Safe & Sound

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Jonathan Welch visits a small operator that makes a lot of noise: Rochdale-based brass band specialist Sounds Travel

I have to admit that until the first Honk for Hope event at Lightwater Valley this summer, Sounds Travel was not a name that had come to my attention, and I was a little surprised to learn that although the company had the air of being a much larger operator, it has just three o-discs and operates two coaches and a minibus from its small depot tucked away on an industrial estate in Rochdale.

Sounds Travel has somewhat unusual roots. As the name subtly suggests, the operator has a musical background and specialises in carrying brass bands, of which there are still a good number across the north of England. At the time of CBW’s visit, the company had just taken delivery of its second tri-axle Setra S416 GT HD, which had just returned from a repaint into its smart glossy black colour scheme – Jaguar Ultimate Black – by Lawtons in Stoke on Trent. At the same time, the driver’s and courier’s seats were retrimmed to match, complete with embroidered logos in the headrests. It joins a similar coach already in the fleet and a smart silver minibus, which between them serve some of the biggest names in brass bands and are regularly to be found at concert venues across the country.

It seems somewhat of a niche and unusual market, so how did Sounds Travel come about? I met up with Owner Stephen Ward and Operations Manager David Foster to find out. “I spent a lot of time on coaches, I was part of a brass band so that was a way in for me. For a band, the coach is a means to an end, but we want it to be a pleasant experience for them. They can be spending three or four hours on a coach going to a concert. They want to know that the driver knows what he’s doing, especially loading and unloading the instruments. Some of them can be worth over £15,000,” said Stephen.

The ‘stealth’ imagery only becomes visible under lighting at night – or with a camera flash. JONATHAN WELCH

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Not only do drivers need to know how to handle the instruments, but the venues themselves can be difficult to get a coach into. “You look at some of the venues and wonder how you are going to get in. Some concert halls are ridiculous to get in with a coach, you might have to reverse in from the main road or down a narrow alley. At one we have to use the ferry lift to get the mirror over the fence. We’re all used to driving tri-axles though.”
Getting started

“It started in 2011, I played in a band and knew the owner of a coach company. One day I asked if it would save needing a second driver if I did my PSV, and things went from there. He helped me with that and I did him a new website. After that, friends started asking if I could get them a coach. I’m very up on image, so we’d make up banners for the windscreen with the Sounds Travel name and the name of the band, it looked very professional. It was good publicity for them and got our name out there as well.

“I decided I wanted a coach so in 2017 I obtained an operators licence and bought my first Setra. It didn’t work out well, I tried to do everything myself rather than take on employees,” continued Stephen, who was still doing his ‘day job’ as an engineer as well. That first coach was an ex-Gibsons 48-seater new in 2011, which was joined by a similar one that had belonged to Clarkes. “When I stopped, we had customers ringing up saying they weren’t happy using other companies so I decided to try again.

New recruit Darren Dawson, Owner Stephen Ward and Operations Manager David Foster. JONATHAN WELCH

“Dave wasn’t happy where he was so I took him on as Operations Manager to do the work, and went to Mercedes-Benz who gave me a good price on a coach.”

Stephen‘s own background is engineering, and he entrusts the day-to-day running of the company to David, who jokes that he often comes in on a Monday to find that something has been added to one of the coaches over the weekend!

The company has recently taken on a second member of staff, Darren Dawson, who shares Stephen and David’s ethos and work ethic. At the time of CBW’s visit, Darren was working on preparing the new coach – which will normally be his – for service. Although it might be expected that the newest driver would get the older coach, and the new one go to David, it turns out that the latest acquisition features a Powershift transmission which Darren and Stephen prefer while David prefers the older Setra’s ZF ASTronic transmission.

Both coaches have had the driver’s and courier’s seat re-upholstered to provide the best working environment for the driver, and a striking first impression for passengers. JONATHAN WELCH

Hitting the high notes

“We’ve formed a good team here,” Stephen continued. “All three of us know each other through driving for Travelmaster. We’ve all got the same level of pride in our work. If I’m building a team I’d rather work with mates and people I can trust. I like to involve them in discussions, for example when we did the driver’s seats, I asked whether they wanted full leather. I sometimes have to just make a decision but three heads are better than one. I’m stubborn but I do listen.”

“I came here to work because I want to do a good job,” Darren agreed.

