Experimenting is essential

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Parrys International has seen demand for its London tours plummet since last year’s terrorist attacks. In Dave Parry’s words: “We used to run six to eight coaches every weekend on London theatres during the shoulder months – we’re lucky to get two or three away at the moment. That’s how much it’s affected us.” DAVID BELL

Gareth Evans catches up with Dave Parry about the latest developments at respected West Midlands coach tour operator Parrys International

It’s a horrible wet and windy day when I sit down for a coffee in Dave Parry’s first floor office at the firm’s clean, modern Cheslyn Hay premises, but in contrast to the weather outside, Dave is in reasonable spirits. However, in his best tradition, he’s frank in a non-aggressive manner about the opportunities and challenges facing his business, which is widely respected among customers and industry professionals alike.

Touring taxes

This magazine has carried many stories about the introduction of a host of new systems across Europe, be it emissions regulations, permit systems or tourist taxes, among others, with punitive penalties for non-compliance. Is it fair to say barriers have increased in terms of operating continental coach tours to the extent you either have to do it as part of your core business or not at all? What’s your experience?

We don’t habitually find British groups at our regular hotels in the numbers we once did. If you see British coaches, they tend to have inbound passengers on. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] I’ve noticed that there are fewer operators we see around on a regular basis with their own clients, particularly abroad as the decline in the number of operators crossing the water is amazing. You can see that by the fall in the numbers travelling by ferry or Eurotunnel. Those I see nowadays are Shearings, National Holidays, Edwards Coaches, us and Leger. A lot of operators have withdrawn from the market because it’s become a lot more complicated to take coaches abroad, but we’re still pushing our continental tours. A host of extra charges have been introduced – Italy, Germany and Austria for example, are introducing tourist taxes on a per day basis.

I’m currently planning our 2019 programme. I’ve spoken to hotels in Italy who’ve told me our rate, plus the tourist tax of just over €2 per person, per day. We’ve been asked for clients to pay the reception before they depart – in the same way they might if they have a bar tab to clear. It’s the sort of practice people have come to expect on a budget airline – everything’s extra – but not on a quality coach holiday tour.

Sadly, for us everything is extra. Tolls to go through Germany – VAT – we’ve know about that for years and we allow for it now. Austria has heavy tolls – and Italy is not too bad, except in terms of accessing town, which are ridiculously high. It’s €300 to go into Florence without going into the city centre, but you need that pass to get there. You even have to pay a daily rate in Montecatini if you’re staying there. Tourism taxes are being widely introduced.

You have to pay a fortune to go over the causeway in Venice – it’s €400 for a coach. With all the cruise ships and coaches going there, they can’t lose – unless they stop the cruise ships, which they can’t afford to do.

A lot of things are financial. It’s like the recent abolition of charges for consumers to use credit cards – nobody’s said the credit card firms have reduced their rates because they haven’t. For example, our credit card cost last year was £24,000 – but this year we anticipate it will be in excess of £40,000. Why? Because people take the view they can pay by credit card without being charged extra. It’s a huge cost we’ve got to cover – someone still pays for it in the end, but nobody mentions that.

All these charges have to be accounted for during the costing process – including parking, normal wear and tear and peak ferry or tunnel rates.

There are so many hidden expenses – it costs £650 to go to the South of France and back in a coach in French motorway tolls. The costs for doing an Italian Highlights Tour are horrendous as we go into Rome, Florence and Venice, all of which charge us to enter.

It’s not so bad for us as it’s our core business, but for someone who does a one-off or a couple of tours a year, it’s scary to take a coach to mainland Europe.

Take Paris for example, you have to pre-book your access and then you’ve got to validate them. If you don’t validate them using the barcode reader, you get fined. You have to print and display it prior to arrival too. It can be quite scary unless you’re confident you know what you’re doing.

The risks in running continental tours have shot up, so operators have withdrawn from the market.

Strangely, continentals are better this year than we’ve had for some time. I don’t know whether it’s because there are fewer players in the market, whether we’ve made it more attractive or there’s more confidence.

Terror impacts
Have the terror attacks in the UK and in mainland Europe impacted on your business?

