SELLING SEATS passenger trans gt's task
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"Basically, the Business of Selling Transport ... is a Matter of Contact With the Public": Ways, Means and Possibilities are Discussed in This Article
By Alfred Woolf, W1TH the continual rise in the cost of living and a rapid decline in the amount of money which is available for non-essential spending, the time is approaching when passenger road transport concerns will once again have to start selling seats. In the past few years the emphasis has been on finding seats for the passengers wishing to travel. A return to pre-war conditions cannot be far away, and thought should be given now to the overhaul of the sales arrangements.
Unlike other commercial undertakings, coach and bus companies rarely have a sales department as such. The function of selling travel is carried out by the traffic manager, usually as part of his general range of activities. He is therefore in the fortunate position of being able first to foster a need and then to meet it, although, in truth, he is really in the 'position of gauging what surplus capacity he has to dispose of and then finding a market for it.
The business of selling road passenger transport to-day is organized on a large scale. Such undertakings as Associated Motorways, Ltd., and London Coastal Coaches, Ltd., which were brought into existence to relieve individual coach operators of the task of meeting the wide range of public needs, of co-ordinating development and of selling road travel to the public on a nation-wide scale, are proof enough of this.
Similar organizations exist abroad, the Greyhound Lines of the United States being a good example, and the Continental Europabus undertaking another. Only wi,th the comprehensive planning for which these organizations have been responsible could coach operation expand at the rate which it has achieved since the early 'thirties.
Basically, the business of selling transport—and to simplify matters only long-distance road travel will 31, be considered—is a matter of contact with the public. Years ago, this was on a personal basis and much of the personal touch is retained to this day in some areas, where nobody would think of travelling except by
so-and-so's" coaches. In some instances, it is this which enables the small-fleet operator tO compete with the large-scale regional operator and, in fact, to beat the large operator in private-hire work.
There are some large concerns, however, which are fortunate enough to possess a general manager, or traffic manager, who is as well known in the company's territory as any public figure. The value of a personality such as this must be enormous, and in his sphere of influence there is often little serious competition from the small man: Without this close relationship, rare as it is in these days of "absentee landlords," contact with the travelling public is maintained through three channels. First, through the vehicles in the fleet; secondly, through the staff employed, and, thirdly, through the normal avenues of publicity and sales.
Nobody would deny the importance of vehicles as aids to.the promotion of sales in passenger transport. Curiously, however, although there is an awareness of this factor, it is not always clearly recognized, the tendency being to take it for granted. Major F. .1. Chapple, chairman of the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Co., Ltd., in his presidential address to the Omnibus Society, humorously declared that any opera. tor wishing to maintain proper relations with the public must add at least one new vehicle a year to his fleet. Yet this is the basic truth of the matter.
It has been noted at coach stations, for example, that if two vehicles, one old and one more recent, are drawn up at a loading bay, waiting passengers will make strenuous efforts to board the newer one. A fleet composed entirely of old—or, worse, of shabby—vehicles can play havoc with traffic returns.
Despite the high cost of what Mr. A. F. R. Carling, general manager of Southdown Motor Services, Ltd., describes as " shopwindow " fleets, an operator anxious to enjoy the benefits of fully booked services cannot afford to run dilapidated vehicles. Even if the operator enjoys a degree of monopoly in his immediate vicinity, a potential customer will not have far to look to find an alternative. He can either not travel at all, or go by train.
Generally speaking, fleets all over the country have been brought up to date since the war. This has had the effect of maintaining at a high level traffic statistics, which in many instances had shown signs of flagging. Mr.,. F. J. Speight, director and general manager of George Ewer and Co.,Ltd., for example, told me that the Grey-Green fleet of underfloor-engined Leyland Royal Tigers with Harrington bodywork operated by the concern, appealed greatly to the public. "They were the best seat-sellers ever introduced," he declared, and every effort is expended to keep them in perfect condition.
Not only is one member of the staff entrusted with the responsibility of examining vehicles to see that they are up to the required standard, but all the directors make it their business to keep an eye on the condition of the vehicles. A Grey-Green vehicle stationed outside a booking agent's premises has been found to have a healthy effect on sales. This has not been the experience of all concerns, however. Mr. C. H. Preece, traffic manager (commercial) of the Western and Southern National Omnibus companies, which jointly operate Royal Blue Express Services, has his own views on the subject. He agrees that vehicles advertise a service, but believes the biggest factor in sales to be personal recommendation by passengers to friends. In this, the character of the vehicle must help, and it has been this operator's desire for many years to build up and maintain a known " Royal Blue" character. " We think of a coach as a private car," said Mr. Preece, and in the design of the interior and exterior of the standard type of coach this is kept in mind. For example, fine veneers, tasteful, highgrade upholstery and an entire absence of vulgarity are points nOticeable in the interior of a Royal Blue coach.
In only minor respects can criticism be made -of the attitude of operators to the design of vehicles, most of which show the benefit of long years of thougl-(ul development. One or two innovations, on the other hand, might be worth considering. For example, it appears that some difficulty exists in persuading passengers on certain types of service to occupy rear seats. Coaches for Continental use, and some in this country, are not provided with the usual rear row of seats, which improves luggage capacity and solves the rear-seat problem. Another means is to provide a small lounge at the rear, as Sheffield United Tours, Ltd., has done, or to replace the rear seats with toilet and, especially, wardrobe facilities.
