back to normal, he is confident that there will be work available to him and others. It is dependent on how soon Britain emerges from the restrictive measures of the pandemic.

Clarkes Travel family
James Clarke with his family – (l to r) Jess Clarke, Sarah Clarke, James Clarke and Sophie Clarke