Organising Honk for Hope UK

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A lot of work went on behind the scenes to organise Honk for Hope. Jonathan Welch talks to organiser Jenna Rush, to find out more about how the Honk for Hope UK movement came about and what went into organising the countrywide events

Following on from the successful Honk for Hope movement in Germany, where the government there allocated funding to help the coach industry through the coronavirus pandemic, operators in the UK followed suit, spearheaded by Jenna Rush of Newcastle-based North East Coach Travel. Since 1 July, events have been held across the UK in the north-east, north-west, south-west, as well as the capital cities of London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

The first London event brought the industry’s plight right to the doorstep of Westminster and contributed to raising awareness of the difficulties the industry is facing among the general public. The day after the first London demonstration, CBW sat down with Jenna to hear more about what went on behind the scenes, as well as find out about the person whose name is now familiar to operators across the country.

A number of operators sent Jenna flowers after Honk for Hope took to the streets of London, as a thank you for the effort she put in to organising the event. JONATHAN WELCH
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Positive feeling

“Everyone felt so proud to be back behind the wheel,” Jenna started, reflecting the positive mood of the events, despite the grim background. “Drivers were happy to put a shirt and tie on again. Even if nothing comes of it, it has made people feel better as an industry.” Even without the promise of financial assistance, this is just one of the positives that has come from the Honk for Hope movement, which has mobilised and incentivised operators and drivers the length and breadth of Britain.

“It’s been great to build up the contacts across the country, you see so many coaches out on the road but never the face behind them,” she continued.

“Although being one of the few females in the industry means many of them recognise me.

“I think a lot of operators, especially those who are not CPT members, are looking to us now and asking ‘what do we do next?’ And it’s not just the coach industry, but suppliers and hotels too. One operator was talking with hotels they use, asking for their support and reminding them that they need us as much as we need them. If coach companies start to go out of business, it will affect them too, what will they do?”

Industry-wide support

“Scania wanted to support us in London, but weren’t able to at short notice. Pelican have been tweeting to say ‘get behind this,’ as have many many more, and Airconco came along with us too. They said ‘without you, we wouldn’t have a business,’ which is the same for many suppliers. It affects people like our local filling station too. He told us that his takings are down by a large amount, and most of that is from us not refueling every day.”

Of course whilst the effects on suppliers small and large will be felt far and wide, the most immediate concern for many is their own financial position.

Some operators have already been forced to close their doors, and others are left hanging by a thread and hoping to survive long enough that school contracts and the slow trickle of a return of day trips and private hire will sustain them through the traditionally quiet winter period and into what many still fear will be a quiet 2021 summer season. Many smaller, family-owned operators and ‘one-man bands’ now find themselves in a situation where they have invested heavily in coaches and are now facing the triple-hit of having invested in Euro VI specification, invested in PSVAR compliance, and with the downturn of the tourist industry, vehicles that were worth £160,000 this time last year are now valued at two-thirds of that figure due to the nosedive in demand. Some operators have already seen coaches repossessed, others say they are on the brink: “We’ve got to take away those personal financial guarantees,” continued Jenna, “that’s what’s really got people scared and it needn’t cost the government a penny. I’ve seen reports that some have reached the point of feeling suicidal.”

Jenna admits she was nervous before the first Honk for Hope at Lightwater Valley, but was relieved to see the convoys of coaches arriving on the day. JONATHAN WELCH

Keeping the public on side

“We’ve got to appeal to the public too, they need to understand the reality. There have been a few negative comments on social media about ‘how can they afford to get there?’ but people really need to understand what this means to us and how much is at risk. In general though we’ve had lots of support from the public, there have been lots of people waving or filming with their phones. Once we’ve explained to them in person what it’s about, they’re usually very supportive.”

Besides taking to social media under the hashtags #honkforhope and #honkforhopeuk, the traditional media played a vital role in getting the message out, although after the first London demonstration, some participants felt that many of the wider national media organisations had overlooked the event.

The genesis of the idea for what became Honk for Hope UK started with a request by local television, explained Jenna: “ITV got in touch, they wanted to do a story. We said would they mind if we got a few other operators involved as there’s more than just us. We ran the idea past the CPT and it was also suggested that we could tie up with a local attraction which relies on the coach trade. Lightwater Valley seemed an obvious one, every day during the season there are coaches there with school parties and trips. Of course, because they were closed we struggled to get in touch but eventually managed to organise the first event for 1 July, with local media and operators from across the north there. The night before, I was very nervous but the response was fantastic.”

Initially, there was some reluctance and resistance from operators who feared a negative response: “Many of them said their vehicles were on SORN and we worried that people might not want to tax their coaches and do inspections, but we didn’t count on the strength of feeling in the industry being as high as it was. In the two days before Lightwater Valley, the numbers shot up massively, from 30, 40, and kept rising. Some operators committed four or five coaches. Lots of them were saying ‘what kind of message does it send if we’re not there?’”

Sound advice

“We decided to go for a second event in Blackpool, which is a huge market for coaches. Sam Archer helped organise the Blackpool one, he got in touch with Blackpool Council. They understood but it was more difficult there, we had to do a full risk assessment for the location.

“We got lots of advice on the legal side from Backhouse Jones, who were keen to show their support too, especially with the London event. We were clear from the start that we didn’t want to block streets, we need to keep people on our side. We contacted the Metropolitan Police and Westminster Council to inform them what we planned to do. Everything was done through Backhouse Jones. We needed to allay operators’ fears of the response from the Traffic Commissioners too.