Besides the re-upholstered driving seats there were thoughts of having the saloon seating re-covered too using a diamond-stitched pattern, but with the coronavirus hitting as it did, Stephen said that he had to draw the line somewhere for now.

“We’ve got some school work to keep us going during Covid, which gives the lads chance to sort out the new coach in between,” he continued. And when Stephen says sort out, that doesn’t just mean a quick wash and brush. Standards of presentation at Sounds Travel are very high, details matter and things have to be just right. The new Setra has been thoroughly deep cleaned inside. “The first time Dave took a coach to Yelloway for inspection, they asked if he wanted to use the washing facilities while he was there. But we won’t use brushes, we wash them by hand using a sponge. It keeps the paint looking its best.”

Livery details

By the time this appears in print, the new coach should have had the livery vinyls added as well as a host of extra touches including the additional lighting that has already been fitted to the existing coach. The livery itself is worthy of mention, as it is somewhat more clever than it first seems. At a glance, the coach appears to wear a smart black livery with red and white Sounds Travel logos. But look closer and under certain daytime lighting, the dark silhouettes of musical instruments appear along the sides, which give a hint at the focus of the business without making it too overt or restrictive when it comes to doing other work. At night however, or when hit by the bright light from a camera flash, these are reflective and turn into bold, bronze-coloured instruments adding a touch of drama and magic whilst still looking classy and stylish.

Stephen explained that the instruments represented in the livery have a personal meaning: “The graphics used for the instruments are taken from the professional level instruments that my family play. Starting at the front of the coach, the tuba is the model I play, the Flugel Horn is the model my daughter plays and the cornet is the model both my wife and daughter play on. The trombone is just for effect!”

An illuminating experience

The livery is not the only thing to glow in the dark. Because the vehicles often find themselves parked in dark alleyways behind theatres and venues, as well as the additional roof-level downlighting LED strips have been neatly and discretely added around the edges of luggage doors to reduce the very real danger – especially with a black coach – of people not seeing the edge of the open door and walking into it at night when loading after a concert.

Mention of the roof-level downlighting brings the story of just how much attention to detail matters. After an online search, it seemed that Setra coaches were only available with this feature from the factory in the US market, and so switches with the correct symbol were only available there. Of course, other similar switches with light bulb symbols could have been used, but Stephen wanted it to be correct, and with Evobus unable to supply any in the UK, Stephen ordered a set from the USA. And with forethought, made sure to order enough to be able to fit a second coach too. All the work is carried out to a high standard and with the aim of making it look like original equipment. It will come as no surprise that all the vehicles have personalised registrations. “The new one has never been out in black with its old registration,” said Stephen, highlighting the importance of all the small details that come together to create the very professional corporate image that many much larger companies would be proud of.

The livery graphics are applied by Graffic Detail, which is based just feet away from Sounds Travel’s yard. JONATHAN WELCH

Vital supplies

A further small but useful modification is the construction of a tea and coffee locker in what was the bunk area. In line with requirements of the business, most of that space has been given over to luggage, with a small area by the emergency exit door being retained to house some very neatly integrated shelving built by a local carpenter, containing items such as tea, coffee, sugar, and other vital supplies in an easily accessible location behind the original bunk access shutter.

The former bunk area has been given over to luggage space and a small locker created for supplies of tea and coffee. JONATHAN WELCH

Most of the work has been carried out in house, another modification being additional orange side marker lights which are wired to flash with the indicators. “I’m quite into tech,” continued Stephen. “I try to do everything electronically. We use software for our walk-round checks and for remote tachograph downloads. It helps with compliance. We use Trutac software and Trufleet to keep track of maintenance, which is done for us by Yelloway.

Talking about the choice of Setra coaches, Stephen said that he chose them for the luggage space. “I looked at others, including a Van Hool Astron but it wasn’t right for me. The luggage space wasn’t deep enough. Luggage space is always the issue, we probably only take around 30 people maximum but the space underneath is still full. Even now we can’t fit everything in sometimes.”

For the times when even the luggage capacity of the Setra isn’t enough, Sounds Travel also has a trailer available, which can be hauled by Stephen’s 4×4. “The trailer was a big investment. For the top bands, when they go away the trailer is full. People were hiring vans every weekend as well as the coach. I decided if I had a trailer, then they would be paying me to do it instead. It makes sense. It has had some modifications such as a battery and extra lighting so we can see when we’re loading it. We’re unique in what we can offer. Ultimately I’m lucky that it’s my hobby and I’ve been able to make it a business. If I could give up engineering I would, but its been a godsend to me recently.”

