Let The City Simply Take You By Surprise

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2020 was a hard year for open-top tour bus providers, but RATP Dev used the time to take stock of its sightseeing collection and launch a new brand and ethos for 2021, reports Richard Sharman

When you think of companies that provide open-top bus tours in the UK, Bath Bus Company (BBC) and Original London Sightseeing Tour (OLST) would certainly rank amongst the top five. BBC operates multiple tours, formerly under the Navigtours brand, and holds the City Sightseeing franchise for two locations. OLST does not just operate in the Capital, but also serves Windsor.

The French Connection

Both BBC and OLST are owned by RATP Dev, the RATP Group subsidiary established in 2002 to export the group’s operations and maintenance know-how outside the historical network operated by RATP in the Paris region, and until now sat under the Extrapolitan umbrella along with Open Tour Paris. RATP Dev operates and maintains urban transportation systems in 13 countries on four continents (Egypt, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Switzerland, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, the Philippines, and the United States of America), operated by 106 subsidiaries. More than 1.5 billion passengers travel on its networks every year and it offers a wide range of mobility services, ranging from local rail, regional express rail and tramway to bus, cable car and sightseeing activities. In the UK, RATP Dev owns London United and London Sovereign, which operate Transport for London (TfL) contracts. A recent change has seen the companies’ individual fleet names lost in favour of bold RATP Group vinyls.

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As well as its open-top operations, BBC also operates the Air Decker service from Bath to Bristol Airport with a modern low-emission fleet. Previous UK operators owned include Epsom Coaches which closed in June 2017, with its Quality Line bus operations continuing until this year. Bournemouth-based Yellow Buses was sold to its management team in July 2019 whilst Selwyns Travel, which operates local services, school contracts and National Express diagrams was sold back to its original owner in April 2020.

Extrapolitan

RATP Dev’s sightseeing division was known as Extrapolitan, and it encompassed BBC, OLST, Paris Open Tour and several franchise partnerships in locations such as Marseille, Nice and Split. Vehicles carried a small roundel with the Extrapolitan brand to show they were part of the sightseeing collection offered by RATP Dev. However, the Covid-19 pandemic was a watershed moment for open-top bus operators, and 2020 saw operations shut down globally for the majority of the year, but the time off the road lead to a refocus and review of Extrapolitan’s offerings.

The world was never going to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic in a hurry. OLST operations are highly targeted to incoming tourists, whilst BBCs operations attract a mix of both incoming and domestic tourists due to its areas of operation. Where tours did operate during the late summer of 2020, Extrapolitan noticed short notice ticket cancellations, a lack of incoming tourists and customers’ needs and demands changing. Tours restarted with more tailored offerings in London on the 16 April with booking online for the Bar Bus, Kids Tours and a two-hour Panoramic Tour that was a non-hop-on, hop-off service. In Bath, tours recommenced on 17 April.

However, 2021 was going to be the year where the operation was going to enhance the customer experience and address key issues such as sustainability and what is being offered digitally.

New brand and ethos

To make the changes needed to survive in a post-Covid world, the decision was made to make its tours easy, flexible, memorable, insightful, sustainable and safe. With those key objectives in mind, RATP Dev developed a new brand that would bring all of its operators together. Vikki Annett, who was promoted to the position of UK Senior Marketing Manager in October 2020 from Marketing Manager at BBC, is overseeing the brand development in the UK and explained that: “We have been showcasing the best of Bath, Cardiff and London for many years, but operating under many brands has made it difficult to communicate the fact we are all part of one group, the single Toot Bus brand will unify all operations, but base liveries will remain and the new logo is adaptable as we have individual colours for each location, so, for example, London and Windsor are red, Paris and Brussels two-tone blue, and BBC operations in Bath, Bristol and Cardiff will be red and yellow.

“We have taken elements of each company name to create the new brand. Toot Bus stands for The Original Open Tour, so it’s very much a nod to existing operations in the UK and Europe. With this new brand, our launch of a hop-on, hop-off service in Bristol, and a more dedicated customer-centric focus, we hope to enrich the customer experience where our cities really are the stars. We enable our customers to engage, connect and become fully immersed in what each location has to offer. It is also a positive step for our employees and partners to see that we are taking the business forward.

Vikki continued: “This new identity comes with a promise to our customers: ‘Let the city simply take you by surprise.’ For international tourists and locals alike, discovering or rediscovering the city is an experience in itself. For many, their first glimpse of the city will be from one of our vehicles. Our role is to help our customers create memories and emotional connections with a city by giving them an experience that offers a fresh perspective each time. We also showcase the ‘hidden gems’ of the city, delivering a full, rich experience.”

Arnaud Masson, Sightseeing Director at RATP level said: “We have left the logo open to our customers to decide what it represents. Some reactions are wheels of the bus, glasses or binoculars that let you zoom in to the iconic element of the vibrant cities that we showcase, that is what this new logo embodies. From a customer point of view, it is good to know that you recognise a trusted brand when you are away from home. You might take one of our tours in London, and then be in Paris later in the year and recognise the brand.”
Derek White, Managing Director for BBC said: “We are delighted to be launching this modern, unique brand which is tailored to our customer’s needs. Coming out of Covid-19, and with the UK ahead on its vaccine rollout, we are looking forward to welcoming our customers on board our services. The new digital platforms will further enhance both our customer’s experience and our partnerships within the tourism sector.”

