You won’t persuade me to join you on a camping holiday, but many others enjoy it – and bus companies should make a pitch for them

A West Coast Motors bus photographed by the editor on a detour into Port Ban Holiday Park, Argyll and Bute

I was so unhappy I cried myself to sleep for six nights, wishing I was back home and missing my cat, Buster. In August 1981, and not quite 11, I was with the church club camping in North Norfolk. It was so awful that my mum and brother came up from Kent to take me home. Our party were coming home a day later, but I couldn’t even wait till then, it was so bad. Strange, therefore, that I am now writing an article regaling the benefits of camping, even if the experience put me off for life; memories of sleeping in a field, freezing cold at night on a dew-ridden surface by morning and with the rancid smell of horse manure trapped in the air and the ignominy of having to defecate in holes in the ground then find a leaf to use instead of bog paper, still clear in my mind.

Of course, I would rather spend an hour in the company of some of those clown MDs on LinkedIn who go on about their great achievements than go camping again, but I am fascinated by its potential for the bus sector, which I don’t think can be overstated. The use of campsites is booming. Research from Mintel suggests it is a £2.1bn market, and 47% of adults went on a camping or caravanning holiday in the past three years, whilst 25% took a UK holiday centre and park break over the previous half-decade. There are over 2,500 campsites in the UK, with the most popular destinations being the Lake District, Wales, Cornwall, Northumberland and Devon. The pandemic introduced 4.5 million ‘newcomers’ to camping or caravanning. Add holiday parks to the mix, and the statistics are actually pretty eye-watering; there are over 6,240 sites, more than 438,000 pitches, and the market is worth £9.3bn, employing nearly 171,450. This includes motorhomes, rented holiday homes, caravans, lodges, chalets and pitched glamping units.

The real opportunity is to convince folk to leave the car at the campsite as they go about their holiday

My instinct tells me that very few people will ditch the car to actually get to their campsite, with all the paraphernalia that is required for a week in a tent or chalet, albeit either for pop festivals or shorter stays. However, it’s not uncommon to see youngsters on coaches with their rucksacks and tents in tow. The real opportunity is to convince folk to leave the car at the campsite as they go about their holiday.

Campers tend to care about the environment; it’s one of the reasons they choose to be at home with nature in a field on their holiday. It, therefore, feels as if it should be an easy message to extoll the sustainability benefits of not clogging up the countryside once they are at their destination.

Bus companies need to be on the front foot, and this is where my Great Scenic Journeys team and I are being deployed at several operators, particularly those where the marketing resource is talented but tiny in number. Campsites cannot be relied on to go out of their way to pro-actively extol the virtues of local bus travel to guests, but they can be encouraged by a visit from folk from the bus company, providing them with leaflets, championing the benefits of the service and potentially offering a discount for campers and an incentive for the campsite.

The effort needs to be more than just a cheery discussion about the bus service. Leaflets or timetable booklets are helpful (particularly as at many remote campsites the internet connection is poor and there is a reliance on paper!), but a one-pager spelling out the key information about the bus route serving each campsite is important – those arriving on their holiday, don’t want to be spending valuable holiday time wading through a complicated timetable book.

The demographics of campers are also interesting. From a few vox pop-type discussions I had on a visit to a large campsite in Devon late last summer, almost all of those I spoke to were regular bus customers when at home, and only one or two turned their nose up at bus travel. The only slight issue – and one which we find when trying to encourage holidaymakers for a scenic sojourn by bus – is that their perceptions were tarnished by the grind of their less attractive bus company back home. Campers, and those that go to park resorts, tend also to be a price-sensitive market, and you would think that the prospect of a £2 bus fare would be a real pull for them.

Without sounding trite, research shows that those who enjoy camping and similar holidays tend to enjoy it because of simple pleasures; the lack of complexity and bus travel could fit this description

Creating reasons to travel for campers is really important. A bit like the journey being the reason for the holiday for those of us who gear our vacation around a transport holiday, campers tend to view just being static or in and around their campsite or holiday resort as the holiday itself. Soaking up the surroundings and fending for themselves without the normal creature comforts of home is the mainstay element of their trip. If they wanted to cram their itinerary with things to do and places to visit, they’d go on a different type of holiday. This can make them less receptive to someone from the bus company trying to raise awareness of trips to make great destinations – but, inevitably, and particularly for those with young children, boredom kicks in and finding things to do is on the agenda. Without sounding trite, research shows that those who enjoy camping and similar holidays tend to enjoy it because of simple pleasures; the lack of complexity and bus travel could fit this description.

