If your concessionary travellers have not returned since Covid, ask yourself this… what have you done to make them feel valued?

My dad is a proud bus user!

Have you ever been to an ALBUM (Association of Local Bus Managers) Conference? I was at their annual shindig last week, which was in Blackpool, and a right riveting, raucous event it was. Three days of shenanigans with cerebral pontification, animated debate and innovative displays from operators and suppliers. There was also golf, comedians (and not just the presenters, including yours truly), dancing girls, magicians and much more,and Blackpool Transport’s illustrious CEO Jane Cole led a twilight zone conga that wove its way from the dance floor in and out the ballroom and back.

Crazy, crazy stuff but not as crackers as the bus industry neglecting the concessionary fares market over the years and now worrying frantically because it’s only up to 60% of pre-Covid levels – the theme of my presentation at the event. The organisers asked me to focus on the search for new markets but in my usual rebellious way, I was having none of it and instead decided to discuss the fact that the old market is one we should be caressing more.

The problem is that we’ve taken old-timers for granted. On some occasions, the industry has denigrated them in passing, and spent too much time whinging about the mechanics or injustices of the concessionary fares model rather than trying to unlock usage. When did you last go to a conference or attend a webinar or listen to a podcast that talked about trying to get elderly folk on board? That’s the problem with society, it obsesses about young people, placing them at the centre of everything and then wonders why they have become so spoilt and selfish – the ‘me, me, me’ generation. It’s sexier for marketing collateral for the general focus to be on those perfectly sculpted, nubile, attractive 20 or 30-somethings rather than old folk with their ailments and supposedly less alluring looks – a market that might grumble or moan or just be cynical, as opposed to the one where everything is novel and everyone acts delighted and exhilarated and well, just ‘Wow’!

Why can’t we motivate ourselves with the quest of becoming a specialist provider for senior citizens, experts in knowing and delivering their requirements

The bus industry often thinks that the elderly market is a dying one. Of course, we’re all on our way out as soon as we’re born and seniors are closest to it than others, but we forget that we are a provider for the elderly and once one generation has caught the bus to the Pearly Gates, there’s another on the conveyor belt to follow and to focus on. I don’t see those leading brands that cater for the elderly worry, like we do, that we’re attracting older people – the Wyevales, Saga Holidays, Churchill Homes, Stannahs of the world. Why can’t we motivate ourselves with the quest of becoming a specialist provider for senior citizens, experts in knowing and delivering their requirements? When did you last see someone post on LinkedIn, celebrating a bus packed with grey-haired or bald folk? Diversity and inclusion can include older people.

It amazes me how as a sector we don’t think of winning new custom and extracting more from existing customers as part of a conventional sales cycle – we never look at our sales pipeline. If we did, we’d be thinking ahead and engaging with the 50-somethings, the pre-retirement market. When I turned 50, I was hit with an avalanche of advertising telling me to better manage my savings and pension or offering me a place at the sheltered housing (over 50 only). I’ve even had an influx of emails about wills and funeral plans. It surprises me that bus companies don’t engage with the major corporates and try and offer incentives for those in their 50s and early 60s to taste the bus or include tutelage about the benefits of their bus pass and the experiences that can be unlocked, as part of pre-retirement exit support provision that employers provide.

How often have you seen folk, particularly posh-knobs, brag they’ve received their bus pass as though its some kind of a hoot that’s suddenly made them ‘working class’, though they’ve no intention of ever using it? We should capitalise on this sense of achievement in publicity campaigns. The industry could also benefit from pooling financial resources for a marketing campaign in which an elderly icon could be the promotional face of the Concessionary Fares campaign. A well-known, hugely popular endorser such as, say, Judi Dench, Michael Caine, Cliff Richard or Sharon Osbourne, might raise the profile of the scheme and resonate with the public.

The bus pass is, as it is perfectly named in London, a ‘freedom pass’. It unlocks the kind of carefree, meandering emancipation that folk dream about with retirement as the antidote to the repressive, stressful noise of working life

Indeed, the marketing needs to be carefully thought out. The bus pass is, as it is perfectly named in London, a ‘freedom pass’. It unlocks the kind of carefree, meandering emancipation that folk dream about with retirement as the antidote to the repressive, stressful noise of working life. It offers adventures that can be punctuated by simple pleasures – a pint in the pub, trip to a museum, reading the paper in the sun on the beach or in the park.

Marketing should expand upon these connotations of freedom and simplicity alongside creating reasons to travel, inspiration and ‘things to do’ – a crucial concept than can ‘make or break’ retirees’ feelings of well-being and reasons to live. There should be tie-ups with pastimes that provide that substance for older people – trips to county cricket, membership of model railway clubs, hiking, ‘real ale’ pub tours, Monday morning discounted cinema showings and so on – itinerant propositions that lay on ideal days out and do the planning for customers.