On the scores of cost and reduction in passenger capacity, this practice may be condemned. But it is noteworthy that many operators who have introduced large-capacity underfloor-engined coaches into their fleets of recent months, have deliberately selected a seating capacity less than the maximum possible, so as to maintain a high degree of comfort.
Some of the space thus saved could be used to improve facilities in other directions.
The vexed question of toilet accommodation, too, needs re-assessing in the light of present conditions, for . with the widespread and general use of coaches by the public for long-distance travel, these items might prove a deciding factor in the travel plans of parents with young children or of elderly people. The toilet is a reassuring item of equipment, like a fire-extinguisher.
Visibility Vital Another development which could be profitable is the design i of an observation coach. In this, the rear panels could be almost entirely glazed, so as to improve rearward visibility, making the rear seats rather than the front ones the most attractive to the passengers. As has been already done in some cases, the rear two rows of seats could be turned round to face the rear and stepped up. A vehicle with seats arranged in this way would undoubtedly attract much custom.
As it is, people travel by coach not because they cannot afford to do so by rail, air or sea, but because they want to see the country. This is realized by
B10 operators, but Royal Blue, whose publicity slogan, " Serving every resort in the West Country," has been famous for years, has had a disappointing experience in this matter. On the suggestion of a passenger, a series of itineraries, describing the history and points of interest of the route followed by a service, was published and made available on the coaches at id. The response was not good, although the itineraries were well written and presented.
Personal Relations Again Here we see the importance of proper staff-customer relations. Royal Blue always takes a serious view of any complaint and looks into every suggestion received from passengers. Action of this kind is bound, in the long run, it', build up a good name for a concern.
Careful selection of coach crews, proper training of the " front-office" staff, and the cultivation throughout the organ ization of a will to serve are of paramount importance. Nowhere is the impact of the company on its customers more immediate than in the telephone room. Most booking agents, bus stations and company offices have congested exchanges. After a long wait to establish a contact with the office, a passenger wishing to inquire
about a booking can easily be lost to the company if the telephone operator is only slightly brusque. This is something that any
operator must watch with extreme care. In the case of the Grey Green organization, at least one director is constantly in the chart room, able at all times to see that the exacting task of the clerks and operators is carried out efficiently and courteously.
These two adverbs should apply equally to publicity matter.
There are still many examples about the country of scribbled announcements of changes in ser vices, of special tours or even of extended tours, in which the approach adopted can be likened only to that of the erstwhile char-d-bancs tout.
To build up an established and stable clientele, as Royal Blue and Grey-Green have, a professional attitude must be taken to the business of preparing and publishing publicity matter.
Both these concerns have continually revised their timetables to see that they are concise, legible and attractive. In this connection, the work of the publicity department of the British Transport Commission has been excellent, and Royal Blue has benefited from the advice available from the B.T.C. A fine series of maps has long been a feature of Royal Blue's own publicity efforts, and pictorial posters designed with the assistance of the parent body show what can be done to-day with colour printing and a clear idea of what it is that the operator is trying to impress on the public.
Associated with publicity, because much of the matter available passes through its hands, is the vast corps of
booking agents. Grey-Green's bookings are handled by 600 agents all over the London area, whilst Royal Blue has over 800 agents. These agencies are a spearhead in the approach to the customer. It is the aim of
the George Ewer organization to keep the agents up to date with information, to inform them in due time of changes and developments, and to aid them in every way possible. A regular "news-sheet," well presented on two-colour duplicated sheets, is sent out and leaflets for display in special containers 4re constantly kept up to date.
Yet here is one weak link in the contact between public and operator, for the work of the agent is difficult and often almost entirely unremunerative. One wonders whether a case could be made for some sort of advisory service to agents, to assist them in the task of displaying posters, announcements, timetables and leaflets. This is, of course, done where an agency is controlled by one operator. Broadly speaking, however, much could be done to raise the-status of the agent, and to improve the quality of the service to the public.
In one other respect does the quality of the service available to the public sometimes fail to come up to standard. This is in the vexed question of stoppingplace facilities. If the accusation is made to any operator that the meal stops and comfort stops are not properly arranged, it will be immediately refuted. Does this imply a certain suggestion of sensitiveness on the subject?
In many instances, properly run and maintained facilities exist, but far more often the passengers turn out of the elegant comfort of their coaches into an unprepossessing earth-surface coach park, with inadequate facilities and unattractive eating houses. Present restrictions prevent the improvement which is essential But, over the years, one excuse after another has been found to explain away the lack of improvement in Some directions.
Express-service and touring vehicles to-day are generally beyond criticism. Drivers, inspectors, booking clerks and telephone operators are helpful, attentive and courteous. Publicity matter is well thought out and well executed. Only a •few improvements, although admittedly they would be costly ones, are needed to make coach travel the natural choice of everybody who is able to devote more than a few hours to any journey. There is still an untouched market for coach operators, which it would-pay to cultivate.