Coach tourism: on course for a boom in 2021? – Route One News

Full story – https://www.route-one.net/features/coach-tourism-on-course-for-a-boom-in-2021/

2020 was looking like an optimistic year for coach tourism across the UK. Has talk of a vaccine and post-lockdown tourism boom revived that hope for 2021?
2019 was a strong year for coach tourism, with 2020 looking even more positive before the pandemic.

Now that a coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine has been announced and tourist hotspots across the UK are ramping up for a busy 2021, is it time for the coach industry to prepare for an influx?

Positive outlook for coach tourism

In Buckie on the Moray Firth, Maynes Coaches is keeping a positive outlook, and the vaccine is welcome news. The incoming UK market is strong – in late summer the operator managed to take 25 incoming UK tour groups in addition to its day trips and private hire work.

But Director Kevin Mayne says that the success of 2021 may depend heavily on confidence in the vaccine and of its application.

“There might be a lot of people worried about who has had it, and who hasn’t,” Kevin suggests. “In a scenario such as on a coach holiday, would passengers be agitated about this uncertainty? Would there be mandatory tests before boarding, or would passengers be required to present on boarding having had a test?”

The message of safe travel will play a strong part while ever talks of a vaccine are ongoing. Kevin’s conversations with the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Department for Transport have revealed that coach is one of the safest forms of travel, and it is incumbent upon the industry to push that message further to renew confidence.

“The fear factor won’t go away,” Kevin warns. “We need to use confidence as the key to get people back on board and travelling. Coach companies have a great core of customers and we need to use them to sell ourselves and continue to grow our reputation in 2021.”

When it comes to 2021, Maynes has already moved much of its 2020 bookings forward by 12 months, and the incoming market continues to look positive. The Scottish Highlands sells itself, after all, and Scotland has one of the cleanest coach fleets in the UK. 92% of Maynes’ fleet is Euro VI, with ongoing discussions to capture PSVAR-compliant stock to cover rail replacement.

But owning a clean and accessible fleet might be some operators’ downfall, as Kevin warns. More than half of the Scottish coach fleet is under finance and is at risk while ever vehicles remain stationary. “If the Scottish, and equally the UK coach industry, fails to get support, it will not be operators with old fleets that disappear. It will be the ones with new fleets,” Kevin says. “If newer fleets vanish because operators can no longer pay for them, older vehicles will flood the market and undo the steps that we have made over the last 15 years to build an environmentally conscious travel solution.”

Trimmed back but confident

Suffolk-based Galloway Travel had enjoyed a record-breaking 105 tours in 2019 following a year-on-year increase and had looked forward to similar success in 2020. Of 166 tours booked, only nine would end up running.

Head of Operations Chloe Bailey reveals how the business has completely changed shape since the pandemic began. It isn’t likely to go back to the old ways any time soon, and while a coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine is welcome news, she says the industry needs to be balanced in its reaction.

“I take everything with a pinch of salt until something is set in stone,” she says. “Wait and see until it’s rolled out to understand how it will affect everything. There is certainly some positivity there, and because our day trips and breaks are predominantly marketed to older passengers, they are eager to see if this gives them the ability to get out and travel.”

Chloe reveals that prior to releasing its 2021 tour brochure, Galloway engaged with customers, surveying potential demands for future travel.

In particular, it was keen to learn what would put passengers off travel to help shape what it could do to mitigate fears. In addition to following all COVID-secure guidelines, precautions have seen the operator pare back its brochure, removing the majority of continental tours in favour of a UK-based itinerary. “It’s easier to manage, and we have a better understanding of what might be happening,” Chloe says. The result is a strong start to bookings for 2021, with Galloway outselling its first week of bookings for 2021 threefold over 2020.

Light in the tunnel

In Rhondda Cynon Taf (RCT) county in South Wales, High Sheriff of Mid Glamorgan and Managing Director of Edwards Coaches, Jason Edwards, takes a positive outlook for coach tourism, describing the vaccine as “a weight off everybody’s shoulders”.

Edwards was another operator in a healthy position in 2019 which lost 50% of its revenue when the pandemic hit. With RCT suffering one of the highest death counts for coronavirus COVID-19 in the UK, Jason has seen the worst the pandemic has to offer. But with the vaccine developments, he feels relieved: “It’s given us the air we have wanted to breathe.”

In late summer Edwards, like Galloway and Maynes, managed to get some tours away, but made the business decision that European destinations were off the table. That may go forward into 2021.

The upshot is that Jason feels Britain has long been taken for granted as a tourist destination, and the pandemic has helped highlight what the country, and coach operators, have to offer. “I think we’re blessed,” he says. “We’ve taken it for granted how wonderful the countryside that we live in is. The UK’s a phenomenal country, and we’ve been quick enough to visit Europe – but what this has forced us to do is spend more quality time in our own country. Wales is breath-taking, and personally, I can’t think of a better country to visit. We want to travel all around the world to experience different things – but we have everything we need on our doorstep.”

Reacting to the vaccine, Jason reveals it was an emotional moment, and a massive relief. “As a business, I knew it was something we needed. But it goes wider than that – it is the moment the community, everyone in our industry, and the frontline staff have been waiting for. The light at the end of the tunnel just got a little bit brighter.”

Considering the demographics of its travellers, Edwards, too, agrees that the vaccine may help the coach industry to a quicker recovery than some others, if it is indeed rolled out to the older and more vulnerable by year’s end or early 2021. “Look at our customer base, and it’s safeguarding their health and future. It’s going to have a big effect on our industry and we need it,” he says.

And Edwards is already seeing the sign for a strong domestic market in 2021. “We’ve seen an incredible turn in business, and really positive comments,” he says. Following research with its customer base, which it has fed back to its partners, the company is looking buoyant for next year. Customers are demonstrating a real need to travel, and as an industry, Jason says it is important to capitalise on that, and offer a value-for-money package that will support those ambitions in areas they want to go to – Northumbria, Cambridge and the south coast are proving particularly popular.

But the pandemic is going to have a longer lasting effect on the way Edwards operates. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, Jason says: “The way we carry ourselves as individuals, the way we run the business – we have to be sharper and more prudent. Justify what we do – COVID-19 forced us into a health kick. But we can come back in a stronger position.”

Demand for support remains

Success for 2021 still hinges for many on a tailored coach support package. As revealed by Kevin, operators which have invested heavily in newer, clean fleets are the most at risk. And Jason echoes his disappointment that the industry has largely been forgotten.

“For all that we do, it’s been taken for granted, and it’s criminal for the coach industry not to receive any specific support. You have to question the people who are supposed to be looking after us.

“We’re not in a privileged position where wages are guaranteed, we fight for survival every day. We’re a small cog, but we have an influence on many aspects in the economy, from labour to tourism, hospitals, public transport, education and emergency services. For us to be forgotten is beyond belief. It’s been devastating.”

But Edwards, like many operators, has long cared about what it does, the way it acts, the way it supports its customers and local community. And that has come back to support it when the chips were down, with many Members of the Senedd and community groups rallying to its cause.

What all three operators are clear on is that coach tourism is buoyant and viable for the future. 2021 presents a great opportunity for coach operators to sell the nation – but the industry needs the capacity to meet it.