Starting a coach company in the year of COVID-19

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Earlier this year, David Williams decided to fulfil his dream of owning a coaching company of his own. Bookings were looking strong throughout March and April; then came coronavirus COVID-19

Few, if any, operators can now say that the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has not affected them.

Some consolation has been offered, whether through the ability to furlough staff, receive some or all payment on contracted home-to-school work or by grants to keep services running.

That has not been the case for DNH Travel, whose timing it seems could not have been worse. Founder David Williams started up a brand-new business in 2020 and took delivery of his first coach in February. He barely operated it for a month before the pandemic outbreak stopped his business virtually dead in its tracks.

But David, miraculously, has maintained a positive attitude throughout the whole ordeal. Rather than succumb to the challenge of coronavirus COVID-19 and all the problems it has delivered, he is resiliently looking to the future, awaiting the day when he can resume work and count his rocky start as a distant memory.

Scania Irizar DNH Travel covid-19
Finding a location to park the coach was one of David’s biggest challenges until coronavirus COVID-19 came along

Going it alone

David spent 20 years in the industry before taking the plunge into ownership.

Starting with Mayne Coaches in the late 1990s, he worked his way through various administrative roles towards Traffic Manager. Not wanting to be behind a wheel, but enthused by the operational aspect, David cites longstanding interest in IT and administration as his reason for joining coach and bus– and though he didn’t see himself as a long-term player, he never left.

“Every day was different. My managers were very good. It is a good industry to get into,” he confirms.

But long days and a desire to see his own name on a vehicle encouraged David to go it alone. Taking a strong amount of experience in customer service, good connections with customers, friends and a string of recommendations through social media, he officially started his own company, DNH Travel, with the purchase of a 2011 Scania Irizar on 8 February. David describes it as a dream come true.

“It took me many years to save up,” he explains. “I have a mortgage and a family to think of and support. I had to take time to do Transport Manager refresher courses and spent over six months looking for a vehicle.”

Reflecting on the decision, David explains how it took a great deal of nerve to break free from the safety of a monthly wage: “I was very nervous,” he says. “It’s a daunting thing to get finance for a loan of over £50,000 then having to stand on your own two feet.

“But with the support network I have, and my knowledge of the industry, I was confident that I could do it.”

David purchased his coach, a 2011 Scania Irizar, at the beginning of February. It has been inactive since March

Then, as luck would have it, the pandemic hit the United Kingdom. Bookings collapsed. David’s coach has since been parked up since 16 March. Business was operational for a total of five weeks, and from the moment the schools began to close, David recognised the tough times had arrived.

“I gave my previous employer 12 months’ notice so we could both prepare for my leaving. If I’d known what was coming I might have retracted my offer and accepted a furlough,” David says.

From its last job on 16 March, DNH Travel had accrued £12,000 worth of sales in April. That is down to zero. £15,000 worth of sales in May are now at risk, alongside £7,000 in June. The business’ open dates throughout March and April have also been robbed of any potential sales. “I hit a landmark figure several weeks ago,” David adds. “Now I have lost £17,000 in actual sales.

“All I am doing at the moment is picking up the phone and responding to emails from customers who are cancelling work.”

David acknowledges these figures may seem like just a drop in the ocean for an industry devastated by cancellations and bookings, and that staying positive is a thankless task. But he is convinced the latter is essential to get through, and that not all is bad if looking in the right places.

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” he acknowledges. “Every operator is in the same situation and we’ll come back fighting harder.”

“Everybody within the industry that I have spoken to has offered the support that I’ve needed. It goes to show how important it is to get along with others in the industry – you never know when you’re going to need them.”

DNH Travel’s 2021 forecast is already looking strong. Much of the work has been rescheduled rather than cancelled outright. “I had a lot of weddings, hen and stag parties booked,” David says. “And they are still going to happen – they’re being rebooked for next year. Pre-booking is still not really possible, but I’m hoping by the end of May things start moving again.

“But even that is likely to be hard, as social distancing may still be in force, requiring larger vehicles to carry fewer passengers.

“But as long as coronavirus COVID-19 doesn’t come back to haunt us again, 2021 should be a very good year for the operators still out there.”

David Williams Swans Travel DNH Travel COVID-19
David relies on good relations to survive: “With the support network I have, and my knowledge of the industry, I was confident that I could do it.”

Finding support during COVID-19

The following months are going to be an uphill battle, even with a full diary for 2021. The short lifespan of DNH Travel means David’s situation has left him predictably vulnerable. A shortage of year-on-year tax returns means he has no current prospects of government support.

This David has accepted, although the industry has risen to support him. This has included a three month payment holiday from his finance company and a one month payment holiday from his insurer.

Reducing his insurance premium has been particularly important. David’s software provider, Distinctive Systems, has also been understanding and has worked closely to support DNH Travel throughout the difficult period.

“Everybody within the industry that I have spoken to has offered the support that I’ve needed. It goes to show how important it is to get along with others in the industry – you never know when you’re going to need them.”

Years of good customer relations and industry knowledge were a boon when starting out and have proven an essential safety net. David also reflects on the hidden blessing of ignoring pressure to buy a Euro VI vehicle when he made the initial investment, particularly as emission control zones are now being delayed.

“I nearly bought myself a Euro VI vehicle but I knew Manchester had another 12 months before implementation of a Clean Air Zone,” he explains. “I came close to buying a 15 plate Scania for £100,000. God knows where I’d be now if I had done that.”

“I know operators who have bought brand new vehicles in anticipation of emission control zones.  They’re now parked up. The operators might have waited another 12 months before buying them if they were to know that this situation was around the corner”

Just as coronavirus has been predicted to shake up the social landscape across the UK, David believes it may have an impact on how operators look at regulatory and industry changes – in particular, some operators may be warier about pressure to upgrade or invest.

“I think it will change people’s views about investing heavily into vehicles,” he says. “I know operators who have bought brand new vehicles in anticipation of emission control zones.  They’re now parked up. The operators might have waited another 12 months before buying them if they were to know that this situation was around the corner.”

Though having said that, a retrofit is still on the cards for David’s Scania – seemingly the most sensible solution out of compliance. “That’s going to cost me £20,000,” he says. “But a Euro VI coach would have been £30,000 or £40,000 more when I first bought a vehicle.

“Next year I will need it, but I look back now and think… if there was one good decision I made, that was it.”

Saving money for a rainy day was another safeguard David did not take for granted, and even though his situation was particularly fragile, encourages all operators to do the same. It could happen to anyone, at any time.

“You have to make provisions,” he adds. “You can’t just set up a company and expect everything to run smoothly. But for something of such nature to arise is scary. I didn’t expect it to happen five weeks into my new business.”

DNH Travel covid-19
The last job for DNH Travel was a school trip on 16 March to the Chill Factore indoor ski slope in Manchester

No regrets

Despite the sudden setback, and a touch of gallows humour around his leaving the safety of a furlough, David says he does not regret taking the step to start his own business. “It’s been my dream. For this to happen, yes, it’s been devastating. But if it only lasts two months I should be okay.”

The dream, says David, was to have a fleet of four or five vehicles in differing sizes. He hopes eventually that the middle ground of a three-month lockdown period will mean the end of 2020 can be positive, and perhaps his dream will happen.

“On the other hand,” he adds, “If it lasts for four months or more, there might not be a DNH travel at the end.”

To get through this, he stresses, operators need to look for support from the wider industry. Co-operation is essential where possible.

Above all, it’s essential that we remain positive.

DNH Travel
“It’s been my dream. For this to happen, yes, it’s been devastating. But if it only lasts two months I should be okay.”