The key, though, is for the bus operators to work with tourism providers to raise awareness among those at campsites of the great places to visit close by. Ideally, they should do this when folk purchase their holiday, so they are made aware of the proximity of a great bus route past the campsite and the ability to buy a Rover or discounted ticket when they book their holiday. The proposition should also be fun as well – open toppers, where practical, maybe some goody bags for kids or quizzes and games to keep them captivated when on board. Maybe have someone from the bus company dressed as a mascot in a costume on key days of the year? I’m up for that – and cheap at the price too!

Raising awareness is one key step, and the other is to ensure the proposition is great: an imaginative holiday-themed brand, a driver who is happy-go-lucky and joins in the holiday spirit, and clear, engaging bus stop information. The bus stops really need to be sales pitches, catching the eye of campers as they drive past, so they are under no illusions that when they next venture out, they can do so by bus. In the campsites themselves, the bus stop should be prominent and ideally, the bus drives slap, bang, into the centre so that when folk are going about their daily routine, the sight of a bus is integral to the landscape. There will be some bus routes that could, with some minor tweaking, be re-routed closer to or even into campsites.

It’s not just at campsites and holiday resorts where there are big opportunities. Anything static in the countryside, where folk flock to and where the essence of the destination or pastime being enacted is about being closer to nature, is fair game for exploitation by bus companies. National Trust properties are a classic example – they have a challenge on two key fronts – the first is how to avoid having to desecrate parts of their green land with overflow car parks, and the other is how to attract a new demographic – current visitors tend to be white, senior and fairly affluent. I had an interesting couple of calls with the National Trust Cliveden House property recently, where they were looking at a possible solution in terms of a bus shuttle from Taplow railway station as a means of unlocking a new mass market around West London and Slough that might not be aware of the delights of the location. Someone such as me, who cannot drive, is excluded from many National Trust and English Heritage properties that would be a joy to visit because the public transport links are poor. I’ve long believed that there is an opportunity to create a nationwide feeder proposition for their sites, but it needs the financials to stack up.

There is never any harm in analysing and trying to engage with a market at the most specific and targeted micro level

All this comes back to the bus industry is focused on customer segmentation in a way that transcends the usual high-level customer-types, such as ‘business’ or ‘leisure’. There is never any harm in analysing and trying to engage with a market at the most specific and targeted micro level. Recently, I produced itineraries by bus for those who like horse racing and those who might fancy some active sports on a route or customers who wanted to watch a morning of county cricket at Hove, followed by an afternoon of non-league football between Worthing and Weston-super-Mare, all hosted by the 700 Stagecoach South Coastliner. I’m sure that some folk thought it was odd trying to whittle down an offer to a potentially very niche market, but my view is that a lot of marketing is trial and error, and the more you think about customer preference and the mass of potential motivations to travel and different penchants and lifestyles, then the closer you will get to landing a proposition that is compelling. There is never any wasted time and resources putting yourself in the shoes of current and potential customers.

There are other target markets out there, such as dog walkers. Locations such as the Peak and Lake Districts are full of folk venturing out with their canine friends, seeking dog-friendly pubs and cafes and wanting to partake of a bus trip that is the gateway to a new walk that otherwise might be inaccessible unless they had a car. The beauty of bus travel over the car is that they can alight at one place, have a walk and then pick the bus up further down the route or board another service elsewhere on the network as part of an itinerary. Recently, I chatted with many customers in Keswick, Lake District, and they all said that they loved the fact that it was an accepted practice to take their dogs on the Stagecoach services for a day out, and they had spread the message to fellow dog lovers. I think there’s a campaign to be created for those who love walking their dogs. Contacting dog-walking societies, offering a free seat for those with paws, maybe hooks on-board for leads to be chained to so that furry friends can be secured, and maybe dispensers with dog food and water on-board would be a good idea too. QR codes and downloadable and printed leaflets could be produced to show great dog walks aligned with bus routes and dog-friendly places to visit.

The list of target markets is endless, from the LGBT+ scene through to those who like transport heritage, theatre buffs or folk who enjoy attending sporting events

The list of target markets is endless, from the LGBT+ scene through to those who like transport heritage, theatre buffs or folk who enjoy attending sporting events. Of course, it’s not as simple as just providing a leaflet and expecting a whole market to be unlocked. It needs copious research by someone knowledgeable about the particular market, and it requires reaching out to that particular community through message boards, Facebook pages and societies. It also needs someone with an affinity and, indeed, passion for the market to write content – I hope it wasn’t discernible when I wrote my blog about the proximity of bus journeys to racecourses that I actually find horse racing the most tedious sport ever, just as I’m probably not the best person to regale you with the benefits of a week living in a tent. But, I’m not going to diss those who enjoy the whiff of horse manure whilst sleeping and don’t mind using a Portaloo for a week – each to their own. So long as they make an occasional trip on the bus during daylight hours, then, for me, there’s no better pastime than camping. Who’s up for a sing-song round the campfire, then?

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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