Yes. London has declined big-style. We used to run six to eight coaches every weekend on theatres during the shoulder months – we’re lucky to get two or three away at the moment. That’s how much it’s affected us. London was our main shoulder month business. I’m aware a lot of the theatres aren’t doing too well.

Even in the summer programme, when we were running our Royal London tour, which included a visit to the Houses of Parliament, which is great, but it was the location of a terror attack.

Until last year’s attacks, we had a great London tour, called the City Pullman. It took in the Shard, Tower Bridge, afternoon tea with City Cruises and then Kensington Palace on the Sunday. The two-night break sold like hot cakes. The bookings stopped after the attack and they’ve not recovered. We’re still running it but numbers are struggling. People will not book due to fear. The problem is, as with Paris, there wasn’t ‘only’ one, there were several attacks, killing innocent people. The Berlin attack followed, which showed it could be anywhere – and even more so was Manchester.

We lost Paris too because of the attacks there – and the same for Belgium, as a lot of the terrorists were based in Brussels. People thought Brussels was Belgium.

Confidence has built back up, so we can return to Belgium to visit Bruges. I can see by our bookings so far this year that Paris is slowly regaining popularity – not in huge numbers, but we expect all our tours there to run this year. At one time the French captial was a huge market for us – we operated 40 tours there – but we only ran five last year. That was a big knock for us. I think gradually confidence will return – it’s too important a city not to. However, it only takes on crazy person…

In an age when the older generation is increasingly comfortable with using the internet, are you seeing a decline in customers booking in person at your premises in favour of doing it online?

I’m pleased to report we had more bookings in January this year via the internet than any individual operator on our reservations desk. However, people still want paper brochures to flick through over a cuppa. We do put our brochures online but the days of going all online have yet to come. In fact, we’re producing more brochures than we’ve ever done. Things quickly go out of date, so we normally print every four to five weeks – not full brochures, but supplements giving the latest information.

From this month (March), we’ve decided to close the reservations office on Saturdays. We experimented by only opening until 1400hrs on a Saturday. We’ve watched the booking patterns change. Saturday used to be a really busy day, but people no longer have to travel over here – they can phone or book online. However, we will be open in the busy periods of January and February on Saturdays next year.

It’s a different life now. Closing the office on a weekend is better for our staff who we want to look after – they like the idea they can work Monday to Friday like ‘normal’ people. Being shut on a Saturday would have been unthinkable at one time.

‘I still enjoy getting behind the wheel. You can’t run a business sitting behind a desk – you’ve got to see all aspects, whether it’s in the workshop, outside in the yard by the wash or just seeing what’s going on out on the road as things change so much’

Are you making any other changes to your booking system to respond to changing times?

We’ve decided that instead of having a date when we opened next year’s bookings, we should open them immediately when we’ve got them ready as people want to book and plan that far in advance.

For example, yesterday we had people come back off a coach from Valkenburg, Holland. We told them that if they enjoyed it, they could book the same tour next year. Today, we’ve had 12 bookings for the same tour, it’s a different date, but they did it straight away.

Similarly, we’ve had people book for this Christmas and New Year after they returned from the 2017 tour. If you go on a cruise, you’ll find they have a dedicated booking office on-board, which enables you to book with an incentive, two years ahead. It works really well – I’ve done it myself.

It removes that peak from August, when we would traditionally have released those bookings. That said, although we’re opening up our bookings a year in advance, a lot of people still wait until after Christmas before they think about their main holiday. It may be old fashioned, but it’s the way it works.

For us it means we get things out a lot quicker. I think it’s a big help. For example, if you go away with Jet Tours, you are bombarded with marketing literature – I tried them out for a weekend to Tenerife. Even while boarding the plane, they were playing the music that features in their adverts – and I received daily emails. It’s a very hard sell. Their marketing was really up there. They’re another type of competition.

You have an operator that people can just book a flight and go, and then you have Monarch, a trusted name, went to the wall. Even in the coach tour industry, it’s like losing Group Travel. It sends a bad message to market – we can be perceived as unreliable.

I feel the coach industry already has a bad enough image – we’re still trying to improve it. Every company has to bring their standards up, including increasing salaries for drivers, attracting a better class of driver. Tourism used to attract the best type of driver at one time, but you had to be a certain type of person to do it.

