My recent experiences of field marketing for a bus service in a seaside town showed me that businesses are ready to collaborate

I don’t want this to sound like a textbook, ‘interview response’ style, but one of the best aspects of being involved in public transport is the chance to be really embedded in the community and form relationships with stakeholders. It’s something I appreciate more the older I get. In the early years of my career, it was all about leading people, getting trains and buses running on time, keeping customers happy. If anything, a night out in the parish hall with the local users group or shaking hands with some brown-suited local authority bigwig was a chore, even if representing the Jubilee line at the Stanmore Village Fete on a Saturday day off in 1995 wasn’t too bad. But I get it now.

The last week has been instructive and energising in many respects. I’ve been preparing a 60-slide ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentation, charting the state of the UK transport industry to a client, including snapshots of successes and failures of the privatised railway since its inception. In my various Google searches, page turning of previous issues of this great mag, and watching dust fly from the pages of various history books on my shelf, I came to appreciate more than ever how some of the success stories have been grounded in deep connectivity with communities.
Galvanised and inspired by the late Adrian Shooter, Chiltern set the benchmark for entrenchment in the local community, of almost relentless engaging with the most diverse spectrum of stakeholders, as did GNER under Chris Garnett. Midland Mainline, Anglia Railways and the Great Western Railway, under Mark Hopwood’s stewardship are three other great examples, as well as the open access operators.

There’s a similar story in bus. The local, small independent operators have achieved this with aplomb whilst bigger businesses, such as Blazefield, Trentbarton and several of the jewels in the First, Stagecoach and Arriva subsidiaries, have set the benchmark in terms of customer service and popularity, somewhat because of the efforts they have made to spend time listening and chatting.

It wasn’t just my PowerPoint preparation that made me all reflective but also the few days I spent in my Great Scenic Journeys business covering a series of coastal and inland towns and villages, drumming up awareness of the local bus route, which forms part of a subsidiary of one of the most renowned owning groups when it comes to entrepreneurialism and a desire to engage with local people. I won’t spill the beans just yet, but my experiences have been very informative.

A couple of colleagues and I took to the streets and visited independent shops, hotels, trendy bars, restaurants and tourism attractions with a quest to raise awareness of the local bus route and see if they wanted their business featured in a Great Scenic Journeys QR code that we are displaying on buses and stops to showcase the scenery and interesting features on the route. It will provide special offers for customers in the community as well as a message from the bus company MD, a customer satisfaction survey, the opportunity to post a selfie for a prize and dynamic timetabling showing attractions on a route map as the journey makes its way. An attractive proposition, even if I say so myself. But, I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous when we set foot inside the first ‘proof of concept’ establishment – a second-hand book shop, which was an emporium for literary lovers. I’d lazily assumed that the kind of people that liked reading old books probably were the same as those who enjoyed travelling on a bus for scenic fun.

I need not have worried, the response was incredible – an overwhelming desire to be associated with the bus company that stops right outside the front door

I need not have worried, the response was incredible – an overwhelming desire to be associated with the bus company that stops right outside the front door, a desire for us to do blogs promoting his shop and links by the bus route and the owner’s face lighting up when I asked if he would pose for a photo. Then, it was on to the trendy sports bar in the High Street. If antiquarian book afficionados were the same folk who were scenic thrill-seekers on buses, then my stereotyping suggested that fashionable hipsters drinking cocktails, whilst watching the match live on a big screen would not be at all interested – but it was worth a try anyway! “Where can we send you our media bank of images?”. “Meet Jake, he does our socials and he’ll get this kicked off ASAP”. ‘“How can we sign up for a year?”, was the excitable welcome we received.

And it went on and on and even when we had a little disagreement among our team as to whether the iconic, almost world-renowned tourist attraction by the sea, next to the most expensive and trendiest of designer shops, would deign to meet us lot and advertise on a bus. Well, they rolled the red carpet out, took us to a table and we had the most positive of meetings.

This was all a bit too good to be true, but there was a lot at stake personally. My 19-year-old son Noah works full time for us at Great Scenic Journeys. Throughout my career, I’ve had a series of bosses who have referred to me as ‘Del Boy’, but I jest not, this kid is in a different league. He’s the real Del Boy and to be honest, I’m Rodney. Noah’s not a nerdy spotter like me, he’s a cool dude and in managing our social media, among other aspects of our marketing, he relentlessly tells me not to show pictures of buses and trains, but to focus on ‘experiences’ and ‘attractions’ – they garner greater advocacy and are the key to getting bums on seats. This was one of his first forays into ‘field marketing’ and I didn’t want his huge confidence dented by rejection, especially as all spiv-like, he was wearing his pastel blue brand new suit for the first time, diamond earring glinting in the late February sun rising over the sea and had a bit of swagger about him.


