Specialist bus and coach insurance broker, McCarron Coates, has named the UK coach operator an ‘endangered species’, in dire need of help still, despite other sectors being on the road to recovery.
The insurance broker is urging anyone who relies on coaches, enjoys coach holidays or provides finance to the coach sector to assist the plight of the ‘lesser-spotted coach operator’ and help them get out of the endangered zone.
The bus and coach broker says rapid action is required, to prevent the dwindling population of coach operators within the UK. Whilst this was said to stand at around 3000 nearly a year ago , by December 2020, numbers were around 2500 , a decline of around 17%.
Part of the reason is ‘habitat loss’, with tourism having been hit so hard and comprising 80% of an operator’s income. Although the July 19 lifting of coronavirus restrictions has helped, visitor attractions, to which 23m coach trips were made in 2019 , are often only operating indoors on the basis of timed tours, catering for smaller numbers, rather than larger groups.
Some visitor attractions are also struggling to accept coaches for anything other than a tour, due to severe staff shortages in cafés, caused by a lack of workers post-Brexit, thousands having left hospitality to work in other sectors and self-isolating.
Similarly, events and festivals have largely disappeared from the landscape, hindered by both social distancing rules until recently, and the lack of insurance cover for events, again only recently addressed by the government. In 2019, 40% of festival goers travelled by coach.
The football season has only just started again and foreign tours are extremely problematic under quarantining rules and continuous uncertainty about the traffic light system, so it will be 2022, at the earliest, before European tour schedules can run with anything like normality.
Whilst school buses should start to operate again in September, this type of business comprises just one-fifth of the coach operator’s ‘diet’ of business. It is not enough to survive on.
The signs of the coach sector entering the endangered zone are clear to see. There was a 72.6% decline in registrations of single-deck bus and coaches in the first quarter of 2021, with just 91 registrations. Of these, many could have been buses, not coaches.
Whilst 6.3m people travelled by coach in 2019, the number in 2020 was negligible and an uplift hard to see at present. Where there is demand for coach trips, coach operators are now struggling to find drivers who can help re-populate Britain’s roads with coaches. Many have retired during the pandemic or left the sector, when finding themselves having to be laid off or through their own choice, in order to become HGV drivers.
In addition, there are threats from finance companies not willing to place their trust in the future of the ‘coach operator species’ and extend their finance breaks for another 12 months, to enable the sector to regroup and strengthen. Similarly, Government has not stepped up and offered to cover finance payments for 12 months, to give the coach operator population to recover, having had 90% of its fleets parked up during the pandemic and having seen 80% of operators lose half their turnover.
And finally, there has been lack of general species support from the UK government for coach operators in England and Wales. Whilst conservation efforts have taken place in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with Scotland having a £1.6m pot available to support coach drivers , English operators have received virtually no support, with only a small percentage able to access funds made available to the tourism sector, despite the coach sector contributing £14bn to the UK economy and employing 42,000 people directly, as well as being integral to visitor economies within British seaside and tourism hotspots.
Notably, Visit Britain expects to attract healthy inbound visitor numbers – 49m in total by 2025 – and will be reliant on coaches to move many of these overseas visitors around Britain because, as its own research shows, 46% are nervous about driving in Britain.
As Britain moves to a greener economy, it also makes no sense not to support the more sustainable mode of transport that coaches provide, when the alternative is to leave overseas visitors with the only option of driving or hiring a car, because coach operators have been wiped out of existence.
McCarron Coates director, Paul Coates, says: “Coach operators entered the endangered zone last March and have largely stayed there. They are getting no real support from any quarter, other than the odd enlightened finance company which can see that the sector has a strong future, but needs time.
“Until UK visitor attractions can welcome coaches again in decent numbers and until European travel can resume in force, operators continue to face an uphill battle to pay finance on coaches off and re-attract drivers. This endangered species of the coach operator can come back fighting, but it needs another year of careful management and unswerving support from all in the chain who rely on coach business.”
Ian McCarron adds: “We urge visitor attractions to get in touch with coach operators and make them aware of how you can accommodate them. Ultimately, your visitor numbers in future years will rely on having tour groups visit you. If coach companies go out of business, you will lose that footfall. The same sort of message goes out to local authorities. Make it easier for coaches to drop off and pick up passengers and provide them with parking. Welcome them and encourage people to travel sustainably, rather than by car, or you will find nobody available to operate school buses and will have a bigger issue with emissions and car parking than ever, as everyone will be left with no alternative but to visit tourist spots by car.”
McCarron Coates will be rallying as much support as it can for the UK coach sector via a vibrant programme of activity in the coming weeks as it builds on its previous campaign in support of the coach sector, ‘Wish You Could Hear’.