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03 Sep 2014
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Cash in on days out: four agents who run their own coach trips

These small companies have turned away-days into a valuable sideline and a driver of new business. Debbie Ward hears how they did it

Triangle Travel coach

Booking a day trip with a coach operator is nothing unusual, but some agencies arrange and host their own in order to build rapport, entice new customers and springboard to more ambitious sidelines.

 

TravelTime World in Berkhamsted has been running day trips for three years, a niche that developed through its Voyager Club for older clients, which involves an annual tea party and mini travel fair. Hiring a 53-seater coach, the agency now hosts three or four trips a year led by the same driver-guide plus a member of its own staff.

 

This year’s programme has included a Thames river cruise, Eastbourne and Ascot, while Salisbury Christmas market is planned. Local departures are a huge selling point as clients often complain about coach operators’ lengthy regional pickups.

 

TravelTime markets via postal drops and email but finds repeat bookings are high. “As they’re getting off one trip, they’ll sign up for the next. They’ll even suggest future trips,” says deputy manager Nicole Leigh.

 

Each outing also typically sees 10-20 new faces, many encouraged by regulars, and spin-off bookings are common. One pair formed a relationship after a day trip and now take frequent breaks together. “They’re somewhere virtually every month,” says Leigh.

 

The day trips generate up to £500 each. “We’re not going to break the bank but it brings more people into the shop and it’s a nice thing to do,” says Leigh. A Christmas break to Bournemouth will be the agency’s first three-day trip and the team is considering longer durations.

Recession buster

Triangle Travel is already branching into longer hosted trips, having started with an excursion to Bath Christmas market three years ago. “During the recession we had to look at another way of getting revenue, and day trips were good for footfall,” says managing director Rob Kenton.

 

This year the agency group is running 25 pensioner-focused trips, ranging from a Bletchley Park outing to a Leger Holidays World War One battlefields break. It even has long-haul ambitions. Two first-aid trained Triangle staff accompany each trip, even those using an operator, Kenton explains. With some elderly clients who are frail or forgetful, missing people and accidents are not uncommon.

 

“We took a £3,500 booking from a brochure we’d left on a coach. If you’ve got 50 people, 10% will book another holiday”

 

Word-of-mouth and e-marketing generate many day-trippers, but Triangle also leaves leaflets outside its shops. Kenton says he found newspaper advertising too pricey for day-trip margins but cannily prompts spin-off bookings by leaving brochures on seats on return journeys.

 

“We took a £3,500 booking for a river cruise from a brochure we’d left on a coach,” he says. “If you’ve got 50 people, 10% of them will book another holiday with us.”

 

Day trips now make up 5-10% of Triangle’s revenue but the Wallingford branch, which mostly runs them, is 35% up this year.

 

Kenton advises agencies planning day trips to check insurance. Triangle’s public liability cover extends to outings but only up to a certain volume. He also suggests taking a loss rather than pulling a trip as a reputation for reliability is crucial. The agency rejected plans to offer an Andre Rieu concert because the £150 tickets were a risky sell. Similarly, TravelTime, which typically charges around £21 a trip, has found more costly theatre breaks a harder push.

Highlands spin-offs

The Travel Company in Edinburgh operates Scotland day trips as a destination management company for inbound corporate clients. The sideline started by filling conference guests’ days off with Highland tours and whisky distillery visits. The agency hires expert Blue Badge guides but also sends a staff member.

 

In under three years, that part of the business has grown 40% and developed into separate, leisure-slanted division, in2Scotland, also encompassing longer UK breaks.

 

The firm’s approach to marketing is different. “The best way is marketing through agents themselves,” says managing director Ken McNab. “I operate with [US Abta equivalent] Asta and through them have worked with agents in America, South Africa and India.” He is happy to split commission with UK agents too, pointing out they may match hotel rates but lack the “intimate knowledge” needed for tour planning.

Appetisers menu

PST Travel in Eastbourne runs special day trips, always with a wider purpose. It has arranged cruise ship taster days and chartered a short flight to encourage potential VFR customers who were scared of flying - which proved so successful it even spawned an Australia reunion. “We run it if it’s an appetiser for something worth-while,” says director Martin Wellings.

 

PST’s latest venture is bringing the British Pullman train to Eastbourne, generating Brighton Belle nostalgia and plenty of publicity to boot.

 

Needing to sell 200 places worth £299 for a roving five-course onboard lunch, the agency is marketing to its high-spending clients, and, because it’s donating some of the profit to charity, also to a local hospice’s database of patrons. Wellings says: “It’s hard work but the PR value is what makes it worthwhile. The local paper is supporting us. It’s the sprat to catch the mackerel.”

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