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Published on Monday, July 20, 2020

Coach operators organise mass protest to save 'forgotten' industry

Five hundred coaches from across the UK are travelling to central London today to demand Covid-19 government support for the coach travel and tourism industry.

Coach operators are taking action after they were told last week by Transport Minister for Roads Baroness Vere that no extra help will be given to their industry. They're protesting under the banner 'Honk for Hope'.

Leading the convoy to Westminster will be a former Shearings coach. At the wheel will be ex-Shearings driver Joanne Stonehouse, who was made redundant when parent company Specialist Leisure Group went into administration in May.

Coach companies are reporting a 97% drop in business and fear mass redundancies if no government help is forthcoming.

They want to see vehicle payment holidays, flexible furlough and support towards the cost of coaches, plus a positive message from the government to encourage people to use coach travel again.

Although the travel industry in general is starting to see bookings pick up, social distancing rules mean as few as one in five seats on a 53-seater coach can be used - making operating trips and tours uneconomical.

Neil Jones, Managing Director of Jones International in Wales, said the industry, which accounts for 42,000 direct jobs, has been 'forgotten'. He fears '10 times that number of jobs are going to be lost indirectly' if the government does not step in.

He said: "On standard two-metre distancing, we'll only be able to seat 11 people on a coach, yet planes can fill every seat. 

"As tour operators we can track and trace along with keeping customers in the same seats throughout the journey, yet we aren't being provided with guidance going forward but this isn't being promoted by the government. 

'A whole industry is on the line'

"We are hoping to bring attention to what feels like a forgotten industry. A whole industry is on the line."

He added: "The huge majority of operators are family owned.  The investments we make are huge as one vehicle costs £250,000 and at least £3,000 a year to insure.

"Finance companies are now demanding payments while we have no income, meaning not only many businesses going to the wall, but houses can be repossessed if payments aren't made."

West Country-based Bakers Dolphin Managing Director Max Fletcher said: "We've already seen one high-profile casualty, with Specialist Leisure Group, owner of Shearings Holidays, going into administration and we know of seven other firms across the country that have announced closure this week.

"The tourism sector will not be able to bounce back from the pandemic without a secure and viable coach industry to take people to the attractions and hotels."

Alan Acklam, dierctor of Acklams Coaches in East Yorkshire, said: "We are heading down with four coaches from Beverley, East Yorkshire to London at 4am Monday.

"Coaches from across the UK will be there with an expected turnout of 500."

He said business is down 97% due to coronavirus, hundreds of coach holidays, supporter coaches and school trips have had to be cancelled.

"We have 100+ employees on furlough - we are committed to maintaining their jobs. And we're refunding all bookings, including holiday customers who would not transfer onto other holidays."

"The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK (CPT), our industry body, has approached the government with the main points but has had no discussions or response in 12 weeks until last week's meeting with Baroness Vere.  We were told at this meeting there was no support."

Christopher Owens, Managing Director of Alpine Travel, told TravelMole: "While I personally believe in quiet diplomacy and building relationships with ministers, on this occasion I have been sadly proved wrong and it appears that the only way to demonstrate the industry's frustration at being denied a place at the negotiating table is to raise awareness by a visible demonstration.

'Coaching is the glue that holds group tourism together'

"The coach industry is not understood or appreciated by many of those in the sector, let alone ministers in government. So let's hope that Honk for Hope raise awareness of the plight of an industry which is often referred to as the glue that holds many bits of the group tourism and hospitality along with the arts sector together."

Robert Doe, Transport Manager at Healings Coaches, Oldham, said: "Our business has been decimated. Most of our tour passengers are in the 60-80 years old bracket and don't want to sit on a coach with other passengers even on the shorter tours.

"We carry an average of 7,500 people a year. After the furlough stops it is looking like can't sustain the business and will close down with four members of staff being made redundant."

Shirley Winn, Managing Director of IOW Tours, said: "We do many coach groups and our own tours programme. We also organise reunions for our veterans who have served us well throughout many a conflict. All of these things are on hold at the moment."

Paula Roe, Managing Director of coach holiday specialist Angela Holidays, near Southampton, said customers are still not confident about travelling. "They tell us they are too worried and still shielding. We are hoping to operate a few tours in September and we will be there tomorrow to show our support."

Travel agent Mair Jones, partner at Bordessa Holidays in West Wales, is also supporting the protest.

"We put together our own coaching trips, using local companies, including one that my late father used to drive for, so this protest is very close to my heart. We usually do two or three a month, but, because of coronavirus, we've been forced to cancel so many. We also sell Leger Holidays  and Gold Crest coach tours, and did a lot of business with Shearings.

"Our customers really love our trips, but, with social distancing meaning fewer passengers, who's going to take the loss?"

Westoe Travel Director Graeme Brett added: "The coach industry has also been badly let down by the government with no guidance as to how to how many passengers they can take."

Similar convoys have taken place in Lancashire, Wales and North Yorkshire, but the London demonstration is the biggest so far.

Tom Jenkins, CEO of ETOA said: "We are not party to the demonstration, but we are deeply sympathetic to the plight of coach companies - many of whom are our members. They have huge overheads, invest heavily in low-emission vehicles. Now neither tourism nor education revenues are open to them. They are excluded from business rates relieve and the demand for their business has been slashed by government.

"Coaches are the vehicles for the future of tourism: they reduce congestion and emit a fraction of the CO2 and Nitrogen Oxide emitted by other forms of transport. This future, this lower carbon future, is now in jeopardy.

"The coach sector today is reflecting the pain of the far wider crisis in the inbound tourism sector."

By Lisa James, Deputy Editor (UK)

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