The great scenic journey opportunity
Alex Warner, the founder of Great Scenic Journey’s recently wrote in his column in Passenger Transport Magazine about the his new venture Great Scenic Journeys. Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. Alex is now on a mission to highlight the UK’s top scenic journeys, he wrote:
Last month I set up ‘Great Scenic Journeys’, which will be a single, multi-modal portal to market and accredit scenic transport routes.
As we brace ourselves for the coldest snap in recent memory and with rail and other strikes paralysing our nation, a travelling salesman, spiv, Del Boy or south London barrow boy (all of whom I have been described), coming to talk to transport operators about the open top bus services and summer seaside sojourns might be as welcome as watching endless repeats of Harry Kane’s failed spot kick. Those blissful visions of being whisked round the Jurassic Coast with a Mr Whippy or watching the sun set late at night over Dartmoor on a First Bus seem distant during these barren times. They’re months away and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, I hear you say!
The transport industry needs to reinvent itself to generate new income, unlock new markets in this post-Covid era and make the very best of one of its greatest assets – the stunning scenery it passes through. It was in the long hot, pandemic-riven summer of 2020 when I took my love affair with passing days on transport to a new level. Engaged by the forward-thinking First Bus to talk to customers and non-users to determine what would entice them to make a holiday in Devon and Cornwall with a journey on a bus as the epicentre of the vacation, we spoke to drivers as well. With all that feedback and collective insight we created ‘Adventures by Bus’, a collection of strongly branded products for the incredible routes run by First in the south west. The drivers created each brand personality as part of our ‘Delight the Customer’ training and we embarked on a customer service transformation. My sceptical teenage daughters tried it out, loved the experience and posted a TikTok that garnered thousands of ‘likes’ following their trip on the Land’s End Coaster.
Then, having never visited the Lake District, I spent some time researching how to make this happen, for a non-car driver, such as I. I stumbled across Stagecoach Lakes – a truly jaw-dropping experience, overseen by the hugely impressive managing director, Rob Jones. It was so compelling, I wrote an article in Passenger Transport about my trip.
Last month, with my business partner, the illustrious Giles Fearnley, and a couple of youthful entrepreneurs, Luke Bodin and Andrew Penn, I set up ‘Great Scenic Journeys’. Our ambition is to create for early 2023, a single, multi-modal portal to market and accredit (from a customer service perspective), the collection of scenic transport routes across the UK and beyond. The rationale is to encourage customers with a penchant for a particular leisure genre to try one route and then another, made easy by us creating itinerary suggestions, tie-ups with destinations, super-imposing walks and other ‘things to do’ en route.
We also want to help operators transform their existing services into genuine tourism experiences through a variety of services from specialist training to field marketing in the community, customer service action plan creation and much more, making them the reason why, for instance, someone might visit Cornwall, Scotland, Wales and so on. And we can provide further assitance to operators and local authorities, with insight and technical support, in identifying and creating new scenic routes where they don’t already exist.
As I’ve regularly implored, consistency of service quality is key, and entry into the ‘Great Scenic Journeys’ family is only possible once operators have reached a level of customer service accreditation. Like the ‘Scores on the Doors’ hygiene ratings, we want folk to have confidence that if an operator is part of our gang then it must be customer-centric.
By my own modest research, in the scheduled UK bus market alone, scenic bus routes are worth over £150m annually.
By my own modest research, in the scheduled UK bus market alone, scenic bus routes are worth over £150m annually. In the case of ‘Adventures by Bus’, patronage and awareness since its launch has grown to an extent only dreamt of in the transport industry, so much so that demand has outstripped supply. While the commuting and business market is on its knees in rail, leisure travel for tourism purposes has not just recovered but during the summer was kicking on into growth territory.
In recent times, the bus industry has struggled with take-up of concessionary pass usage, despite this being a demographic with a fairly sizeable disposable income, craving ways to fill time productively. However, the pandemic did help re-engage Joe Public with simple pleasures closer to home, natural beauty, with some heritage, culture and nostalgia thrown in. Lockdown exacerbated mental health issues, alongside the stressful and frenzied nature of modern life – a carefree trip on public transport can be the antidote.
As our surveys often reveal, customers who have been on one of the routes that constitute ‘Great Scenic Journeys’ are astounded at how their expectations were surpassed; how much they enjoyed an experience that costs under a tenner and was far more blissful than the much yearned-for trip to an over-priced tourist attraction with its long queues and short rides or even than an overseas holiday with all the hassles of airports, vaccinations, language barriers and rip-off prices. It’s a long-held truism that the best experiences are often those for which the days weren’t counted down in advance, as opposed to the much-hyped occasions that often disappoint. The problem, though, as vox-pop surveys I’ve undertaken have shown, is a lack of awareness among folk that there are scenic journeys that constitute an attraction and are the reason to travel.