Valuable reputation

Such is the operator’s reputation that it often has to turn bands away at busy times of the year. “On Whit Friday there’s the brass band contest at Saddleworth, we have to say no, we can have 11 or more bookings. No matter how busy we are, we always do as much as we can to make it a good experience for them. We won’t try and fit in work if we don’t think we can do it.” Music is very much in the family. Stephen met his wife in a band, whilst his daughter is a member of Wardle Academy’s band which holds the current European Youth Champion title. Other well-known local bands carried include The Fairey Band, Dobcross Silver, Boarshurst, Brighouse & Rastrick and Skelmersdale Bands, and the company gets requests from much further afield too.

A member of the Brighouse and Rastrick Band was only too happy to affirm the quality of service that Stephen and David provide: “Sounds Travel are our preferred travel partner as the service they provide is the best we’ve experienced. The coaches are comfortable, spacious and well looked after. They are always on time, reliable and they provide a professional yet friendly service. We consider them an integral part of our B&R family,” they told CBW.

In the right key

Attention to detail even extends to embroidered towels in the toilet and a branded welcome mat. JONATHAN WELCH

For Stephen, there is no reason for things not to be right. The company’s image and professionalism are seen as key when dealing with clients who are entrusting it with tens of thousands of pounds worth of instruments, and details count. Stephen points out that things like reading lights all work, and if a bulb goes, the drivers know how to replace them. “It was probably one of the first things I showed them,” he said. “In many bigger companies, the drivers will just leave it for the mechanics or say they don’t have time. It’s often not a high priority. For me it is. It has to be right. Everything should work.”

Attention to detail is everywhere. A new tacho head unit was due to be fitted at the time of my visit, as the one on the new coach had a worn button. Showing me a tachograph print-out, Stephen highlighted that the unit was programmed to print the Sounds Travel logo at the top. Another small touch but one which looks smart when asked for a print-out at roadside inspection, all of which goes towards making the company look and feel professional. As if that weren’t enough logos, Stephen is also looking at how he can replace the downlight built into the nearside mirror arm to project the logo onto the pavement when the door is opened!

In fact, such is Stephen’s attention to detail that I’m sure he’s only half joking when he points out that the pattern in the wheeltrim on front wheel was perfectly horizontal as I was taking photos – it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d taken the wheeltrim off and made sure it was straight before I arrived!

Many strings to its bow

Other modifications include a wireless microphone, as it makes it easier for guides or group leaders to move around whilst talking, and on-board WiFi. “When we started we were using other people’s coaches so had to find ourselves a USP. I bought a mobile on-board WiFi unit with media server. We put WiFi information cards in seat-back pockets with instructions and our logo on. We wanted to look like a big company and have a big image.”

The third vehicle in the fleet is a silver Ford Transit minibus. “It doesn’t go out a lot,” said Stephen, “as it has no luggage space, but it is useful for the occasional private hire. We’d have to quote for it with the trailer, which is a bit big for it really. It’s not a bad bus – in fact, it’s very good. It has done some football supporters trips when they don’t want full size. They were used to old ones, so were very impressed when we turned up in it.”

Positive notes for the future

Despite the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, Stephen was positive that the company would be able to weather the storm, especially thanks to him remaining employed as an engineer during the week. “All our band work has stopped for now, and it doesn’t look like it will pick up any time soon,” he said, “but we’re not restricted to bands, we do try to make sure we stay versatile. We’ll consider everything. We’ll try to resist PSVAR as long as possible as it impacts on luggage capacity. Both coaches are Euro V at the minute, we’re hoping that somewhere along the line we’ll pick up a grant for conversion to Euro VI. We’re looking at a new yard too as it is a bit cramped here, we’d like a bit more space although we’re happy with the number of coaches for now.”

Having carried some of the biggest names in the brass band scene, such as Tubular Brass, Sounds Travel’s coaches are often seen as the equivalent of football club team coaches by other bands. With two coaches now available and ready to go, once concert venues are open and bands allowed to play again, Sounds Travel looks certain to be the operator of choice for many of them who want to travel in style and know their instruments are in safe hands.