Sn-ap chief executive Thomas Ableman is aiming to transform the perception of coaches by creating an Airbnb of intercity travel

 

Sn-ap launched services between Nottingham and London last October

 

By Andrew Garnett

Two years ago former National Express and then Chiltern Railways executive Thomas Ableman had an idea over dinner.

It was an epiphany moment that he remembers quite clearly. “I was thinking more and more about this idea as the evening went on and so I explained it to my wife,” the Oxford history graduate explains. “She agreed it was a good idea and now, two years later, here we are.”

That idea formed the basis of Sn-ap, Britain’s first ‘on-demand’ coach service. Services commenced late last year between Nottingham and London. Last week saw the launch of new links between nearby Derby and the capital. It is a brilliantly simple concept that has the potential, so Ableman believes, to transform intercity travel across the UK.

“When you look at urban transport, it has been transformed in recent years, particularly in London,” he says. “You have high quality rail systems, you have Uber, and buses have been transformed. Young people have less and less of a reason to buy a car and learn to drive; just look at how the number of new young drivers is falling.”

Coach has this huge potential that nobody is really exploiting. We want to change that.

However, when it comes to services between major cities, Ableman believes the options are somewhat wanting. Trains are frequently too expensive and too crowded. Meanwhile, the two dominant intercity express coach operators, National Express and Stagecoach’s Megabus, have entrenched positions in the marketplace. “Coach has this huge potential that nobody is really exploiting,” he says enthusiastically. “We want to change that.”

So what is Sn-ap? Well it’s a technology platform offering a coach service that only operates when a certain level of demand has been created. Customers visit the Sn-ap website and can request a trip, theoretically, from anywhere to anywhere in the UK, however the company has so far concentrated its efforts on the Nottingham to London corridor.

Once a certain level of demand has been generated the trip will operate, with operation of the service itself subcontracted to one of a handful of small family-owned coach operator partners (at present, five based in the East Midlands and three in Greater London). In effect it’s a digital market place matching people who want to travel (the customer) with people who can provide travel (the coach operator) – a sort of Airbnb for intercity transport if you will.

As Ableman notes, coaches are pretty cost effective to operate and so with very high guaranteed load factors, the fares can be low, very low in fact. A cursory search of the Sn-ap website last week was showing seats available on confirmed trips between London and Nottingham for between just £2 and £7. It’s pocket money prices.

“You have thousands of tiny coach operators up and down the country with a few vehicles,” he says. “They really, really know their business and the quality and attention to detail is fantastic, but they can never, and will never, expand into intercity coach services as they don’t have the footprint or the muscle to carve out a niche. Millions of people want to travel between cities, but they are tied into two existing coach brands or the train. Sn-ap is about creating a bridge that solves that.”

So what happened in the months following that after dinner burst of inspiration? “The first person I spoke to was my boss at Chiltern, Rob Brighouse,” reveals Ableman. “I pitched Sn-ap to him and he was so convinced it would work that he wanted to invest in it then and there. He’s also joined us as executive chairman. I then spent a lot of evenings and weekends talking to lots of people, outlining the concept and willing them to tell me where it could go wrong. It was a desperate effort to break the idea, so after six months of that I knew every eventuality had been explored. I also knew it was an idea whose time had come and it was robust enough to work.”

What followed was what Ableman calls a “lean start-up model” – a scientific approach that aims to stimulate continuous improvements. That process saw a handful of pilot journeys operated between Exeter and London in the summer of 2016, once Ableman had served his notice period at Chiltern, simply promoted using social media. The first trip had one customer; but the sixth and final pilot trip saw the coach full. “At that point we knew the concept could work,” he adds.

After a seed funding round from a diverse range of investors from the worlds of transport, media/entertainment and technology, links between Nottingham and London were launched in October 2016. This used a rudimentary website, known internally as ‘V1’, described by Ableman as “a very basic platform that allowed things to kick off”.

“We spent an inordinate amount of time talking to our customers, travelling on the coaches and finding out how the whole process could be improved,” he adds. “You can do all the surveys in the world but actually talking to the customer is the best research you can ever do. We didn’t want to put in place a site and app and then launch it for our customers. We wanted to continuously improve it; we wanted to build it with them, finding out what worked for the customer and what didn’t work.”

That has led to ‘V2’, the current booking platform, with ‘V3’, a “fool-proof” smartphone app that will be used by drivers from the coach operating partners to check-in customers and manage their trip, in development. It is telling that all of this technology is being developed in-house by three staff rather than by an external agency, again to facilitate that continuous improvement and ensure flexibility.

“Of course this whole business is throwing off huge amounts of data too,” notes Ableman, and it is perhaps telling that Sn-ap’s second employee was a data analyst.

“We started off operating between Nottingham and London around the weekends, but for the last month we’ve operated every day except one. We can see trends and patterns forming and each trip now tends to follow the same bell curve in terms of demand from someone requesting the trip to actual operation.”

Expansion is on the agenda with Derby services launched last week. Initially this is following the same trajectory as those first trips between Nottingham and London – services operating around the shoulders of each weekend. “We have anecdotal evidence of customers using Trentbarton’s Red Arrow coach service between Derby and Nottingham to connect with Sn-ap, so it was the logical place for expansion,” says Ableman. “We already have a general manager, a recent graduate, based nearby and we have the links with local coach operators. Derby just made so much sense.”

Surely Sn-ap’s steady expansion will have attracted the notice of incumbents Megabus and National Express? “Yes, of course,” says Ableman. “There’s evidence that they’re responding to our presence in the market, but I think we can grow the entire market for travel for the benefit of everyone concerned.

They’re really, really diverse from young to old. I don’t think you can say there’s a typical Sn-ap customer.

“Both of those companies have a very clear target market, but we’re aiming to appeal to people who have never considered travelling by coach before. There’s no specific typical Sn-ap customer. We run something on our Facebook page called #HumansOfSnap where we profile some of our customers. They’re really, really diverse from young to old. I don’t think you can say there’s a typical Sn-ap customer.”

Ableman enthuses once again about how Sn-ap can transform intercity travel. “We want to ride that bow wave of people who are used to technology and used to mobile connectivity,” he adds excitedly. “We are a tech business; we have no interest in becoming an operator; we leave our coach operator partners to do the transport bit. So we are concentrating on creating a fantastic travel experience for our customers that’s so good, they just come back to us again and again.”

 

PROFILE: THOMAS ABLEMAN
A history graduate of Merton College, Oxford, Ableman joined National Express straight from university. After seven years with the group he moved to Chiltern Railways before leaving to found Sn-ap early in 2016.

 
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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