The mantra of ‘Great Scenic Journeys’ is that travel on these routes provides a ‘glimpse’, for those who might be, like me, busy, unadventurous and car-less, and otherwise unable to enjoy the charms of places like the Isle of Skye, Lake District, and Cumbrian Coast. It’s about a journey in the warmth and convenience of the bus or train that won’t take too long, nor go hazardously off the beaten track but where you’ll be sufficiently ensconced in the landscape to ‘check in’ on Facebook with a nice picture. So too, any ‘add-on’ ventures will be bite-size, so that you can say you’ve been somewhere without it being too onerous.
Part of the challenge is for operators to realise the opportunity – the surroundings they serve are so incredible, they could have a captive audience if they took a more tourist-centric approach to managing their product, rather than staying in traditional ‘operator’ mode.
Part of the challenge is for operators to realise the opportunity – the surroundings they serve are so incredible, they could have a captive audience if they took a more tourist-centric approach to managing their product, rather than staying in traditional ‘operator’ mode. Customers can be a bit hesitant about getting on a bus for some fun on holiday, if it’s the same company that back home caused them to be late for work. Brand and creating an ‘experience’ is everything for these scenic routes, including ensuring that there is momentum and something to occupy the passenger at every stage of the journey, be it the commentary, or spontaneity from the driver (who should be a protagonist in the ‘adventure’) or the internal décor of the bus, which in design and presentation is in sync with the whole experience outside.
Operators should work with third-party destinations to raise awareness, something we help with, sending personable people into hotels and attractions to broker reciprocal deals and just spread the love. We’ve young people in our team ready to help transport operators unleash Tik-Tok, Snapchat and Instagram – key social media channels that play perfectly to the charms of scenic services.
It’s not always about really scenic journeys either. There are many routes out there with interesting features that, with a bit of imagination, (which we can help with) and focus, can increase patronage for those seeking a fun and fascinating experience to pass the time. A route that might seem run of the mill from an interest perspective to an operator can, with a fresh perspective, be transformed into something worthy of attracting a new market.
Transport companies need also to be more joined up. At Great Scenic Journeys we’re forming a family, to help create an integrated network of scenic journeys for those who want to, for instance, do a circular from Taunton and back on the Exmoor Coaster, then onto Ilfracombe and back by Stagecoach and GWR. With a bit of improvisation there’s a scenic trip that can be had all the way from Hastings to Penzance, it’s just that the dots haven’t been joined up and articulated before.
We still also have owning groups where rail could promote bus, within their own organisation much better. The ability of the local TOC marketing team to promote scenic services has also been stymied by the Department for Transport, not unreasonably, needing to sign off spend. This can, though, prevent stuff happening in time for tourism seasons and also make it difficult for spontaneous local initiatives to be acted upon.
Bus operators are also not well set up to transform their scheduled services into tourism propositions. The task is made harder by needing local authority buy-in to any upgrading of bus stops and waiting areas to showcase the experience in a way that a conventional tourist attraction would more easily achieve on their own premises. The companies are also under-resourced to deal with rebranding, producing leaflets, digital campaigns, training drivers, delivering feel-good-factor quirks to raise awareness (anyone for ice-creams on board?).
Any operator wishing to genuinely maximise the potential of their stunning scenery, should have a product manager responsible for delivering a proposition befitting of the view from the bus or train. The postholder should be someone who, each week, will be constantly looking ahead and meticulously ensuring an open-top, properly branded vehicle is scheduled where it is supposed to be, that
Trip Advisor comments are scrutinised and areas for improvement acted upon.
There’s also a pivotal role here for coach excursions, the fabulous, convenient days-out or longer breaks that provide great company and social experiences, particularly for those who live alone as well as those who may not be mobile or adventurous enough to use scheduled transport services. There are literally a multitude of operators across the UK and beyond providing these services, but it’s ‘hit and miss’ as to whether a prospective customer will find them. At Great Scenic Journeys, we’ll be looking to welcome them into our scheme, so we can help provide a ‘one stop shop’ for customers to discover the excursion on their doorstep, assured that it is part of a collection of like-minded, customer-centric providers.
As the transport industry faces a potentially existential crisis, the answer to its own need for reinvention and to stimulate latent and new markets is staring it in the face.
As the transport industry faces a potentially existential crisis, the answer to its own need for reinvention and to stimulate latent and new markets is staring it in the face. If the product is improved, there is an opportunity for fares on scenic routes to be on a par with those that are charged at tourist attractions. Scenic transport journeys won’t in isolation keep the sector alive. However, they’ll make a big contribution by providing a product that showcases the incredible landscape and fascinating history, whilst making memories for customers, improving mental well-being, breathing new life into destinations when they currently need them more than ever before.
In these dark December months, Christmas is a salutary reminder that actually life’s about having fun and if it’s not, then frankly, what’s the point? But, get planning now, because before you know it winter will turn into spring and that’s when the stage is set for transport to be THE attraction. And if you want to find out more about Great Scenic Journeys, drop me an email at email@example.com.