‘Driver shortages are not the coach industry’s only problem’

Driver shortages are not the coach industry's only major challenge, says one operator

When the Editor called me to ask for this quarter’s musing, he suggested that I write something about driver shortages. But the coach and HGV industries are always crying out for more staff. The reasons for that have been told many times: Antisocial hours, poor working conditions, Driver CPC, an ageing workforce and a struggle to attract younger people.

It is a big problem. Today I discovered just how big when I realised how tightly I had scheduled the swimming baths and school run double-header. I’m not sure whether to be proud of that, or to get my head examined. The answer to that probably depends on who you ask.

Hotel challenges: Will they cloud an operator’s profitable work?

But in the post-Brexit and post-COVID-19 world, there are other equally serious problems facing the coach industry. Some are new. Others had merely gone into hibernation.

Hotels are among those. One of the most profitable parts of our business has been our holiday programme and customers travelling four or five times per year. We set the price, choose the hotel and to a large degree, control the risk attached and the profit that we make.

For the first time ever, I have had to refund customers due to a hotel’s poor quality. One that we have used successfully in the past. If you think that our industry is struggling for staff, the poor woman that owns the hotel in question literally did not know where to turn.

In the end, we negotiated a substantial discount on the price, but that is not the point. The work it generated for our staff was enormous. The worst part is that our punters are bang on. Fortunately, the vast majority understood, but the damage to our reputation could have been horrendous. This is not a one-off. A wholesaler that we use sent a letter to its customers telling them to be prepared for a massive reduction in hotel standards, and to suck it up!

‘COVID-19 has become a get out of jail card for poor service’

Then, parts. The global supply chain is creaking. Children vandalising seats on a school coach. COVID-19 has driven down standards across the board; it is like a get out of jail card to be used whenever someone drops the ball.

Despite all this, there seems to be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who have stuck things out. Not only has COVID-19 given people a ready-made excuse, it has also given our industry the chance to reset the way it operates and give serious thought to what works and what does not for our business model.

Revised approach to pricing of new work

We are dealing with a significant number of new enquiries. I am using this opportunity to change the parameters under which we work. Increased rates, penalties if they are late back and we can’t do a school journey, and cancellation charges. Things that my traditional – and loyal – school customer base would be horrified by.

I am more relaxed about quoting and not getting work than I was two years ago. If I am taking it on, it needs to pay better than before. If it really is antisocial or makes allocating work the next day difficult, then I won’t do it. I have learned to say no – something that, in the office, they still cannot quite believe.