My rough estimate is that open toppers are worth £30m a year. The bus industry does them well – but what more can be done?
East Yorkshire’s open top Beachcomber buses returned on April 1, running up to every 20 minutes between Scarborough’s North and South bays
Never mind the weather being murky, happy days are here again as the Easter weekend saw the re-launch of many open top bus services across the UK. As the debate rages around the systemic decline in passenger numbers, there’s something bubbling up in the shires, coastal towns and cities of our great kingdom and it’s called open top buses.
As part of the www.greatscenicjourneys.co.uk venture my pals and I have created, I’m currently a fixture on the upper deck of open toppers, admittedly with drops of rain falling on my barnet and the breeze from the sea blowing the cobwebs out of my lugholes. Despite the weather, I’ve seen big crowds and of a demographic type that would make bus industry top brass purr. No more need to pay glamorous hip and trendy dudes to pose in marketing campaigns on buses, knowing deep down you never really see them on-board a bus: this lot are travelling for the fun of it on an open topper near you.
Take the Land’s End Coaster last week at Penzance. The stonking queue I witnessed of scenic thrill-seekers brought joy to my heart! It got better, by Sennon Cove, all seats were taken, and I overheard more languages than at the United Nations and a gaggle of young Japanese tourists working their selfie-stick hard. Yes, who’d have thought it – a selfie stick on a First bus? Awesome.
I asked Claire Wood, the hugely impressive marketing manager at First South what the recipe for success was. “Stunning scenery, simple pleasures and service with style and a smile,” she chimed. This understates the fact that, despite having a geographical patch stretching from Penzance to Portsmouth, Claire, who helpfully has a tourism background, has spent much time in and out of attractions, hotels and tourist authorities spreading the love about the various open top services in First’s ‘Adventures by Bus’ brand.
Last month, Claire even got me to narrate a film, running for a bus across a mud-ridden Exmoor in my pastel suit and silk handkerchief. It’s called ‘Britain’s Steepest Bus route and is about the open top Exmoor Coaster up Porlock Hill (available on YouTube very soon, don’t worry I’ll let you know where and when!). It tells the tale of this incredibly scenic bus journey. Over four days, it took 142 takes for me to get my lines right and I must have seen 50 open top buses run back and forth, all with crowds not far short of a Crystal Palace home game and with as many happy and smiling customers as at Selhurst Park too. Little wonder then that First will launch an open top bus service in Southsea very shortly, a giddying experience that takes in maritime heritage, nightlife, designer shops, cathedrals, and rollercoasters in under 30 minutes.
I was determined to sniff out other open toppers to verify that popularity extended beyond Cornwall. Research was a doddle as my Twitter feed has been jam-packed with marketing bods generating anticipation about the relaunch of their services. In another corner of First, Piers Marlow’s mob in Great Yarmouth were salivating about Clipper Cabriolet, replenishing tourism hotspots and BnBs with leaflets and putting glamourous vinyls on bus stops to showcase the service prior to its restart. It worked as buses were flocked to from Caister to Gorleston with folk stopping off to enjoy eclectic Yarmouth.
It was a similar story much further up the North Sea in Scarborough where the 30-minute Beachcomber trundling from the North to South Bay was heaving. Go Ahead East Yorkshire’s head of commercial, Stuart Fillingham, fills in the gaps.
There’s something quite quintessentially British about open top bus rides in the summer, especially by the sea
“There’s something quite quintessentially British about open top bus rides in the summer, especially by the sea,” he says. “Scarborough can get quite congested, so the Beachcomber is also a way for people to maximise their time at the coast, not having to face walking with the whole family down a seafront to find the perfect spot on the beach.
“We also have the additional benefit of stopping at Alpamare and Sealife, which obviously have separate tourist benefits themselves, so there’s a reason to hop on board for everyone – whether it’s taking in the views, travelling to tourist destinations, or simply gaining a vantage point for the seaside to find a less busy part of the beach.
Stuart continues: “We offer great value both in terms of travel and attractions; those wishing for a car-less holiday benefit from an all-in-one Coaster ticket, which covers them across all local East Yorkshire services, including Beachcomber.
“We know that some people are driving into the area, which is why we’re offering a combined ticket with our Park & Ride sites this year, meaning customers will be able to park up for free, head into Scarborough without the hassle of finding a parking space, and then hop on board our Beachcomber services as a family.”
So, coastal corners ticked, I sent a spy up to the Lake District to see whether inland open toppers held as much appeal. Last month, Stagecoach Cumbria’s popular managing director Rob Jones organised a shindig with stakeholders to launch new branding on his 555-service straddling Lake Windemere. Tourism bigwigs were hyperventilating from Rob’s tireless engagement with the community to create a proposition that helps fuel the local leisure economy. My snout reported back that his 599 open top service was near enough standing room only and with the type of folk who were far from traditional bus customers.
Rob explains how he’s pulled it off. “Our fabulous 599 service has a running commentary onboard, so much more the feel of a tour bus than a local service bus,” he says. “All along the route, local landmarks are pointed out and some history shared too. Our buses are stocked with the popular The Lakes by Bus timetable guide and our drivers are a regular team who deal more habitually with our tourist customers.”
Whilst Rob was schmoozing his stakeholders, I could hear the jungle drums emerging off Beachy Head from the Eastbourne Sightseeing Bus that rain hadn’t dampened their Easter Saturday launch and popularity is such that already they’ve started a 30-minute frequency and have duplicate vehicles in reserve! And if all that’s not fun enough, there’s Stagecoach’s dotto mini-train down the prom in Eastbourne too!
