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The Leger brand can be seen all over Eurupe and beyond. LEGER

Following the collapse of SLG, Leger Holidays bought the Shearings name. Jonathan Welch finds out how the new business is being integrated into the Leger family

As the road map back to a reasonable degree of normality becomes clearer, and people start to re-find their sense of wanderlust, backed by the gaining pace of vaccinations, there has been a surge of bookings for holidays and stays across the country. A familiar name to which many will be turning is Leger Holidays, based in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham, along with the equally familiar Shearings brand, which Leger acquired following it’s demise in 2020, as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

I spoke to Chief Executive Ian Henry and Operations Director Chris Plummer, shortly before it was announced that Ian would be taking on the new role of Chairman, and Liam Race joining the business as its new Chief Executive, to find out more about the background to the family firm and how it has coped with the annus horribilis that was 2020.

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Ian has been a majority shareholder in Leger for 31 years, and has been running the business for the last 28 following the sudden death in 1993 of his father who founded the holiday company in 1983. “I qualified as a chartered accountant,” explained Ian, “but the travel industry lures you in.”

Chris joined the business in 2006 as Product General Manager, rising to Operations Director two years ago. Chris has an equally strong coaching background, having joined Wallace Arnold in 1991, following which he had a short stint at National Holidays, then Skills, followed by a spell at a tour wholesaler before joining Leger.

Ian explained a little more about the company: “We were taking around 50,000 people per year on exclusive Eurporean tours before the pandemic,” he said. “We specialise in battlefield tours and are the market leader for WWI and WWII tours in the EU and beyond. We’ve been doing those for 20 years.” Besides battlefield tours, Leger offers a wide range of short breaks and longer trips to destinations across Europe, featuring popular locations from Paris to Poland, Amsterdam to Valkenburg, and Bruges to the Baltic, to name just a few which can be found among the colourful pages of the company’s website.

As well as a vast choice of destinations, Leger offers its passengers three classes of travel. The base level is a standard executive coach, with the facilities that one might expect, and 48 seats to ensure that the journey is not cramped.

Above that, Chris explained, is the Silver Service specification, introduced in 2000 and which sees a silver-liveried coach fitted with just 40 seats plus a rear lounge to allow passengers extra space to mingle, socialise and move around a little during the journey. The upgraded seats also feature headphone sockets, and provide additional legroom. These coaches are generally used on longer trips, which can be anything from four to 19 days in duration, and reach as far as Moscow, Greece, Istanbul and the Arctic Circle.

The highest level of service is aboard Leger’s Luxuria coaches, which feature just 31 armchairs with calf-rests, arranged in a generous 2+1 arrangement, complete with full seatback entertainment systems to keep passengers occupied on those long cruises across the autoroutes and autobahns of Europe to far-flung destinations. The Luxuria brand was introduced more recently, in 2015, and there is currently a fleet of 10 coaches available to this specification.

“We don’t own the coaches,” Ian explained. “We work with a number of established operators who provide vehicles and are based around the country. We’re a tour operator not a coach operator, so we leave coaching to the experts.”

Travel expertise
The skill of those experts, along with Leger’s own team, is brought to the fore with some of the longest and most adventurous journeys the company has undertaken, which have taken its coaches as far afield as Morocco and the Arctic. “We’ve been right to the top, with a 16-day tour taking in the most northern settlement in the EU,” Ian said, “and down to Morocco via the Brittany Ferries route to Santander, visiting Casablanca, Fez and Marrakesh on an 18-day tour. We pride ourselves on our Grand Explorer tours. The challenge is putting them together, but we have built up a loyal following. People always want to see what the next one will be. We thought they would last a few years but people keep coming back.

“We have to go out and do a recce with the drivers beforehand, that is very important in places like Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Belgrade, Bulgaria. Our longest tour is 19 days to the Balkans and Transylvania. We run that four times per year. We usually run two Arctic tours per year, sometimes three. There’s a following for them amongst our customers, and certain drivers too, who promote them to their clients on normal tours. Every year over half of our travellers are repeat customers.”

