The coach industry continued to draw attention to the impact of coronavirus COVID-19 on its finances at a Honk for Hope gathering in North Yorkshire on 1 July.
Over 60 operators from across the Midlands, the North and Scotland brought 91 vehicles of all sizes to tourism hotspot Lightwater Valley, near Ripon. They were welcomed with open arms. As a leisure establishment, the theme park acknowledges the importance of coach tourism to its business.
The event was organised by Jenna Rush, Managing Director of Seaton Burn-based North East Coach Travel, and Matthew Forsyth, General Manager of Northumberland operator M J Forsyth Travel.
Honk for Hope in the UK moved from idea to reality in around a week. It was conceived to show the diverse nature and needs of the UK’s coach sector, something that arguably has not yet been understood by the government.
“This is a large industry and many operators specialise in areas where no support has been received,” says Ms Rush. “As an example, our business centres on private hire. We carry out no home-to-school transport and so have not benefited from any continuing contract payments.”
Some operators in England that are active in the day trip market are already seeing demand return. But for those that have not been part of that niche previously, joining it quickly is very difficult, she adds.
Leisure sector acceptance is a key objective of Honk for Hope
Central to hopes for support is a fundamental change to the current situation of how coach operators in England are not considered eligible for the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund (RHLGF). It is worth up to £25,000. While some of those present at Lightwater Valley have received money from it, many have seen applications refused by their local authority.
That is a continuing source of frustration. The Honk for Hope gathering demonstrated that the coach industry is without question part of the leisure sector.
As ample proof of that, Lightwater Valley welcomes 50,000 visitors per year that travel by coach.
For some operators, payment of RHLGF money as a minimum is imperative if major change to their businesses is to be avoided. More flexibility in the application of other grant funds is also hoped for.
One Managing Director of an operator based in the North East says it has lost £600,000 since the pandemic’s onset. As it does not pay business rates, the total support it has received thus far is £5,000. That has come from a discretionary grant fund.
Nevertheless, several of its vehicles supported Honk for Hope. Other operators also returned to use for the event coaches that have been subject to SORN declarations. That demonstrates the depth of feeling within the industry that it continues to be ignored.
Honk for Hope: A European campaign with momentum
Honk for Hope began in mainland Europe with coach operator protests. Concurrent with the event at Lightwater Valley were demonstrations by Polish operators in their homeland.
Activity elsewhere has focused on slow-moving convoys of coaches, but that has not been adopted in the UK for various reasons. Momentum has started to form for a further gathering in southern England to allow operators there to become involved.
The impact of finance and insurance payments while little to no income is being generated is the most serious threat to operators, says Ms Rush. Vehicle finance is a particular area where she would like to see the government explore potential assistance.
While North East Coach Travel does not undertake home-to-school transport, it does carry out school sports team trips. It remains in the dark whether they will be permitted at the outset of the new school year.
Because of that, the operator expects it to be Easter 2021 before its business fully returns to normal. The almost entire cessation of work has been particularly difficult to swallow given the promise that January and February showed; both months were very busy.
All is not in a name, says one operator
If the government fails to understand the contribution that coaches make to the leisure sector, then it also does not grasp the breadth of work that they carry out. That is the view of Jason Burn, Director of Copeland’s Tours. It was among three Stoke-on-Trent operators to support Honk for Hope.
“While the name of our business may be Copeland’s Tours, tours are only a portion of what we do,” he explains.
“We carry out private hire, holidays and as our bread and butter work, home-to-school transport.
“That mix is not unique to us. Many operators are active across the coaching sphere. It is important that awareness of our overall contribution is raised among the public and politicians.”
Copeland’s will shortly restart its day trip programme. To ensure customer safety it has invested heavily in equipment to ensure the cleanliness of coaches. That includes hand sanitiser dispensers for all vehicles, a ‘fogging’ machine and other items.
While bookings have already been received, Mr Burn points out that the time cost of taking them is higher than it was before. Whereas making a reservation previously was a simple process, it now can involve more discussion as customers seek reassurance of the safety measures put in place.
On the front foot with attractions
While Lightwater Valley has articulated its support for the coach industry, one firm in attendance at Honk for Hope has already begun to engage with other key attractions that it serves to help them to become confident in handling coach parties in the medium term.
Bibby’s of Ingleton Director Chris Bibby says the operator has offered to take a coach and around 20 members of its own staff to attractions on a ‘dry run’ basis.
Doing so will allow the other party’s employees to use Bibby’s people as ‘guinea pigs’ to formulate processes to permit coach parties to be accepted as soon as practicable. Several businesses have responded favourable to Bibby’s proposal.
That is one example of how some members of the coach industry can do their bit to get trade back as soon as is possible. But the overriding thought from many at the Honk for Hope event was that the sector needs further government help if it is to return to where it was before.