What was interesting was how ‘youth paid off’ and also the local effect. Noah has moved out to live in a flat on his own opposite the bus station in the heart of this route and it was interesting when we talked to stakeholders, how a combination of fresh-faced, youthful vitality and a bit of audaciousness, coupled with the fact that he was a local, was really paying off. They didn’t really want to talk to a tired-looking old timer like me. “We want to work with local, young, innovative businesses, like you and the bus company – that’s what we’re all about and why we are definitely up for this,” implored the general manager at the iconic tourist attraction. “Absolutely, we live and breathe the community, we’re not some company with a head office in Birmingham or Scotland who pop down, do a deal and you never see us again.” replied Noah. “I’ll be honest, it’s such good value, it’s a steal really,” he continued (with his favourite line), almost pushing his luck, and me about to give him a fatherly kick under the table.

It was heartening to see how the local businesses were very positive about the bus company and the concept of buses per se. There was no snobbery and a realisation instead very much of a ‘better together’ approach to creating reasons to travel. It was a shared responsibility. We also found that the smaller and quirkier the business, the more flattered they felt to be singled out. There was also a desire to just sit and chat and proffer ideas around creating itineraries for customers, providing money-off discounts on a pint of beer or entry at the attraction on display of a bus ticket, and how to collectively keep customers happy. There wasn’t any grumbling about grubby or late buses either.

Another fascinating learning point was the follow-up process. We bounded out into the evening skies on Friday, buoyed by a number of prospects and several locations keen for us to come back with bus timetables. But the proof is always in the pudding and when the end of the week positivity dissipates once the pressures and realities of Monday kick in, will there be such a willingness to talk buses among those we visited? I didn’t get home until 22:00 on the Friday and I had Noah in my ear all weekend, demanding why I hadn’t already sent a follow-up email, but by Monday morning I had done so and then there was silence.

Undeterred, three of us returned coastwards later in the week. We walked in the book shop and Jason, the owner yelled with a huge grin as soon as we set foot inside. “What are you boys doing back here again? I’ve told you I’m up for doing business with buses!” It was a similar tale everywhere, whilst a lady in the amazing seafood market by the marina said to Noah: “I told my boss and she said it’s too good to be true!” I should have anticipated this having run my own small business for many years now. Unlike the corporate world, where we’re stuck in front of our computers most days, back and forth on Teams calls or emails, and where something only happens if contracts are drawn up or purchase orders signed, in the world of busy retailers and attractions, your word, face-to-face, is enough. They don’t have time to faff around, high maintenance style.

All this is a story of positivity, but I won’t deny that it was all gaiety and enthusiasm. We had the owner of a Turkish restaurant sit us down with a drink for some time, treating us like royalty, but we never heard from him again, and in one bar, when we went to shake the manager’s hand, he pulled his back and just said stony-faced “I’ll be in touch” . We had our own code that we’d utter under our breath as we walked towards the exit door in several places, ‘W.O.T.’ code for ‘Waste of Time’.

It re-affirmed to me, at least, the sheer extent to which bus companies are so entwined with the fabric of their local community and that there is an audience out there that is receptive

So, where is all this going? Well, it re-affirmed to me, at least, the sheer extent to which bus companies are so entwined with the fabric of their local community and that there is an audience out there that is receptive. And bus companies are well respected in the places that they serve, something I’ve found when undertaking similar activities across the nation these last 12 months. A week earlier a couple of us were hanging round Cumbria to test the water too and the overriding message in attractions was: “We think Stagecoach’s bus services are fantastic.” These are good times.

Fortunately, the providers of the bus route we’ve been promoting do an excellent job of forging partnerships. Last week’s route that we were focusing on, though, is very long and passes a multitude of businesses and attractions, and, like most bus companies, the marketing team is talented but very small. Obviously, it would be great for all bus companies to call on my team of ambassadorial field marketeers to help them out, as the potential is boundless, but it also presents a good challenge for all managers and HQ teams to walk down any street and they can find no end of places where a conversation with the staff or owner will have some benefit. Of course, the challenge is to maintain the engagement and like any relationship, you need to invest time – which is something we’ll be doing with our new friends.

This exercise also reminded me, more than ever before, of the folly of companies not seeing the benefits of having a structure in which power and autonomy is given to the local subsidiaries, those closest to their customers and markets. There’s definitely a benefit in having a national, strategic approach to marketing but those living and working on the patches, able to pop into the local coffee shop or attraction to chew the fat with customers and owners, are the eyes and ears of what is best capable of compelling communities to travel. They, more than anyone, know what will work and what won’t, and they will be the ones, if given the autonomy and encouragement, will seek any opportunity to garner insight and act on it. This was the recipe for success at Chiltern and those other trailblazers in the early years of privatisation and those successful bus companies that continue to thrive.

Anyway, enough pontification, I’m off to chat with Jason about wacky plans to promote ‘World Book Day’ to those on the top deck of the bus. That’s a good story in itself…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 30 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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