It has been another busy morning for Andy Phillips of Greenline Coaches. As a coach booking for a family of nine is wrapped up, he opines what he has learned since opening shop on June 15; that people are anxious to have a change of scenery
Greenline Coaches is one coach operator confident in the future popularity of the ‘staycation’, as it has come to be known. As restrictions ease and venues prepare to open from early July, opportunities have opened to Andy’s business which are giving him hope for the future of coach travel. In one day alone, he took 52 bookings for day trips and holidays – a strong sign of the prosperity that lies beyond lockdown.
Of course, the reality is that normal remains a long way off. Here are the basic facts.
Andy, who operates tours, opened shop according to government advice on June 15. Within the first week, he had sold out three tours, with capacity restrictions in place on each vehicle.
Andy is primarily taking new bookings with these tours; not credit notes or booking transfers. “The future at last is looking bright,” he says. “It has started to give me new motivation.”
But an interesting caveat comes with one of Andy’s most recent booking. It raises a question operators should be mindful of. The family of nine, while eager to enjoy a coach holiday, are anticipating a second peak in the virus – something every business must be prepared for. ‘But we want to make the most of this window,’ they had told Andy. How, then, should operators make the most of this time?
It must be acknowledged that Greenline has had its fair share of customers worried about the virus, but the majority of people ‘want something to look forward to’ regardless of their risk or vulnerability.
Before COVID-19, Greenline had had a ‘fantastic year’ according to its owner. The accountant rated the business in its top ten customers. A month later, business had stopped. Greenline has by no means seen a sudden explosion of profits with the new work. Social distancing enforcements severely limit the business’ ability to turn profits at all, and Andy says the number of passengers he is carrying means he is just about able to break even.
Why run coach holidays at all then, if not for profit? Much of Andy’s reasoning behind opening the businesses, and much of the appeal of his coach holidays, comes down to a holistic approach.
Andy says the business has always had a familial quality, both within its own staff and with its customer base. During the pandemic, daily contact was kept with the former via mobile messaging service WhatsApp. “Greenline’s emphasis has always been on teamwork,” Andy declares. Keeping in touch, making itself known within its customer base and the community is guiding it towards a strong return for when the dust has settled and the ‘new normal’ has been established.
One notable event was Greenline’s support for the Salvation Army food distribution hub at Cradley Heath. Furloughed drivers supported the distribution of food parcels one or twice a week to vulnerable communities. “That was a great cause for great people,” Andy says. “We thoroughly enjoyed it.”
That closeness with the community has seen the operator rewarded the moment its doors re-opened. Refunds have been few and far between, with some customers even preferring to donate the money to the preservation of the coach operator they have come to admire so much. “It would bring you to tears to see the support we have received,” Andy says. “Our customers have done all they can to assist the business and help it survive. It has brought everyone closer.”
All 11 of Greenline’s coaches are expected to return to the roads in July, a far cry from the apprehension he felt when he first opened the doors to the office on June 15.
High standards at Greenline
Of course, being close to the community is only possible if certain criteria are met. Andy says maintaining the highest standards of operation have proven to be more important than ever, and those who have shirked their responsibilities in the past are likely to face greater scrutiny with the heightened awareness of hygiene and safety,
“Once people have experienced high standards, they have the confidence that you will do the right thing no matter the circumstances,” he says. “I would say our customers have not hesitated in coming back to us, because they know we have always tried to do the right thing before, and will continue to do the right thing now.”
In terms of what Greenline is doing to protect its customers, it has installed air purifiers on all its vehicles, uses chemical fogging machines day and night, and intense cleaning of the vehicles through other means. Contactless thermometers will be used on every vehicle for both drivers and passengers, and face masks for those without their own will be stored and provided for a fee of £1, sent directly to NHS charities. Hand sanitisers are provided throughout.
Of course, other things will have changed. There will be no on-board couriers; boarding and alighting will be done with social distancing in place, and passengers will need to get comfortable with intense cleaning measures and other social distancing requirements. But Andy says his customers have not shown any concern for those changes. “People want to go out and have a change of scenery. We’re a long way off the old normal, but any kind of holiday is going to help people’s mental wellbeing.”
Looking to 2021
With the economic impact of 2020 firmly in the ‘catastrophic’ zone, Andy says it’s important to look to 2021 and survive the rest of the year as best operators can. “We’ve found that people who have missed their holidays this year have transferred directly to next year. We’ve retained 85-90% of those missed bookings,” he explains. With extra bookings requested alongside those transfers, it’s been quite the jigsaw puzzle for Andy to fit everything in.
Assuring us that he predicts 2021 to be a strong year, the industry’s focus then is to survive the rest of 2020 as best it can, making use of the ‘window’ granted by the easing of lockdown restrictions, if we are to assume the worst will happen later in the year with a second spike.
“To move forward, every coach company needs to survive and break even until things get better. It’s better to have things moving and try to cover your costs until things pick up – as I genuinely believe there will be a boom on the horizon. The staycation will be the norm next year, and coach companies need to grasp the opportunity,” Andy adds.
Greenline Coaches can be considered a success story out of the pandemic. It has set the groundwork for other surviving businesses to follow as best they can: Let your customers know that you are still there for them. Stay positive and continue to provide the best possible service. And patiently await that green light that will allow business to resume and open up a world of opportunity post-lockdown.