We should also focus heavily on ‘membership’ for it is ‘being a member’ and of ‘belonging’ that is so important to the retired generation – create a club that includes membership of the bus company but also other partner organisations. Indeed, encourage volunteers to contribute to the running of bus companies – ambassadors that contribute their time, knowledge and experience and who can also be advocates among their peer groups. I’ve worked for many organisations in which older volunteers are the lifeblood and make such a positive impact on so many levels.

Instead of trying to recreate our proposition radically, we should focus on its appeal and improve it further. We take for granted that elderly people actually want, like me, to spend a few hours on a bus looking out of the window and watching the world come and go as customers hop on and off. They want to engage with a driver who knows that engaging back is really important to the experience, in particularly, of elderly customers. My genial old buffer of a dad (he’s 87 now!) was so downbeat last week, when I insisted that ‘Er Indoors drove him to the hospital for an appointment. The Old Boy was looking forward to being independent and getting on-board the 555 to Ashford, enjoying the journey and a cup of black coffee (three sugars) in ‘the restaurant in Tesco’ and we’d ruined his day.

Another opportunity is to capitalise on grandparents taking their grandchildren out on buses – trips that are very popular either to fun-filled destinations or merely for the thrill of the journey itself! Why not set up a ‘Grandparents Club’, providing free travel for the tin lids and tailored goodies, as well as maybe ‘I Spy’ type games for the trip, as well as discounts at attractions?

More could also be done to market in totality the scenic bus journeys around the UK – First Bus has introduced an ‘Adventures by Bus’ across its breath-taking portfolio of routes across Devon and Cornwall. Marketing is designed to capture many markets, but particularly to inspire older people to make exciting journeys. A central campaign across the industry to promote ‘Great Britain’s Scenic Bus Routes’ could provide great potential.

We should also reconnect with our concessionary fares folk by reintroducing leaflets or reopening Travel Shops (and maybe merging them with Post Offices or other similar community-based hubs that add social value) and we shouldn’t be so obsessed with apps as the answer to everything.

We need more generally to be all over the customer proposition – my brand of ‘Delight the Customer’ training that properly focuses drivers on the specific needs of customers, rather than the anodyne, ‘going through the motions’ CPC stuff that’s been around since the first bus was ever created.

We should also properly address the concerns of elderly passengers around safety and security on buses, dispelling myths and being more reassuring. So too with punctuality – notices should be produced that record the extent to which buses are actually on-time and reliable. When delays ensue we should also actually mourn them and provide a solution – managers have tended to trot out the phrase ‘we’ve provided information of the delay on twitter’ as though that means they don’t need to do anything else.

Other aspects of travelling by bus need to be simplified. If we created the world again, would we have rival bus companies with different logos and liveries in the same city or on the same route, confusing the hell out of folk? Even within companies, the multitude of liveries, products and logos jar and irk customers.

When did you last hear of a bus company doing a study into the needs of the elderly market, let alone on a segmented basis differentiating between types of concessionary fares customers?

Research is key. When did you last hear of a bus company doing a study into the needs of the elderly market, let alone on a segmented basis differentiating between types of concessionary fares customers? With older people, we just generalise, lumping them as one and rarely, if ever, surveying their needs. We’re no better than wider society which just thinks of them as wearing beige, grumbling a lot and being dinosaurs in their thinking.

Talking of research, there are evaluations of the concessionary travel scheme by the Department for Transport in 2016 and Greener Journeys in 2017, and they provide compelling and comprehensive reading. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot around some of those often unquantifiable benefits in terms of improving the physical and mental wellbeing of elderly folk, as well as the positive impact of free bus travel in being able to help facilitate paid employment and voluntary work for senior citizens. Research, which also includes that produced by Cambridge University Press in 2016 and 2019, suggests that car drivers who don’t use buses are mentally more negatively affected when they can drive no longer – an almost debilitating denouement ‘that’s your lot in life’ psychology prevails which can have an impact on their life expectancy. I had this when I was 32 and failed my fourth and final driving test (a residential crash course in Clacton with the examiner forcibly taking the wheel off me as he narrowly averted a head on collision with a First Essex Bus).

The summation of all the various strands of research is that if you travel by bus then you’ll live longer. That’s a compelling marketing message in itself, even before the audience is told that we’re giving away free bus passes for the rest of their life to facilitate this. What other industry is able to offer something so extensive for nothing? That’s something these publicity hungry, self-promoting bus sector top dogs should be shouting from the rooftops. If they can’t get older bums on seats then heaven help them, the industry doesn’t deserve to be saved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 28 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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