“We expected to be told it couldn’t be done, but the vehicles are all legal – inspected, taxed and insured – and so long as we weren’t blocking roads or causing unnecessary hold ups, they said it could. That set a lot of minds at rest. Ideally we wanted a location in Central London where we could gather and speak to the media but they all said no. Out of the blue at the last minute, we got a message offering a location near Luton Airport.”

Despite fears about how many operators would get on board, operators from across the country have sent coaches to show support and add their voice to the message; many, such as Garnetts, sent a number of vehicles to one or more event. JONATHAN WELCH

Working together

“Alan at Dhilons of London worked tirelessly too, he was relentless. He initially wanted to organise London the same day as we were in Blackpool. I don’t think people realised how big this was going to be until Blackpool. As soon as we mentioned London people really got behind it.”

And with no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the stage was set for Honk for Hope to head to the capital. Convoys of coaches joined together at service stations along the motorways heading for London, congregating just inside the M25 before descending on Westminster, and not for the last time as Richard Sharman’s pictures in this issue show. Since Jenna spoke to CBW, further Honk for Hope protests have taken place in Edinburgh, Bristol and Cardiff.

By the time coaches went to London in August, operators were really getting into the spirit and many were adorned with suitable vinyls on the sides or windows. Johnson Bros. went one further and added one to their roof, meaning plenty of attention from the Sky News helicopter as it buzzed overhead as the convoy snaked through Hammersmith. Angela Holidays put on a good show too, attracting plenty of attention with placards and banners. In a symbolic gesture, that convoy was lead by a newly-restored Shearings Van Hool in period livery (soon to feature in CBW), the message being that where Shearings has gone, the rest of the industry could well follow.

Unbelievable

Although, at the time of writing, no financial help had been forthcoming, Jenna believes that the event in London, as well as others so far, have been a success in raising awareness of the coach industry among those outside it, and boosting morale for those within. “It was an amazing success, we were all over Facebook and we were trending at number 23 on Twitter. We got lots of press coverage, it made BBC and ITV regional editions, as well as national and local newspapers. The Telegraph, ITT Hub, The Lancashire Telegraph, it was in loads, and even abroad too. It was in the Australian Daily Telegraph, we got a message from a company in Australia who were looking to do the same. We’ve had messages from all over the world offering support.

“Alexander Ehrlich, who founded the event in Austria, came over to support us too. It’s unbelieveable how many coach operators across the world aren’t being supported. Of all the industries that have appealed for help over the years, the coach industry has always just gotten on with it, that’s why it’s been forgotten. Without us, who would get kids to school, move people when trains and planes are disrupted? We never ask for help, and the reason now is that the government has forced our hand. We’ve had to buy Euro VI or upgrade older coaches, we’ve had to spend a lot of money so we can keep going to the places we go.

“We appreciate every industry has suffered, but whereas some have been able to offer other services, such as restaurants offering take away, we haven’t. The government has to recognise that we’ve invested to meet its targets. If you buy a £200,000 house, you might have a 25 year mortgage. We’re paying that back in five years. People think we’re the same as a bus company, but in reality we’re completely different. We need that help now, not when it’s too late.”

North East Coach Travel is looking to the future and how it can diversify by offering garage services such as MOT preparation at its premises near Newcastle. JONATHAN WELCH

Bringing it home

Jenna has become the face of Honk for Hope, along with those who have helped organise and publicise the cause, but what does it mean to her and her own business, North East Coach Travel, which runs a mixed fleet of coaches from its depot just off the A1 north of Newcastle upon Tyne?

“Growing up I never thought I’d end up in the coach industry,” Jenna said. “I founded North East Coach Travel in 2013, and we started running in 2014. Now I don’t know where I’d be without it. It’s a very male dominated industry and I wanted to prove I know what I’m doing. It’s not always easy, but I gained my licence and CPC to be a Transport Manager. Through Honk for Hope I’ve met some of the other women in the industry. ”

A lot of our work is private hire, but we have one private school contract which has been running with just one child on it. Both the parents are doctors, we felt we could show our support and help by keeping it running. Of course it’s costing us to run it, but what kind of company would we be if we didn’t?

“Going forward, the finance companies can only do so much. If the government can step in and look at a way to just cover the interest side, not the capital cost, it would be a big help. Once furlough ends the industry as a whole could still end up laying people off, we can’t afford to keep them with no help.

“It started in January for us, we do a lot of inbound Chinese tours, they account for about 20% of our business. At first we thought it’s OK, we don’t have all our eggs in one basket, but come March it was a case of ‘what do we do now?’ So we brought the staff in, explained the situation. When the furlough scheme came in it was a lifeline but without other help it can only put off the inevitable. Going into this, I had about 20 staff, we have already had to lay a few off and we have 13 on furlough.

“Even if we secure one or two bookings, if its only £250 per booking it’s not going to be financially viable to put a coach back on the road. We’re looking at ways to diversify too. We have a large garage space here, which we’re keen to make people aware of. We can offer services such as MOT preparation, general repairs and maintenance, brake testing and mechanical work. We’re conveniently located here too, right next to the A1. We can’t just sit back and wait to go under. We’re being active and looking at ways to diversify and help us keep going.”

It remains to be seen what help might be forthcoming from the government, but if nothing else the Honk for Hope movement in the UK has brought the industry together like never before. It has created new contacts and friendships, raised the profile of the industry and what it does, day in, day out, and perhaps most importantly, has given those whose jobs and livelihoods are at risk a reason to be positive, to don their uniforms, look their best, go out onto the streets and show what the industry is capable of. Money or no money, the human factor is just as important, if not more so, in times which have taken their toll both financially and mentally.

Jenna Rush set up North East Coach Travel in 2013, and besides organising the Honk for Hope events for the wider industry, is looking at ways her own business can survive the coronavirus crisis. JONATHAN WELCH
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