Coach firms square up for no-frills battle

The first TV campaign by National Express comes as easyBus and Stagecoach join it on the motorways, but an image revamp may benefit all three coach operators, says Branwell Johnson

National Express is turning to television advertising for the first time in its 30-year history in a bid to put coach travel back on the map. The move comes at a crucial time for the operator, which once enjoyed a near monopoly in scheduled intercity coach travel, but now has a wary eye in its rear-view mirror as low-cost Stagecoach and easyGroup bus services join it on the motorways.

National Express claims that the campaign, created by Inferno, aims to expand the coach travel market rather than defend it against being overtaken by newcomers (MW last week). A National Express spokeswoman says the company hopes to change people’s preconceptions about coach travel. “A lot of people do not consider coaches an option,” she says.

Negative perceptions range from lack of on-board facilities to poor punctuality and the belief that such a mode of transport is only for cash-strapped students and old-age pensioners. The latter point is perhaps borne out by Mintel research last year, which showed that 45 per cent of bus and coach users are aged under 20 or over 60.

But National Express says that some of these views are outdated. It points out that its fleet is on average three years old, and the coaches now boast increased leg room, reclining seats and computer systems to help navigate alternative routes in case of traffic snarl-ups.

National Express and its competitors feel they can poach rail passengers who have become disenchanted with complicated booking systems, high prices and inefficient services. Both National Express and Stagecoach should know a bit about trains, as they also have rail franchises.

A passenger survey by Stagecoach’s low-cost Megabus subsidiary shows that 35 per cent of its travellers have switched from the train. Bus operators believe there is even scope to challenge low-cost airlines, as flyers tire of airport taxes and long check-in times.

Like other transport sectors, coaches took a hit when the number of visitors to the UK fell after the terrorist attacks of 2001; National Express saw its turnover dip from &£186.8m in 2000 to &£181.3m in 2001. But revenues recovered to &£184.2m in 2002 and the operator’s number of passenger journeys rose two per cent last year to 16.7 million. Passenger numbers are up six per cent so far this year, according to the company.

National Express claims to be the country’s only “national scheduled coach service”, with other operators being regional. However, Perth-based Stagecoach is providing fierce competition on some routes – particularly since the launch of the Megabus service, with fares starting at &£1, in March.

Stagecoach admits it is not a coach operator “in the same way as National Express” but it does run point-to-point services between cities and has increased its long-distance routes, which include a new Glasgow-to-London service.

EasyGroup, meanwhile, will launch easyBus in August, offering routes serving the area between London and Birmingham. EasyBus will run a fleet of ten 16-seater buses and is targeting those who want to travel from north London suburbs to towns such as Luton and St Albans. EasyGroup director of corporate affairs James Rothnie says: “Not everyone wants to go from a city centre, and standard coach operators don’t do this.” In true no-frills fashion, passengers will have to book an extra seat for bags larger than hand luggage.

Both Stagecoach and easyBus use the yield-management model adopted by low-cost airlines, only taking bookings on the internet and starting prices at &£1 but raising them according to demand.

National Express says it offers a very different product to these low-cost services, although when news of the cheaper operators’ plans emerged, it did introduce a limited availability, &£1 “FunFare” ticket on 21 routes, only available by internet booking. But the company has no plans to move to internet-only booking for all tickets or to launch a low-cost operation.

National Express is not alone in marketing its services. Megabus has created a “MegaMan” character to give it a “youthful, fresh image”, while easyBus plans outdoor and radio activity in London’s satellite towns. All operators hope the flurry of marketing activity will stimulate interest in coach travel as a whole.

National Express and Stagecoach believe there is growth potential in services competing with train links to carry passengers to and from airports. But Martin Lord, managing director at branding agency Lawrence & Pierce, says coach operators would need to further improve their product to win over the business market, which is used to airline-style levels of service.

Coach operators have a long way to go to convince the public to switch from other forms of travel. But driving up standards can only help get passengers on board, whether from other modes of transport or from rivals. l

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