The fun side of what was very enjoyable is now serious. Drivers are reluctant to take on the high level of responsibility it entails. At one time, drivers could enjoy a beer with their passengers while on tour, but that’s taboo now – and then there are all the hours involved, restrictions, including drivers being stuck somewhere to comply with the enforced day off – the 12-day rule.

You’ve been a vocal critic of the 12-day rule. What’s the latest?

The Europeans got the 12-day rule back as their industry is stronger than our – yet it only applies to us if we go abroad.

Our drivers might be on a seven-day tour, but they can’t work seven days, whereas a bus driver can work 13 days without a rest day. It’s madness. Our drivers may only do an hour’s driving one day, but it’s classed as a day, so that’s gone.

It doesn’t make sense – it’s not geared for our industry. We’re a weak industry. At the times of the year when we need to make money – principally the summer – we need to be able to exploit our assets to tie us over the lean winter months.

We used to be able to do three tours – a weekend, a midweek Monday to Friday, a weekend and then they’d have to have four days off, which they loved. So, they’d worked 10 days then four days off. Can’t do that anymore – can’t even do a weekend and five days. All our staff are salaried, so they’re paid what they’re owed and there are other bonuses.

Recruiting and retaining staff is an industry-wide issue. What’s your view? How are you finding recruiting people?

We haven’t got a driver shortage. I believe it makes a big difference that we only do our own work. We also have good facilities and working conditions, which are all important – and we do a lot of training.

To be in a nice environment, to be on a salary, good working conditions and drive decent, well-maintained vehicles is how you retain people. We also try to offer a wage which is far better than the industry normal.

We’ve been growing our own staff too. My son James and two others have gone through the apprentice system. They gained their PCV driving licence at the age of 18, so as soon as they were aged 21, they could move straight on to the big coaches. At 18, they could drive the minibuses, gaining valuable experience in driving feeders, which can be hard work in itself.

Because of our shortages on some of the London tours, we’ve had to introduce day excursions, which we’ve never done before. We like to put two drivers on the day excursions – James is on one today. It’s quite hard work as you have to go there and back in the same day. It’s also a good training ground for new recruits.

We have two ladies in the office who drive, as well as some part-timers. I still enjoy getting behind the wheel too. You can’t run a business sitting behind a desk – you’ve got to see all aspects, whether it’s in the workshop, outside in the yard by the wash or just seeing what’s going on out on the road as things change so much. I believe that it’s due to my knowledge and experience of driving tours that we’ve progressed so much. I know quite a few operators who don’t actually go out to see what’s going on.

You said members of your team undertake a lot of training. Aside from the statutory Driver CPC for PCV licence holders, what other training do you offer?

We recently took a group of drivers and office staff for an educational to a continental hotel we make frequent use of. It was an intensive two-night trip, which enhanced their product knowledge.

We also held a meeting for all staff to discuss the whole programme, procedures, which included a product knowledge quiz. It was light-hearted but got the message across.

We gave them a questionnaire about our booking procedure. Quite often customers ask those at the sharp end what they’ve asked the reservations staff, so everyone needs to understand the processes. After analysing the responses to see who did well, we gave everyone a copy of the answers for their future reference. It included questions such as ‘why am I sitting here and not there?’ and ‘I’ve asked for this, not that’ – and what procedures are used to resolve those issues which may arise. I feel it’s important to support our staff.

We also have a meeting with the office staff every two weeks – which includes discussing any issues, what’s selling, what’s not selling and deciding whether we need to change the marketing. It’s important that reservations and administration staff communicate – difficulties can arise if they do not, even in a small company like this.

We also go through with the drivers what we’re trying to achieve, stressing the quality standards.

Commenting on the inside of the EVM, Dave Parry said: “It’s a lovely interior. People get on and they enjoy the ‘wow’ factor on a minibus. We use it on our feeders. Even our 16-seaters are nice, but the EVM vehicle is that bit special. It’s important that a tour begins in the right way – with a smart vehicle.” PARRYS INTERNATIONAL

Open day
Your annual open day was held on Sunday, January 14. Having attended it in the past, I shall never forget the crowds, including the one-way system for customers to view your coaches. How did this year’s event perform?

