It’s all about the family with Glen Valley

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Some of the team members at Glen Valley Tours

Another operator which has diversified to keep the wheels rolling during the Covid-19 outbreak is Glen Valley Tours. Jonathan Welch spoke to the company to find out what it has been doing in these difficult times

Operators up and down the country have had it tough over the last year, and even though there’s now a glimmer of dim light at the end of the long Covid tunnel, many are still having to work hard and innovate to help pull themselves through what may have been coaching’s worst year ever. For some operators, that has meant taking on a wider portfolio of work, such as schools or service duplication to provide social distancing capacity, while for others it has meant broadening the scope of their workshop and engineering functions.
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Quietly carving a niche for itself from its small base in picturesque Wooler, in North Northumberland not far from the Scottish border at Coldstream, is Glen Valley Tours, whose small team has been keeping itself occupied by tackling the other coaching hot potato, PSVAR, by offering quality conversions carried out in its own workshops. Although the issue is a thorny one, for a small number of operators and converters, it has proved a lifeline against the drop in work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Very much a family run business with 3 generations working alongside each other, I spoke to one of Glen Valley Tours’ owners, Director Iain, and Iain’s son and Workshop Manager, Daniel, to find out more about how the family firm came to start offering conversions, and what the future holds.

“No one has one specific role,” explained Iain. “When running a family business, we all have to be able do a bit of everything. We all have our own preferences. I enjoy getting out the office and helping in the workshop, Daniel prefers to be in the workshop but enjoys driving on the odd tour, but between us we just help where it’s needed. That’s the beauty of a family business, it’s never boring!”

With the main bulk of its private hire and tour work drying up in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the family looked at other ways to keep things on an even keel. “We were lucky we operate a few local school contracts and services which have helped us through, but we needed to find other sources of income for the business to help pay for the vehicles left in the yard. This is when Daniel decided PSVAR conversions could be the life line we needed. We knew we had the skills and facilities to try it and so we started with a practice run on our own Jonckheere JHV and advertised this on our Facebook page. Through this and work of mouth we quickly gained our first customer, Ridleys Coaches based in Leamington Spa, and since then we’ve completed eight conversions including a second for Parks of Hamilton.”

Work in progress
At the time of CBW’s visit, the second Jonckheere JHV for Parks of Hamilton was in the process of being converted, the team having finished the ‘destructive’ stage and started to fit the new door frame. Also present was a VDL Futura of Manchester-based Tyrers. The first of its type to pass through the workshops for conversion, the VDL had proved somewhat more challenging, said Daniel and Iain. Nonetheless, it was near completion and just awaiting finishing, including painting of the new panels.

“We ordered two VDL conversion kits in November, and they arrived in early March,” continued Iain, “but after receiving them we realised they are not quite complete kits. We have had to source or fabricate some parts. It’s a new process for us and the suppliers, and we’re currently working with VDL to try and make the process of parts ordering simpler and quicker. Part of the hurdle is importing the parts from Europe.”

Quality and image are very important to the team at Glen Valley, and that ethos extends to its PSVAR conversions. “It has to be done properly and it has to look good,” Daniel said. “It has to look as close to the original as possible, we want it to be aesthetically pleasing and avoid the aftermarket look. We use OEM parts as much as possible. In the short term there may be other cheaper options, but if for example a coach has a broken window in 10 years’ time, the operator will still be able to source the part from the OEM. Buying cheaper alternatives saves on day one, but we don’t believe that’s the right way to go about it for us and the customer long term.”

Quality
The Glen Valley way is that it is not just about achieving a set of parameters: the look and feel of the coach must still be right. That attention to detail includes things like a neat cover over the destination screen, rather than just mounting it inside the windscreen, to help maintain that tidy look that passengers expect from a touring coach. Similarly, the nearside destination screen is set into the stretch panel, and the rear one is also neatly finished: “It has to look like a coach. A good quality finish will also help the resale value and saleability of the finished coach too,” the firm believes. “As operators we understand what a coach means to our customers. We treat their coach like our own and present it how we would expect ours to be presented.”

Daniel showed me the work in progress on Tyrers’ VDL Futura, which due to the location of the lift above the rear axle had required a lot more extensive work than the JHVs. “Lots of people just assume that fitting a lift just means cutting a door opening, attaching the lift, and it’s good to go,” he said, “when in reality there is a lot more which needs to happen under the skin. This can include the moving or re-routing of pipework and ducts for heating, ventilation and hydraulics, as well as the installation of extra cabling and hydraulics for the lift itself. On the other hand,” he continued, “fitting the door itself proved easier. This is our first VDL Futura and we have learnt a lot from it. The pressure was on as we didn’t have time to practice on our own before starting work on Tyrers’, however we know from gaining experience on the Jonckheeres, production after this one will be quicker.”

