A quiet revolution… too quiet!

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Michael O’Leary, CEO, Ryanair. World Travel & Tourism Council via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Payling considers what Ryanair’s boss has been saying about the package holiday model being ‘screwed,’ and wonders how the coach trade can receive the sort of publicity Michael O’Leary attracts

I’ve been reading what Mr. Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair has been saying to the press following the collapse of Thomas Cook. You’ve probably seen what he had to say. After all, it was all over the papers. But before I look at part of what he said, I would draw your attention first of all not to the message, but to the messenger himself.

You may have noticed that when Mr. O’Leary has something to say, the press are all over him like a rash. When I see him in the headlines talking about his business, it just makes me wonder what it would be like if the coach trade had someone like Mr. O’Leary to speak up for our industry and attract the attention that the Ryanair boss receives. I know, I know, I know exactly what you’re thinking. We’re better than that. Couldn’t agree more. After all, who would want to travel with a company with such an abrasive and pugnacious individual running it…

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Well, let’s put that particular thought to one side for a moment and return to what Mr. O’Leary has been saying following the collapse of Thomas Cook. Amongst other things, he said that the tour operator and package holiday models are dead and added: “…Nobody under the age of 40 buys a tour holiday or goes to a travel agency any more, they do it themselves.” The Ryanair boss said that as his company continues to expand and people grow older, the dated travel company model would shrink to extinction. “The whole tour operator model is finished,” he added. “[The market] is screwed, it’s over.”

Now, I assume (and hope) that the sector of the holiday industry that Mr. O’Leary was referring to is the airline package holiday. But it is worth noting that part of the reason why Thomas Cook went under was debt and not being fleet footed enough in a fast-changing market. Again, this is a market that is moving swiftly online and as a result, internet bookings left Thomas Cook high and dry with a large chain of unsustainable high street shops. However, changes in the way people increasingly book holidays online aren’t going to go away. So, could Mr. O’Leary’s thoughts apply to the coach trade?

While you reflect on that point, it’s worth noting that Mr. O’Leary does have an interest here in people booking their holidays online. After all, if you want to fly with Ryanair, how do you book a flight? There is a bit of canny self-interest underlying what he had to say, then. If the package holiday model for the airline industry does go under, then who benefits? Is that why, having tolled the bell for the package holiday he then announced some 14 new routes for his airline in 2020? And all this in the glare of priceless free publicity.

On a more positive note for the coach trade, Mr. O’Leary and his airline does have something of an Achilles heel when it comes to the future of his business which offers hope for the future of the coach trade: the environment. Given the increasingly negative publicity the airline industry receives because of the effect it has on the environment, it is going to have an impact upon some people who will look for increasingly sustainable ways of travelling. Which brings me back to the lack of a prominent national spokesperson/figure for the coach trade who could talk up the positive benefits of the coach, including at this particular time, its increasingly marketable and appealing environmental credentials.

I say this particularly in the light of the recent purchase of the first fully-electric Yutong TCe12 coaches by Westway Coach Services of West Moseley. Now, my guess is that if Mr. O’Leary had an electric aeroplane, you wouldn’t hear the end of it. Because the national media appears to dance to his tune, when Mr. O’Leary clicked his fingers, Ryanair’s first electric aeroplane would be all over the press. I say that because when I looked up what Mr O’Leary had said about the demise of Thomas Cook and the future of the package holiday, it was in the Mail, the Telegraph, the Guardian, etc. Then I looked to see which publications had covered the introduction of the first electric Yutong coach into service in the UK. Well, it was of course the subject of extensive coverage in this magazine. It received similar coverage in other PSV trade magazines. As for coverage in the national press, well, I’m looking. When I find some, I’ll let you know. Don’t hold your breath though.

And that is one very big difference between our industry and Mr. O’Leary’s. At a time of considerable focus upon environmental issues, our industry is in the middle of a quiet green revolution in the way coaches and buses are powered… but that’s the problem, the revolution is just that: quiet. Too quiet. Meanwhile, Mr. O’Leary continues get all the publicity going while he fills his aeroplanes without a care on the planet as to their impact upon the environment. In comparison to the impact of what Mr. O’Leary says publicly, it can sometimes appear that our industry is happier talking to itself than reaching out to the public and the market it wants and needs to appeal to.

I can perhaps see why the coach trade does not have a bullish figurehead that can obtain the sort of publicity that Mr. O’Leary can attract. Who would want the job? Being in the glare of the media’s attention can be a double-edged sword, and a sharp one. However, the opportunities in the new green world are there and will continue to grow. So perhaps we could look to another individual to be the indirect spokesperson/figurehead for the evergreen coach trade. One that can attract global attention.

Saying that, it’s a shame that for Greta Thunberg the only real alternative to flying to New York to speak at the UN recently was to travel there by boat. Imagine if she had been able to get there by coach! Imagine the publicity and the impact upon the younger generation. So, if Greta ever comes back to the UK, can someone please offer her the use of a coach when she is travelling around the country? And if you can make sure it’s an electric coach, that might just attract more publicity for our industry than Mr. O’Leary could ever obtain for his. However, if I’m right that Greta’s generation could (and should) be inspired to travel by electric coach, Mr. O’Leary could also be right that they will probably want to book online…