We were packed out again – we had over 2,000 people here. It was really busy from start to finish. We took £51,000 in deposits between 10 and 1500hrs. We always have a decent open day, but I think this one was helped by the fact we held it a week later, which gave us a bit more time to publicise it. The idea is to get new customers, not necessarily existing people. We did a few different things in terms of promoting it – and it was exceptional.

We had a lot of new people here. We considered having a personality present but to do that can detract from the real purpose – for people to book, to see what we’re about and sample our coaches. We went as far as to enquire whether Beverley Knight, a local from Wolverhampton, could come but when she mentioned between £18,000 and £20,000 for half an hour, we had second thoughts.

As in the past, we had representatives from hotels we use, including Hilton and Accor. We also had the Speedway people here again this year – we’ve been sponsoring them for 18 years. It’s amazing how much coverage we get off the back of that and their supporters who travel with us.

This year we also decided to advertise in Wolverhampton Football Club’s programme. Luckily, they’ve been a sell-out for every home match. That gives a feel good factor to the area, which makes people want to book.

Challenging competition
Coach holidays have come under considerable competitive pressure from other modes, such as flights and cruises. How have you responded?

We’re fighting against the cruises. Because it’s in the UK, thousands of people depart Southampton each week – they’ve got no luggage restrictions, great service and they can eat as much as they want. I’ve never cruised out of Southampton personally. I go on quite a few cruises, normally in the winter months from Miami.

The tide is beginning to turn – we’ve had people return to us after doing the cruise route. I believe that after a few years, it will come full circle again as people will get fed up. Going on a cruise can still be quite costly when all the extras are totted up. Initially it’s great – it seems like great value, so people will go for it.

Dave Parry is impressed with his minicoach from EVM: “The quality of build is great. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend EVM to others – and I’d go back there again.” PARRYS INTERNATIONAL

Heightened competition is not necessarily all bad. It’s made us work harder and smarter, as well as trying different marketing methods. It’s also helped our hotels give us better service, quality and more choice. People will no longer tolerate set menus. If the hotels won’t offer choice, we tell them we’ll choose a central location and only take bed and breakfast, enabling clients to select where they want to eat.

We’ve extended our Lake Garda tour by an extra night on the return leg. We stay in the centre of Bruges, where they can walk out and enjoy a bite to eat. It’s a great last night in what is a lovely place. The final day is easy then. We’ve tried something different and it’s worked. It’s broken down what was a hard two days’ travelling. It’s now one hard day and two easy days to finish.

Going to Italy, we’d stop two nights, but coming back we’d only do one overnight stop. The tour is now 12 days. It’s worked well as people feel a lot more comfortable.

It doesn’t always come down to price – it’s what people get for their money. You can offer a cheap product and find you won’t sell it, but you can offer a really expensive product which flies out.

For example, our Italian Highlights tour this year is £1,875 – it’s almost full now. We’re running a one-off to Prague and Budapest called the Imperial Cities this year, which is fully booked. We’ve added a twist to our Tuscany tour which is Lake Majory with Singachare, a coastal run, which is full because it’s a little different, so it’s more attractive. We’re always looking to make things different.

British Isles
Which destinations are popular in the British Isles?

Last year we experimented with a weekend tour to Warners Bros. studios for the Harry Potter experience – we never believed it would work but it did, so we’ve expanded that this year. Currently however, the demand does not appear to be as strong, but that could change. The overall picture is people book a lot later for that type of trip.

We keep doing TV themes, such as Call the Midwife. The joint ticket to visit Woburn Abbey and Bletchley Park in the same day has worked well. In fact, we’ve turned that into a weekend break.

We do all sorts of weekends – some include boat trips. We do tend to offer two nights, four nights or seven nights. We’re doing well at the Edwards Coaches-owned hotel in Looe, Cornwall, the Portbyhan – we’re there for Christmas and New Year this year, plus a lot of midweek dates.

Anything that’s got a bit of a theme does alright for us. Breaks incorporating Cilla the musical have run full so far in regional centres, including Liverpool, Bristol and Woking. We’ve done Strictly Come Dancing too. Last of the Summer Wine still sells but its popularity has peaked.

