“We have taken different generations of families to school and on holiday for years and different generations of our family have driven the routes so we are all connected,” says Chris Bibby as he reflects on the unique connection between the coach travel company founded by his great-grandfather Clem in 1956 and its customers in its corner of the Yorkshire Dales.
There can be few firms that fit the term ‘family business’ as appropriately as Bibby’s of Ingleton, especially given the family’s roots in the village go back over 100 years where they were associated with fruit and vegetables and milk haulage before the move into coaching. Nowadays, as well as his dad Peter who is the managing director, Chris says the business involves “aunties, cousins, sisters, brothers-in-law, you name it”.
With 200 coach holidays, 120 day trips and dozens of educational school tours to First World War battlefields on the cards for 2020, like many other businesses Bibby’s was anticipating a good year until the coronavirus pandemic threw everything out the window.
While its local school run services have started again in limited form this week, everything else has been stationary since mid-March and the company has cancelled or rescheduled all tours and day excursions up until the end of July. Chris estimates in the region of 2,000 bookings have had to be refunded or rescheduled since March.
It has added up to an uncertain future for the company and its 65 members of staff – a number that makes it one of the biggest employers in the local area.
The challenges facing coach operators like Bibby’s were thrown into sharp relief last month with the collapse of Specialist Leisure Group, the owner of Europe’s largest coach tour operator Shearings Holidays, as well as National Holidays, Wallace Arnold Travel and Bay Hotels.
Around 2,500 jobs were lost and more than 64,000 bookings cancelled as a result of SLG’s failure, which was blamed on the devastating impact of the pandemic.
John de Vial, director of membership and financial services at travel trade organisation Abta, said at the time that the collapse of two of the UK’s best known coach holiday brands in Shearings and National Holidays, indicated the urgent need for a co-ordinated Government strategy to save the holiday industry from further pain and significant job losses.
“The fact that two such well-known brands with a loyal customer base have had to call in administrators is a stark indication of the pressure that the holiday industry is under as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” de Vial warned.
Chris Bibby says the news of SLG’s collapse sent shockwaves through the coach travel industry. “It wasn’t unexpected but it was a body blow for the industry,” he says. “They visited so many places and they were playing a massive role in tourism really.”
Chris says one of the impacts is that Shearings travelled to popular locations and attractions in such numbers to support tourism-related businesses in those places like hotels, cafes and shops and also make it more feasible for smaller companies such as Bibby’s to run their own trips there.
Bibby’s is among the 550 coach travel operators – many of them family-run businesses – who have written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak this month to warn that without urgent support many of their businesses will go under.
The letter, which was co-ordinated by the Confederation of Passenger Transport, warned that despite mothballing coaches and furloughing staff coach travel companies are still facing costs of almost £2,000 per day – placing over 40,000 jobs at risk.
The CPT said that despite the spring and summer being the traditional peak period, only two per cent of coaches that are normally involved in a range of tourist trips are currently being used and bookings are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until summer 2021.
CPT Chief Executive Graham Vidler said: “Without question the industry is in a fight for its future and feels forgotten by Government.
“The industry directly employs 42,000 people with many more jobs dependent on the sector to get people to attractions and destinations. Without support these jobs will go as operators will have no choice but to lay off staff. Attractions will also see reduced footfall as customers find it impossible to reach destinations.”
Coach operators such as Bibby’s have put forward plans for a three-point support package from Government including a cash injection worth £65m a month backdated to the beginning of the pandemic to help the industry cover its costs for the rest of the year; an extension of the furlough scheme beyond the current October end date and for coach tour operators to be treated as leisure businesses for the purpose of Covid-19 support schemes.
Vidler said: “This injection of cash into the industry along with the continuation of the furlough scheme is vital. Ending the furlough scheme in October means asking coach operators to pick up wage costs in full in the midst of the low season for coach travel. Without this support and the recognition that coach travel is a leisure business many operators will go under as a result of the 18-month winter they are facing with little to no bookings.”
Chris says that in addition to those measures, it is vital that the Government swiftly bring in a reduction of social distancing measures from the current 2m down to 1m, which would follow World Health Organisation advice and mirror guidance already followed by countries including France, Denmark and Singapore.
“We need to get down to one metre to have a fair crack at running anything sensibly,” he says. “We are already expecting to run with a reduced number of passengers but we desperately need the two metres to become one metre within the next four to six weeks.”
Bibby’s has received a £25,000 Government grant administered by Craven District Council but Chris says while this money was incredibly welcome, it only has a relatively limited impact.
He adds that one thing that has buoyed spirits in the business is the number of customers now opting to rebook for next year rather than request refunds for their cancelled breaks. “We were refunding a lot of holidays in the early days but we have been able to rise above that and get on an even keel and customers are rebooking for next year,” he says. “We are not getting the money but we are not giving it back either.”
Bibby’s are planning for the future with its next holiday brochure due to include tours this winter and into next year in the hope that existing passengers and new ones book with them when they can. “We have got to remain positive,” Chris says. “We’ve been in coaching since 1956, different members of the family have been involved over the years and there are lots of family members involved in the business now. It’s a big part of the community. We are a good provider of work over the years for many local people so we need that to continue.”
Government ‘has backed firms’
The Treasury insists the measures it has already taken will help businesses in the coach travel industry to survive.
A spokesperson told The Yorkshire Post: “We have provided a generous and wide-ranging package of support for businesses. Our job retention scheme has helped a million employers and protected more than nine million jobs across the UK.
“We have extended it until October – meaning it will have been open for eight months and will continue to support businesses as the economy reopens and people return to work.
“We’ve introduced a wide range of other targeted support measures, including bounce back loans and tax deferrals, business rates holidays and more than £10 billion of grants to businesses.”
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