Arriva is giving 11 services the ‘Sapphire’ treatment in 2014. We spoke to Nigel Featham, who led the development of this brand

Any bus company worth its salt is constantly looking to improve its passenger experience. Bus fleets are improved continuously with the aim of maintaining competitive edge. The major beneficiaries of these improvements are mainly existing users, but the bigger challenge for the bus industry is how to convince people who wouldn’t normally consider travelling by bus to change their minds. Meeting this remit was the principle objective of the task force set up by Arriva in 2012, which led to the launch of its ‘Sapphire’ offering. Less than 18 months later, the results have proved that car owners will trade self-drive for bus travel for some journeys as long as the offer stands up.

Department for Transport research indicates that 60% of car owners wouldn’t consider switching to bus travel for any journeys. A daunting statistic, but Nigel Featham, managing director of Arriva Yorkshire and North East and the leader of the Sapphire task force, says that he and his task force colleagues viewed this statistic with enthusiasm because it means that 40% of car owners would consider switching.

In developing a product that would persuade them to switch, Featham says that the team employed an evidence-based approach. “It was ‘crunch, not hunch’ from the outset,” he says. “The exercise wasn’t about coming up with glossy gimmicks or re-sprays but exploring with car drivers what would make them leave their cars at home.”

The resulting workshops, focus groups and surveys undertaken by the task force ignored the ‘would never travel by bus’ brigade to focus on the 40% of drivers who could be persuaded, and Featham says that the findings were instructive. “What we learned from the outset is that to succeed we’d have to address three key areas; doing one, or even two together, wouldn’t suffice,” he says. “Each area would have to carry equal weight if we were to be successful.”

The first of these keys areas was the need to address ‘hard’ measures before ‘soft’ ones. All the cosmetic enhancements in the world would mean nothing if the hard measures – like reliability, frequency and journey time – undermined the brand’s promise to customers. While this observation is true for all bus services, Featham says it became pivotal in Arriva’s thinking if it was to attract car drivers.

The second area was to create a product that was ‘modern’, not ‘posh’. “Prospective passengers didn’t want ‘Premium-this, Pullman-that’ vehicles or services. Gold-plated bell pushes were strictly off limits,” Featham explains. “What they really craved was a feeling of modernity; vehicles and services that complemented, and enabled, their lifestyles.”

The final priority was the need to take the stress out of using the bus service. “More than anything, potential new passengers told us that they wanted to feel in control when travelling,” says Featham. “Their experience of travelling by bus had to be simple and hassle-free.”

Armed with this mandate the task force set to work, and over the course of the latter part of 2012 and early 2013 innovations and modifications began to take shape.

While avoiding “gimmicks”, Featham says that Arriva sought to create an on-bus environment that matched the capabilities of passengers’ places of work, home, or favourite leisure destinations, in terms of comfort and connectivity. The watchword was ‘modern’.

New and ‘feeling-like-new’ refurbished buses would add consumer appeal and Arriva achieved this by upgrading all seats to eLeather and improving the overall interior aesthetic. The operator also raised standards on cleanliness with the introduction of daily internal and external cleaning. Meanwhile,
free on-board Wi-Fi and device charging points demonstrated that Arriva understood the needs of today’s customers.

The research had found that uncertainty about how to use a bus was the biggest barrier to car users – where would they catch the bus, where would it stop, where could they read the timetable, was it on time, was it their stop yet? Technology is now helping to answer these questions. The introduction, nationally, of the new Arriva smartphone App has helped Arriva to capitalise on Sapphire passengers’ access to WiFi by providing real time information and automatic vehicle location – whether on the bus or about to set out for their journeys, passengers now have easy access to the information they desire. Additionally, Arriva introduced electronic signage and audible stop announcements on all buses. “Knowing ‘what’s what’ and ‘where’s where’ at all times removed an enormous obstacle for bus sceptics,” says Featham.

Having determined the improvements to be introduced for the selected routes the next challenge was to communicate this step-change in quality. This was achieved by creating an entirely new sub-brand, Sapphire, which came complete with its own livery and colour scheme, staff uniforms, and website.

“Our rationale behind the name was that Sapphire conveys a sense of quality and sparkle but doesn’t shout and protest too much,” Featham says. “The message is that Sapphire Buses are pleasant, modern and efficient, so passengers can arrive at their destination relaxed, having enjoyed the journey.”

By April 2013, just six months after the task force had convened, Arriva was able to test market its first route (comprising nine double deck refurbished buses) between Chester and Wrexham. Leicester-Oadby Grange (10 double deck refurbishments) followed in June and Aylesbury-Oxford (11 double decker refurbishments) in July.  By the end of 2013 Arriva had launched its fourth Sapphire service, comprising 11 new single deckers on its Durham-Newton Aycliffe-Darlington route to give the operator a total of 41 Sapphire buses.

Launches for each new service put Sapphire firmly on the map in each locality but Arriva was also careful to maintain a consistent background noise post-launch, with wave after wave of activity including pay-per-click ads, door drops, taster tickets, roadside ads, telemarketing and home mover packs.

“We’re constantly reminding passengers of the benefits of Sapphire in an understated tone of voice – exactly how they told us they wanted to hear about it, with less emphasis on hype, and more focus on the facts/benefits,” says Featham.

Analysis of the data captured about users has been instructive and Arriva is applying information to the programme as it progresses. Featham says that the demographic analysis has been especially useful, not just in terms of age and social status but also relating to user types. Arriva has boiled them down into groups including ‘Crash Pad Professionals’, ‘Garden Suburbia’, ‘Convivial Homeowners’ and ‘Legacy of Labour’.

Given the “phenomenal” data capture provided via the App and website, Featham says that Arriva now has the perfect platform on which to build future CRM campaigns.

Against the measurement criteria established by the Sapphire team – revenue, passenger numbers, operated mileage, punctuality and cleaning, level of customer and staff feedback – the results achieved to date have exceeded expectations. Passenger growth on Sapphire routes has averaged around 10% while revenues have increased by a similar proportion. Moreover, tracking research shows that Sapphire has been welcomed by passengers new and old as a service that lives up to its billing.

So what’s next? A further 11 Sapphire routes are planned for this year, taking the total number of Sapphire buses operated by Arriva up to 190. Projections from the routes already in operation forecast that Sapphire will create an annualised uplift on Arriva UK Bus turnover of £2m without increasing fares, justifying the investment in this new offer.

“Sapphire, without doubt, has been a creditable success and one that Arriva will build on,” says Featham. “Passenger growth, satisfaction and revenue indicators are all up.

“We know Sapphire won’t work on all routes but the programme will continue to flex until its reaches its natural limits, adding to revenue as it does so.”

However, Featham says that the biggest achievement is perhaps that car drivers have taken such a shine to the new Sapphire services. Independent research by GFK shows that 25% of new users to Sapphire previously travelled by car.

“They won’t use the bus all of the time but moving them into a multi-transport mindset has real benefits for them, the environment and local authorities,” he says.


Arriva’s sapphire task force:

  • Nigel Featham, regional managing director, Arriva Yorkshire and North East;
  • Phil Cummins, regional engineering director, Arriva North West & Wales;
  • Kevin Hawkins, regional commercial director, Arriva;
  • Cora Robinson, head of marketing;
  • Mick Rossiter, general manager, Wigston depot;
  • Patrick Sibley, head of commercial modelling


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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