Catherine Booth, Managing Director of Toot Bus London: “Over the last several months, we have been hard at work crafting a novel and unique experiences for visitors to London. We are delighted to be back up and running in the city under this new brand. We are proud to share our vision of getting London’s tourism and entertainment sector back on its feet. Our whole team is eager to welcome visitors on board the Toot Bus experience and our new digital platform makes it easier for our customers and partners to book and
buy tickets.”

Environmentally aware

It is not just the brand that is changing, Toot Bus will be working even harder to greenify its fleet globally, as Arnaud explains: “We won a tender to operate the Brussels open-top tour with a 100% electric Unvi Urbis fleet. This is something we are proud of and hope to add this technology to the fleet globally in the future. Due to Covid-19, the start of the operation has been delayed, but we hope to be operational by the end of the year. “In Paris, we already operate a 100% low emission fleet with nine electric and six biogas-powered open-top buses. In London we currently have one electric bus which was delivered in 2018, and this is something we want to pursue more in the future. We are also looking at biofuels and retrofitting existing vehicles with zero-emission solutions, which we were hoping to do in 2020 but Covid-19 stopped this process, so for the moment, our London fleet is a traditional one. RATP Group operates a global mass transport fleet which has already seen 25% of the fleet converted to electric buses. Our sightseeing division is very close to the rest of the group, information about new vehicle technology is shared, so we are looking at how quickly we can make our fleet green in the UK. In Bath, we are already exploring our options to greenify the fleet as soon as we can. Greenification of the fleet is something that our customers and city councils expect and is increasingly demanded. We want to be ahead of any legislation coming in, so for example, in Cardiff, we have already invested in a Euro VI fleet ahead of the Low Emission Zone being introduced. We have also made some fleet changes in Bath and Bristol to ensure we are operating Euro VI vehicles. 2021 into 2022 is the rebirth of the tourist industry, and if the volume of passenger number increases we will increase our fleet accordingly,” enthused Arnaud.

Vikki added: “In addition to greenifying the fleet, we are also bringing in other measures to make sure that we are as sustainable as possible. We are implementing digital ticketing to reduce paper usage, and where possible asking our customers to bring their headphones so that we can reduce the number of disposable headphones used.”

New digital offerings

As part of the launch of the new brand, several new and enhanced digital features have been developed, as Vikki explained: “We want to go above and beyond our customer’s expectations, and that is why we have developed a brand new app. This will mean that a customer can buy a ticket on the website and then import that ticket to the app to show to the driver on boarding. Additionally, it doesn’t matter if the customer buys their ticket directly from us or websites such as Expedia, it will always scan on boarding. We use Ventrata for our ticketing equipment. Customers will also be able to utilise their time better as tours will have real-time vehicle tracking, provided by Zenbus.

“Sustainability is another key aspect of the app, which has been developed by Paris-based User Adgents, as it allows customers to listen to the tour commentary through their phone with their headphones. We have also invested in a new commentary for this system, with London being the first tour to use it, then the BBC tours. Bespoke children’s commentary is also included.
“Due to the fluid situation we are living in at the moment, we want our customers to feel safe when taking a tour with us. So we have changed our ticketing policy so that all tickets are valid for 12 months from the date of purchase, and we have added a 24-hour cancellation policy. We are have also obtained ‘We’re Good To Go’ status, the official UK mark to signal that a tourism and hospitality business has worked hard to follow Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines and has a process in place to maintain cleanliness and aid social distancing.”

Domestic market offerings

“We are looking to attract new segments, in 2019 nearly 70% of our customers were to the UK domestic market. For 2021 we appreciate that international travel is still quite restricted, so we are looking at offers that are tailored to families and the UK domestic market,” explained Vikki. We are also looking for the hidden gems of the cities that we tour to surprise our customers, and to that end, we intend to work with smaller businesses to achieve this and make it a more complete experience. From a sightseeing perspective repeat custom is quite tricky, people tend to take a tour if they are visitors, maybe as a one-off. So we want our customers to enjoy their tour and then recommend to family and friends so that we can expand our network in that way. The flexible ticketing option and reinforced hygiene measures will also help bring customer confidence back.”

New innovation

As well as building on a new raft of ticket offerings for its customers, Toot Bus is also finding that the London Bar Bus is becoming increasingly popular, as Arnaud explained: “We have been impressed with this new offering. It is very popular at the moment as we are coming out of lockdown and people are looking for something different to do, it also has the bonus of being in the open air. We think that it would also work in some of the other cities that we operate in.”

Vikki continued: “The London Bar Bus is unique in that the vehicle is also equipped with a lower deck toilet for the 90-minute tour. We are currently converting a second vehicle for the Bar Bus, as the demand is there. The tour operates from Friday to Sunday, and customers can order an alcohol package so that everything is ready for them when they arrive. Vehicles have tables on the upper deck that have ice buckets fitted, and a host is on hand to meet and greet as well as offering information along the tour route.”

The future is looking bright for Toot Bus, but Arnaud is also aware that it will take time for passenger numbers to increase to pre-pandemic levels: “Due to hotel capacity and vaccination levels differing in the countries that we operate in, not everywhere will be going at the same pace, as well as different legislation. So it is going to be a mixed bag of results depending on how open different countries are. This means that we are more than likely to be below our 2019 figures, but well above 2020’s. We know the tourism industry is resilient and each time it has been challenged it bounces back higher than before, but this crisis has been very bad and a full recovery may take a few years. We have a determined vision for the future, but we are also humble in the way we approach the market and want to learn from our customers about what they think of our new offerings and ensure that we keep our promise about operating a green and sustainable fleet to help protect the environment.”

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