Tours are operated by a crew of two, with one driver driving and the other able to act as tour manager and look after passengers on board, as well as helping with navigating in far-flung corners of Europe. Chris explained that although lots of the drivers have an extensive knowledge of many of the places they visit, Leger often uses a step-on guide for city tours, and that besides the additional local flavour and knowledge this gives, often it is a legal requirement.

The collapse of Shearings owner Select Leisure Group has been well documented, but what led Leger to take on the brand?

Ian explained that once it became apparent that the Shearings business would not be re-launched, Leger placed a bid with the administrators for the assets – the database, the social media accounts – but not the physical assets that were the coaches and hotels, which would not fit into the Leger business model. The bid was successful, and Leger made the decision to start from a blank sheet of paper in relaunching the Shearings brand.

Ian said that the timing had worked well for Leger, and that the company had been keen to get into the UK market. At a stroke, the collapse of Shearings and subsequent deal provided the basis for that, and eliminated a key potential competitor. “The barrier to entry to the UK market was high,” he explained. “The bed stock and the need for a feeder network meant we wouldn’t have been able to start against Shearings. Starting from a clean sheet, we had to find the right product.”

Chris continued: “We recruited a UK Product Manager, Lucy Osborne, who had previously worked at Shearings, and whose role has been to build our new UK programme. We relaunched the website in June to start to rebuild the brand name, and had everything on sale in about a month.”

Silver Service coaches wear a silver and light blue livery. RICHARD SHARMAN

Chris echoed something which other operators had spoken of at the recent VisitBritain conference, that some hotels and venues had been difficult to contact as they were closed and staff were on furlough. Speaking at that conference, Lucy highlighted how well the acquisition of Shearings dovetailed with Leger’s need to diversify and how well the two fit together with many synergies between them especially in terms of customer demographics. She also pointed to another important issue, the different lead times between the two brands, noting that whereas Leger’s European breaks were doing well for later this year and into 2022, the domestic side of the market tends to be focussed much less far ahead, meaning that the Shearings brand is much more ‘now’ and responsive to quickly changing situations.

“Hotels had been closed since March, there was a lead time for them to get up and running again. We were ready to go for September,” said Chris, “but we delayed until October.” 15 of the 40 ex-Shearings hotels, which had been taken on by Bespoke Hotels, reopened to welcome guests.

Prior to this, going back to the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, Chris recalled the depressing months of March and April 2020. “At Leger we saw a rolling progression of cancellations in April. We quickly took the decision to cancel everything. We had to be proactive. We put the 2021 programme on sale, and that for 2022, which meant we could offer customers an alternative option. That did really well, we have lots of customer loyalty. The vast majority were happy to roll forwards their bookings to 2021 or 2022.”

Traditionally, passengers on coach tours tend to be older, which adds additional pressure to the sector, with a higher likelihood of people needing to shield during the pandemic and afterwards, but Leger reports that bookings for later this year and into 2022 are increasing steadily now that a roadmap to recovery has been announced. Leger’s typical demographic is the over-55s, Ian said, although the age range for battlefield tours is more mixed, with people in their 30s and 40s, whilst Shearings’ passengers tend to be towards the older end of the age spectrum.

Looking to the future, Ian said that the company was confident for the return of domestic travel in 2021, and reasonably confident for EU travel, though that would depend on lifting of quarantine restrictions. A further worry is that whilst there may be the apetite to travel, other countries may not yet be ready to receive visitors, he said.

Seeking the best
Turning back to the Shearings acquisition, Ian noted that many of the operators that Leger already works with already had executive-specification coaches available, and by October 14 had already been liveried in Shearings’ new colours, with around 50 expected to be carrying the livery by the start of the 2021 season.