Experimenting is essential – what can catch people’s imagination may surprise you.

We’ve done different things – such as a weekend in Hever Castle, which we’ve not done before. The first tour is full, so we’ve added another date.

Mystery weekends sell all the time. Years ago we wouldn’t really touch Bournemouth, but now we go there – we offer the choice of Hilton, which is the standard we want, or a traditional seaside hotel.

We put odd weekends on. The annoying part can be we’re doing three weekends where we used to do 20, just to ensure we don’t have to cancel anything.

Things like Emmerdale have come along as there’s now an inside and outside studio. We like staying at the Hilton in Cardiff city centre – we visit the Royal Mint in nearby Llantrisant.

We had to change our departure day to Sunday for our Liverpool tours as the city is now so popular that the prices at weekends are sky high. A lot of our customers are not too young, so we can go out on a Sunday and come back Tuesday. That enables us to bring the prices down to good levels.

A gamble last year was a tour to Sunderland. It includes visits to Alnwick Castle, Beamish and Whitby. Old favourites like Torquay and the Isle of Wight remain as popular as ever.

We do quite a bit in Ireland – again, the most expensive tour is fully booked.


Some hotels welcome coaches and provide parking facilities (pictured), but some providers see coach groups as a ‘necessary evil,’ according to Dave, so he doesn’t take his clients there. PARRYS INTERNATIONAL

What’s your experience of Christmas markets in the UK?

Some of them charge a ridiculous amount for parking. We’re taking people to them, yet they’re charging us three times the normal rate. York charged £68 and Lincoln was over £100, yet they cancelled one of the days, which they also did three years ago. How bad is that?

We are going to York Christmas market this year due to the number of hotel bookings we get for our regular tours there. Because we’ve got the accommodation, we combine that as a base near York and then do all sorts – including Durham and Lincoln.

I love going to York – and it’s the home of Distinctive Systems. At one time, we ran as many as 50 York weekends in a year. I don’t think those days will ever come back.

Do you find hotels want coaches?

Most hotels in the UK and abroad are not geared up for coaches – and the same can often be said about public places, where access is poor. Many hotels regard coaches as a necessary evil – ‘we’ve got some beds left, let’s try to get coaches in.’ That approach isn’t a long-term strategy.

One large hotel in a popular English city has said it will only have us over Christmas and New Year, but not at any other time of the year, so we won’t be returning there. Therefore, we have to go where people want us. Accor for example, has become very proactive – they’ve held workshops, which have been attended by a lot of good operators.

I enjoy the Coach Tourism Association events too – they’re important and it’s where coaching people go to.

You’ve been a loyal participant in the UK Coach Rally for a number of years, but I understand you’re giving it a break this year. Is that correct?

We’re giving the rally a miss for a few years now. The weekend it’s being held on this year is particularly busy for us – and we haven’t got a new vehicle to take. We’ve won Coach of the Year 10 times.

I wanted to take part last year as James was 21 on the day, so I let him drive. I was delighted when Blake’s won UK Coach Rally Coach of the Year in 2017 – they’re a nice family.

We’ve had our share and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed taking part. With the event being fully subscribed, at least it gives someone else a chance. We had a rally meeting here last year. Organisers Ann and Paul Cousins certainly work hard for that weekend – and it’s fortunate that in Blackpool the rally enjoys essential local support. I wish Ann and Paul all the success.

Are you taking delivery of any news coaches in 2018?

This is the first year we’re not having a new vehicle. What’s the reason? The last good year we had was three years ago – we just about made profit last year. At the end of the day, we’re a business and if we don’t make a profit, we shouldn’t be here.
The two years before that, we made a slight loss – it was very small. If you saw our depreciation, you’d see the reasons why, but that’s not the point.

The oldest coach in our fleet is 14-plate. We’ve decided to hang back for a year and then start replacing early next year.

We’re limited to what we can buy now. I find it can be hard to get good service from some dealers, particularly when it comes to backup. That’s another reason that I’ve been reluctant to get new vehicles. We’ll have to buy new next year – we can’t go another year without doing so.