On Good Friday, Go Ahead’s Morebus business launched new Purbeck Breezer open top services, traversing delightful Durdle Door and the quirk of a bus boarding a ferry across the sea. Talented Morebus head of marketing Nikki Honer explains the pull of the open toppers: “I think it’s as simple as it being a very clean honest day’s fun! The views you get from the top deck can’t be achieved with any other form of transport. The Needles Breezer on the Isle of Wight is almost a thrill ride in itself, and where else do you get to go on a bus on a boat!?
In normal Monday to Friday life, when we are all busy with going to work etc, many people think buses aren’t for them. However, an attractive looking open top somehow doesn’t say bus, it says experience and fun especially when the sun is shining
“In normal Monday to Friday life, when we are all busy with going to work etc, many people think buses aren’t for them. However, an attractive looking open top somehow doesn’t say bus, it says experience and fun especially when the sun is shining. When you are on an open topper, you only have to look around and people are laughing and smiling at such a simple pleasure, possibly reminding some of their youth and for others a great way of keeping the kids entertained.”
Last year, Morebus picked up the pieces when Yellow Buses ceased trading to run a route from Bournemouth to Hengistbury Head, with connections from a popular holiday park in Poole to Sandbanks. However, as Honer concedes: “We were doing this with a normal bus which wasn’t screaming ‘fun’! We felt by expanding the Breezer family and giving these buses a fun new look along with some clever marketing activities, that we can generate more customers and encourage more leisure trips. We want people to enjoy our coastline and if we can help them do that by leaving the car at home, the campsite or hotel then even better.”
Morebus has more Breezers than Bacardi and this summer, as well as the original Purbeck Breezers, scenic thrill seekers can ride the Beach Breezer from Poole to Mudeford via Bournemouth, the Harbour Breezer from Rockley Park to palatial Sandbanks and the Jurassic Breezer from Weymouth to Swanage. Weymouth is the ultimate open topper multi-route interchange hub, with First’s own services down the coast to Lyme Regis and Axminster as well as to Portland.
I wanted to double check that it wasn’t just coast and scenery that pulled the crowds. So, it was off last week to Edinburgh for a classic open top city sightseeing service on Bright Bus Tours which is now run by McGill’s following their acquisition of First Scotland East. I had a cheeky chat with McGill’s famous top dog, Ralph Roberts, and he implored me to take a fresh perspective on the proposition – he’s excited by the potential of the service.
Ralph’s spreadsheets will confirm what I saw which were humungous queues despite drizzle and an icy blast off the Forth, so windy my toupee was clutching onto my bonce for dear life. Happy customers abounded too, all engrossed in a commentary full of titbits and in a dry, but also laconic Scottish accent, that evoked the days of Robert the Bruce with every turn of the bus, scaling up towards the imposing castle and then down to the Royal Yacht Britannia. The staff in Belisha beacon orange jackets are a garrulous bunch, hoovering up customers off the streets with their genial charm.
It’s not all glory though and it’s vital that these services aren’t successful just because of fab scenery. A manky old bus with rusty poles, departing from decrepit municipal bus stops sans branding, won’t do. Neither will a driver fitting the tired old stereotype of a grumpy authoritarian old bloke who is going to dampen the spirits of any scenic thrill seeker, even if the view from the top of the cliff onto the crystal clear deep blue sea down yonder is spellbinding. The bus industry needs to be able to prove that it can be trusted to take the foundations of a great product – scenery and fresh air – and wrap round it customer service differentiators that make it as high quality and customer-centric a proposition as you’d find at most world-leading tourist attractions.
The fact that it’s an uncomplicated ‘ask’ makes it a tantalisingly possible quest – after all, bus companies aren’t being asked to run something as complex as a fairground in terms of a range of completely different rides, mass queue management, catering, souvenir selling and sideshows. A well-maintained bus stop with an up-to-date timetable and branding visible from a distance is also key. So too, a clean bus with a nice, compelling vinyl on the outside and interior branding that adds to the ambience and route’s narrative.
Of great importance is a beaming, welcoming driver creating a sense of adventure, stopping the bus for a photo opportunity and regaling tales of the scenery or history of the route or a decent App or recorded live commentary. A plug socket to charge up the phone for when the journey has finished, comfy seats and then a ‘have a great day, thanks ever so much for joining us’ when alighting are also part of the winning formula. In all cases the fares are already great value, particularly with the current government-backed £2 offering on many of these routes in England, which is simply incredible.
Of course, marketing is important both of the kind that the local bus folk are doing, replenishing leaflets in hotels and at attractions, as well as the digital marketing that has been mastered by other sectors which can identify and target those with a likely penchant for open top buses.
Having traded in the cricket season for open top tours, I’m not stopping now and there’s the Skegness Seasiders from Stagecoach East Midlands to be sniffed out, as well as their sister company’s paradisical service in Torbay, the Toon Tour, a rumbustious open top sojourn round the bright lights of Newcastle and Gateshead, plus an atmospheric trip on First’s mercurial Dartmoor Explorer when it re-starts in July, traversing the moody but magical moor, which resembles a trip round a safari park, with buses regularly impeded by marauding wildlife.
The sector needs to look at where affection for its services exists
The sector needs to look at where affection for its services exists. Open toppers, which by my rough estimate are worth around £30m a year in revenue, invoke the opposite emotions among the public than are normally reserved for conventional bus services. Like preserved steam railways, they bring a smile to the face of customers, conjuring up feelings of happy times and simple, affordable, innocent pleasures, in the company of loved ones, of nostalgia or a sense of impending adventure.
The good news is the bus industry does it well. The even better news is that with not much more effort, it could do it with fantastic aplomb and create an unbeatable product that forever sells itself! See you in Skeggy on Stagecoach’s Seasiders!
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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