Detail
Attention to detail is important: “We took time to make sure the lift flap in the locker is waterproof,” said Daniel. “A lot of people use piano hinges, but they get dirty, corrode and seize. We use a plastic hinge which looks better and won’t leave rust marks on the body.”

One of the most expensive (in relative terms) parts of the VDL conversion was the small infill pieces either side of the door, Daniel said, which would cost a four-figure sum from suppliers. Instead, Glen Valley’s team had taken the original panel and carefully used that as the basis to produce their own, with very neat results, and which represents a useful and significant cost saving.
Daniel also pointed out that the door locks in the open position by means of a latch, rather than relying on hydraulic rams to keep it open. This makes it a safer option on windy days, even more so as the lift itself is housed behind the door on the VDL conversion, rather than behind a separate flap, meaning that the door blowing shut would strike the lift arms and potentially cause significant damage. The lifts themselves are from well-known manufacturer PLS, bringing with them the quality and functionality expected of that manufacturer.

To ensure a quick turnaround, the company decided to order enough parts to keep stock for a number of conversions. As Iain and Daniel explained, even if the conversion work from other operators dried up, Glen Valley will still have its own coaches which need converting.

“We work on a one in, one out basis. This ensures the coach has our full attention whilst it’s here, we won’t take the customer’s coach until we have the required parts ready to start work upon delivery of the vehicle. We normally say four weeks for a coach but it is often less.” The first conversion was daunting, the pair said, and it took a while to get their heads around cutting into the side of a coach, but once they understood the process it proved not to be as bad as expected. With experience gained from their own coach and subsequent customer orders, the turnaround time has reduced and a coach can be finished in as little as nine days now, and back with the operator in less than a fortnight, if need be. “As operators we understand a coach off the road and not working is basically costing them money, so this is why we only accept the coaches when we’re ready to start production, to reduce down time for the operator. This ensures our turnaround time is as quick as possible. I think this is what makes us quite unique, to have this understanding and methodical approach.”

New facilities
To benefit both the conversion work and the firm’s own fleet, Daniel said that the company is looking at expansion and building an extra maintenance unit on an area which is currently outdoor parking, to provide more undercover space for external customer maintenance services, parking and conversion work, as well as to allow more room for day-to-day maintenance, which is all carried out in-house.

“As well as PSVAR conversions we provide 70-seater conversions, air-conditioning servicing, diagnostic testing and brake testing for other operators. We will help anyone with anything where we can and enjoy the network we have within our industry.”

“Without the diversification,” Iain continued, “I don’t know where we’d be. The conversion work has provided vital income to help pay for the business overheads during the pandemic, vehicle finance being the main one. It’s been a devastating time for operators and I can’t see any help on the horizon, and even in Scotland the criteria for funding are hard to meet. I think everyone would welcome less money spread more evenly across the board.”

In ‘normal’ times, Glen Valley has a complement of 22 staff, including Eric, Iain’s father-in-law, also a Director. Eric still plays an active role in the company, and is on site every day in ‘normal’ times, while Dan’s wife Nicola works in the office, and brother Jason works in the workshop. “We have a fantastic team here at Glen Valley, some members of staff have worked continuously throughout lock down, providing home to school transport and services for key workers and key worker children. Others have turned their hands from tour driving to helping assist with the conversions. The support we have received from all of them throughout has been overwhelming,” said Daniel.

The fleet consists of 24 vehicles, made up of five touring coaches, three service buses and eight minibuses, with the remainder being coaches for schools. “Unfortunately, much of the fleet hasn’t turned a wheel since last March,” said Iain.

A significant amount of work the company does involves inbound tourists to destinations such as Edinburgh as well as London, which means that as well as PSVAR, it has had to invest to ensure its fleet meets low emission zone requirements. Between PSVAR and Euro VI upgrades, an operator could be spending almost £50,000 per coach to be compliant, Iain said. “It’s the right way to go, but we need help to get there. It does seem like we’re one of the smallest countries and yet we are trying to do the most.”

Glen Valley Tours doesn’t see its inbound tourist work picking up any time soon, and probably not until next year, though it has seen some resurgence in the day trip and private hire market, with enquiries slowly starting to come in again, and some confirmations from schools for residential trips planned to go ahead later in the year. “The only thing that’s gone out has been the team coach,” Iain said, speaking about the well-appointed, high specification Jonckheere which the company bought last year, and which has seen use on football and rugby team duplication work alongside other operators, to allow for social distancing aboard team coaches. “We can’t wait to get all of the wheels turning again, and we’re sure better things are to come for everyone.”

More information on the conversion and workshop services available can be found at: glenvalley.co.uk/conversions/ or by contacting Iain or Daniel on 01668 281578
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