As things stand, we think we’ll go back to Van Hool – one of the few manufacturers that will build bespoke coaches. Theoretically, Mercedes-Benz should have it wrapped up – and I know they’re selling a lot of units. They would look great in our fleet and it would be easy for us to take them to Coventry for any warranty issues, but they won’t build a bespoke vehicle. For example, our clients expect interior overhead lockers as that’s what they’re accustomed to.

We’re guilty of our own success I suppose – our specification includes a rear kitchen and seatback entertainment, among other features. We’re paying around £470,000 net for a Van Hool, whereas you’re talking half that for a new decent coach – or put another way, you can get two for the price of one of ours. However, the vehicles are built for what we want them to do. I feel it would be wrong to reduce our standards and hence quality of what we offer.

Van Hool is really good to deal with. Yes Van Hool coaches are expensive, but so were the Neoplan Starliners, which we can no longer buy new of course.

What’s the latest on your minibuses?

We operate four Mercedes-Benz Sprinters. Have you ever spoken to someone who’s had EVM minibuses? They’re a good product. I’m really pleased with ours.

Last year we had two Mercedes-Benz factory-built 16-seaters from stock at EvoBus in Coventry. We downseated them from 19 to 16, which gave us a bigger boot.

We then decided we wanted a smaller one, but with more luxury – eight or nine seats and tables. EVM provided us with a lovely little coach. The quality of build is great. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend EVM to others – and I’d go back there again.

I know it’s a van conversion, but the finish is really high quality, with features other suppliers regard as extras – such as a reversing camera and USB ports – included as standard.

They can build it as you want it too. We asked for two tables – it’s a lovely interior. People get on and they enjoy the ‘wow’ factor on a minibus. We use it on our feeders. Even our 16-seaters are nice, but the EVM vehicle is that bit special. It’s important that a tour begins in the right way – with a smart vehicle.

With your son James being a member of your driving team, has he shown interest in taking the business forward in future?

He enjoys his driving and he’s progressively taking more interest in the business.

There was this hesitation when we were going to finish back in 2013. I’ve been at the helm 45 years. If I’m still alive, I would like to go to 50. If there’s not an alternative at that time – be it James carrying on or someone buys us – then we’ll shut the business down at 50 years of trading. I don’t think I’ll want to carry on past that.

I feel fine now. I feel we’ve still got a lot of things to do to make things even better. I know we’ll go back into good profit, but there’s such a lot of hard work to get there.

When I think back to when we started in 1973, we really struggled as everyone did because it was particularly hard in those days. Then we got to a position where we were doing exceptionally well and the market changed. All these different challenges come to test everyone don’t they? There’s no easy way in this business. It’s not lucrative.

There are good aspects to this industry, but you have to be a working type of person. It’s not a sector you can sit in your armchair and expect it to run and make money. You’ve got to get involved all the time and know all aspects of it. There’s the mechanical and coaching aspects; all the rules; health & safety; marketing; accounting; a flair to create new products to compete with an ever-changing industry; and have an open mind – don’t turn anything away.

Are you still enjoying it?

I wouldn’t go that far. I’m still involved and there are still things to look forward to. Generally speaking, it’s hard but we’re still enjoying it.

It’s a constant challenge to succeed. The not many companies can say their boss has remained at the helm from birth to where we are now.

I’m sure we can improve the image a bit more. Parrys is a well-established name and that’s what we work on. The challenge is to get them. Day trips attract people we wouldn’t normally carry. It may spur them to book a weekend or tell their friends and family about us.

We’re retaining our focus on quality. We are, however, continually experimenting to see what’s successful as we have to keep finding new things.

I’ve been doing my planning for 2019. In the past we’d say that a tour can go to St Anton – we’ll do 15 of them; and we’ll do 10 weeks to Mayrhofen and so on. You can’t work that way now as we no longer have the volume. That means we have to fill in all those weeks with different tours.

To do one tour entails the same amount of research work as 20. With 20 tours it’s even easier as you’re dealing with the same people all the time – you know the score, it’s regular and it’s easy to operate.

Now though, we’re looking at a host of different one-off tours. Yes, if you do a one-off you’re going to sell it, but you want something that does a lot of volume as it’s easier to operate. I’m finding I’m working harder now than ever – I’m only down to seven days.”