It’s a tough and ever-changing world for coach tourism operators.
Whether they be occasional theatre trips and day excursions or full continental package holidays, coach tours throw up similar challenges.
But happily, 2019 was overall a positive year for the five coach tour operators we asked. And as the political landscape hopefully settles down a bit, 2020 looks set to be a good year, too.
Coach tourism: The best of 2019
For Llandudno-based Alpine Travel, 2019 finally saw the fruits of its hard work over several years as it has rebranded and brought Jones Holidays into its business. Both customer numbers and profitability are well up.
The brand overhaul in particular has been a big success for the firm this year. Chris Owens, MD, says: “I believe that this rebrand has led to an increase in enquiries from all sectors, such as local group organisers which we hadn’t dealt with before, through to British as well as international group travel specialists.
“Having driven the enquiries, we have also invested in our people to ensure that we now quote faster, more intelligently and far more accurately, using seasonal costing models that we built into CoachManager.”
Use of technology pays dividends in 2019
Whites St Albans also had a positive 2019. MD Greg White says: “Something we invested in last year has been the upgrading of our website. We think the fleet page on our website now stands out, and illustrates clearly the quality of our vehicles. Clients can now see a ‘dolls’ house’ view, a seating plan, and take a virtual tour of each vehicle.”
BusyBus, the minicoach specialist based in Chester, is another operator to have had a great year in 2019.
MD Peter Rosenfeld says: “We saw 15% growth, with a strong order book into 2020. We took the decision to allocate dedicated budgets to digital marketing and channel management – ROI is slow but traceable and sustainable. We have recruited a dedicated manager of this investment, as well as a third-party agency.”
What challenges lie ahead for coach tourism in 2020?
While domestic coach tourism thrives for Johnsons Coaches of Henley-in-Arden, continental tours have struggled a little, says Barry Cobb, Tours Manager.
“We have experienced some success by regularly freshening up our programme,” explains Barry. “We still have some success with destinations such as Italy, Austria and Switzerland, and it is also noticeable that five- and six-day durations where destinations can be reached without the need for overnight travel seem to be gaining in popularity.”
However, “any European destinations that previously involved two or more overnights appear to be heavily in decline. Any such ‘further afield’ destinations that we look to feature are invariably now classed as an ‘air tour’, ensuring long distance, expensive road travel across Europe is avoided.”
UK tours continue to prove popular, says Harry Shaw
Robert Shaw, Director of Harry Shaw, agrees that UK tours were very popular in 2019. He says: “It seems customers are looking for something different and do not want to spend their whole time on a coach. Boat trips, guided walks and railways are all popular inclusions.
“European coach tourism is not so popular currently – the value offered by the huge variety of cruises on offer with regional departures has affected the market, in our opinion.”
For Alpine Travel, the biggest challenge of the year came from a certain client.
Chris Owens says: “As with every other coach operator I am sure, we receive emails from tour companies looking for coaches. We negotiated rates and agreed to undertake a couple of extended tours during August, a traditionally quiet time of year for Alpine.
“Despite the revenues being acceptable and the tours going well, we were unable to convert the client for future bookings at agreeable rates – so in other words it was uninterested in the quality of the service; purely the pounds, shillings and pence.
“And then to top it all, our August invoices were not settled until the end of November.”
Emerging coach tourism trends will govern the future
Brexit continues to have an effect – but not necessarily a negative one.
Peter Rosenfeld of BusyBus says: “The UK has just undergone the largest PR campaign since the Second World War. Every country on the planet has been talking about us and watching us.
“That, in conjunction with the weakened pound, has placed the UK well and truly on the inbound visitor agenda. Our growth in 2019 and our 2020 order book gives testimony to this, and I can only see it going one way over the next decade.”
Chris Owens at Alpine Travel has noticed a greater divergence between quality and budget brands.
He says: “The race to the bottom by the budget brand providers will never be sustainable. You cannot always be the cheapest; the new kid on the block with no overheads or perception of how much it costs to run a business will always be cheaper than you.
“Our own Jones Holidays product is seeing consistent growth with customers happy to pay a premium price for a premium product, providing that we are achieving or exceeding their expectations.”
Luxury is a growing market segment
Barry Cobb at Johnsons of Henley-in-Arden has noticed a similar trend, as the two main themes in the brochure that are seeing major growth are Luxury Traveller and Relaxed Traveller tours.
He says: “Luxury Traveller focuses on four-star hotels, designed for those who literally prefer the finer things in life. These breaks all include our usual benefits, but also feature a welcome drinks reception, cream tea and complimentary gift bag.
“In 2020 our confidence in this sector will be enhanced with the introduction of our brand new Luxury Traveller coaches, so that all tours will now feature 43 ‘First Class’ seats with even more legroom, an extra high deck for even better sightseeing, and two large TV screens where passengers can follow the route as they go along and ‘see’ our couriers when they use the mic.”
Johnsons has also considered the ageing population with its Relaxed Traveller tours. “Though not specifically aimed at those with reduced mobility, the itineraries are certainly gentler and involve less walking. Lunches are included on the outward and return journeys.”
Finally, the cruising trend has continued to grow, says Barry: “In 2020 we are actually featuring 15 dedicated cruises with our long-standing friends at Fred Olsen Cruise Lines. We can only see this market sector increasing.”
Coach tourism’s wishes for the New Year
Asked for their wishes for 2020, our tour operators were united in their desire for political certainty.
“I think my wish has come true,” says Chris Owens of Alpine. “I was hoping that the December election would result in a majority government and my wish was granted. That is not so much a political statement, but rather a desire for political stability to allow the British economy to recover.
“That will allow the pound-dollar exchange rate to stabilise. As a result, the costs of components, fuel and vehicles which are all imported will settle to more realistic levels.”
Similarly, Robert Shaw says: “Our wishes for the Business Genie would be for all the Brexit uncertainty to be lifted finally and for the pound to gain strength against the Euro.”
And Barry Cobb says: “For continental travel, we would love to see the smooth transition of Brexit so that customers experience easy border access and a stabilising of exchange rates.”
Greater understanding of older customers
On another note, he adds: “Within the UK, given that the market will continue to appeal to an ageing customer profile, we look for a greater understanding from hoteliers as to what this new generation of coach travellers’ expectations will be – i.e. higher quality expectations all round, in terms of bedroom facilities and mobility access, including walk-in showers, single bedded occupancy and flexibility of meals. Basically, treating customers more as individuals rather than ‘a group’.”
Greg White has a wish common to all operators, whether they run tours or not: “The age-old issue; I would like to be busier in the off-peak part of the year. January is extremely quiet for us.
“However, we have established a good relationship with Coachhire.com, and we now operate two contracts for it. It has a massive volume of work which is what its business is based on. I have no issue working for a broker that is trying to drive prices and quality up.”
Peter Rosenfeld’s wish will also resonate with the wider industry: “My 2020 wish would be for more D and D1 qualified driver guides to enter the industry and fill the ever-decreasing labour pool to satisfy these emerging jobs of the future.
“We need to ‘sex up’ the coach tourism industry and raise the bar in creating pride and value in the job.”