Ian was keen to highlight the opportunities for operators as well as for Leger and Shearings as the company ramps up its domestic offering. A recruitent drive towards the end of 2020 for Leger crews is being followed up by one this year for Leger and Shearings crews, and the company is looking to expand its network of operators across the country too. “We want to recuit the best,” he said, noting that a lot of very experienced staff were made redundant when Shearings closed, both directly and in hotels – people who could be lost to the industry. He urged anyone with experience in the industry and who was keen to join the Leger family to get in touch, be it former Shearings staff or high-quality operators looking to add another string to their bow. Ian emphasised that the relationship with its partner operators is key to achieving the success that has seen the company through the last four decades.

Working with Leger
Whereas the likes of Shearings and Wallace Arnold before it were known for operating their own vast fleets of coaches, along with resort hotels, the Leger business model is very different, leaving the coaching side of its holidays to a select number of experienced and respected operators. Following the take-over of the Shearings name, Shearings’ holidays will also now operate in this manner.
North Wales-based Llew Jones Coaches has been working with Leger for over quarter of a century. I spoke to Managing Director Steve Jones to find out what it is like to work with Leger, and why it continues to do so in a sector where standards are high and margins can be tight. “My father started the business in 1972, and I took over when he retired in 1994,” Steve said. “We have 44 O-discs now, but because we also buy and sell coaches and buses, we usually have a lot more than that on site.

“I think it was Easter 1995 that we did our first tour for Leger. We do a mix of different kinds of work; besides Leger and now Shearings, we do work for National Express schools, some local services, rail replacement, and private hire. We’ve also started doing PSVAR conversions recently.

“We were running all sorts of vehicles when we started working for Leger. We had some 1989 Leyland Tigers, some more Leylands dating from 1985. People scoffed at us for sending a Berkhof-bodied Dennis Javelin to Rome. We took a few chances,” Steve said, recalling sending coach types abroad which most operators might have preferred to keep closer to home, “and they gave us a couple of jobs. We learned quickly, and by January 1996 we had our first vehicle in Leger livery, a Plaxton 425. The vehicles worked hard.

“One of the great things about working with Leger is that it feels like a family business, you feel like you’re part of the team. They understand the issues we face out on the road, and as an operator. When things do go wrong, which is inevitable from time to time, you have the back up. They’ve dealt with everything before. If there’s an issue with a coach in Spain, they usually have a contact nearby. They are very easy to talk to, even in difficult situations.

“And then as time goes by you become part of the family, you become part of that network and part of the solution, you can help others if they have problems far from home. There’s a lot of support, it is a very professional and well organised company. In resort, things like hotel rooming lists will be right. You don’t turn up and find your hotel has been booked wrong. The planning is second to none. They are great to work for.

“If they see something that doesn’t work, they will react and change things, and rarely will a coach go out only half-full. They’re very good at making sure coaches go out full – which is good for drivers too when it comes to tips!”

Llew Jones has been affected by the pandemic like every other operator, but has been able to make ends meet thanks to its diversity of work, and is gearing up to resume tours for both Leger and Shearings in 2021. Steve continued: “Leger hasn’t been able to support us during the pandemic the way that National Express or local councils have, but tour companies just don’t have that facility. It puts the wider problems of the industry into light.”

For the 2021 season, Llew Jones will have five coaches under contract to the Leger Shearings Group: three Leger Silver Service coaches, and two for Shearings, made up of two Scania Tourings (one for each brand) and three Mercedes-Benz Tourismos. Steve explained that this will not be the first time that Llew Jones has worked for Shearings, and that being based where it is meant the firm had covered some in-resort days off in the past.

Steve believes that it is important not to put too much focus on work for one company, as well as to carefully manage costs. “You’ve got to be careful with the vehicles you buy. You see some operators buying very expensive coaches, and know they won’t be able to make a profit with them,” he said, explaining his choice of good quality but appropriate vehicles. “You have to be efficient and keen on EU touring work. You need to be careful not to over-invest,” he explained.

Overall, Steve said he was happy to still be working for Leger after quarter of a century. “They keep standards high with in house training. They’re very driver-focussed, and the company is very well-run. They’re great to work for,” he concluded.