The potential challenges of Brexit are on the minds of most tour bus operators, although a spokesman for industry body the Confederation of Passenger Transport believes a rational outcome is likely prevail after 29 March. Meanwhwile, operators interviewed all seem to be experiencing growth. Allan Glen reports
Ask any tour bus operator who also works overseas the biggest challenge facing the sector today, and the same answer comes back loud and clear – Brexit, Brexit … and Brexit.Good working relationships and knowing what artistes want are as important as the facilities available in these spaces, say the experts.
While the government plans to remain a party to the Interbus Agreement, signed in Dublin in 1982, after the UK leaves the European Union (EU) – enabling unfettered access across the continent, some warm that failure by the Government to secure a deal with the EU could put this in jeopardy.
Of course, as others say, that would work both ways and also affect mainland European coaches and busses coming to the UK.
But for operators in the music business, some of whose pan-Europe work makes up 70 per cent of their business, that could be a major problem.
Add having to deal with last-minute changes to touring plans and EU emission testing and it’s clear tour bussing in 2019 is not for the faint-hearted.
Yet never let it be said that this is a sector that veers from a challenge. In fact, most are meeting the potential challenges head-on, with Beat The Street (BTS), Vans For Bands and Phoenix Bussing doing what they do best – driving growth by investing heavily for the future.
“We’re still rock and roll at heart and in for the long term,” says BTS’s Tim Fortnam-King, who oversees UK operations for the Austria-based company.
“The end of 2018 sees the start of major investment in new buses for both Beat The Street and [subsidiary] Phoenix Bussing,” he says. “We are immensely proud to be the very first operators in Europe to have the next generation of the Rolls Royce of tour bussing, the double-deck Setra 531DT’s, on the road.
“Across both companies we have initially ordered 25, a multi-million pound investment in our future.”
It doesn’t stop there. “Along with the Setras we are also investing in the latest Van Hool super high-deckers. Suffice to say all will be built to the highest exacting standards and incorporate the latest in audio, visual and tech.”
Despite the uncertainty of Brexit, Fortnam-King is convinced investment is the way forward.
“With these new buses, we will be staying ahead of the game and will continue to offer the very best of quality and service,” adds
Although 16 and 14 berth double-deckers still remain the backbone of the companies’ fleets, more and more artistes are using star buses.
As a result, reports Fortnam-King, business is buzzing.
“Gone are the days of just being busy through the summer festival months,” he says. “We are regularly fully booked throughout the year, with many buses leaving the yard in January.”
When it comes to artiste requirements, on-the-road personnel is high on the list for many acts.
“Drivers remain on the frontline, of course, and many have multiple requests from bands to tour with them time and time again,” says Fortnam-King. “We do have a large pool of main and second drivers, with the newest going out for a training run around Europe under the watchful eye of our longest-serving drivers, giving them the experience of our world.”
Due to the unpredictable nature of touring, operators have to be flexible and be able to adapt to any given situation, he adds.
“Although some tours have a long lead-in time, late changes to bus requirements are happening more often and it’s a constant juggling act to make it work for everyone but we do endeavour to do our best for all.
“Our clients still constantly range from one-bus tours with backline trailers to multiple bus tours, all of whom appreciate that a little bit extra on the bussing budget means piece of mind and a happy band and crew.”
Flexibility is key
Working with artistes such as Roger Waters, Lady Gaga, Take That and The Killers, as well emerging artistes such as The Shires and Freya Ridings, Phoenix Bussing also recently purchased a Computer Numerical Control machine, allowing the carpentry team to make the interiors with greater accuracy.
According to the company’s Andy Gray, despite the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the market for tour buses is vibrant.
“We have found the market is still growing, with new bands coming through but also older bands starting to tour again as well,” he says. “Festival season gets crazier each year, with bigger line-ups or new festivals popping up.”
Yet while the market may grow, clients are still after; comfort, reliability and honesty.
“Some artistes do request the same driver time after time,” he says. “We have several drivers that are always requested for jobs. Whether it comes from the production manager, who wants the same lead driver, or the actual artiste asking for the driver for their bus, it’s great that our drivers get asked back because it shows they are doing a great job and becoming part of the touring family.”
Being flexible with layouts has also helped the company.
“We offer layouts of either 14 or 16 berth,s or artiste buses with separate bedroom with an en-suite shower and toilet,” says Gray. “We can also convert the 14 berths into either 10 berths with two lounges or with bedrooms, whichever the client requires.”
One issue likely to vex most tour bus operators, adds Gray, is that of Brexit, with the company closely monitoring the situation, and ready to take advice from professional bodies such as the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) when appropriate.
EU emission ratings are less of a problem, he adds, due to the newer vehicles the company uses.
Tarrant Anderson of Vans For Bands (VFB) is another tour bus operator who says the biggest challenge facing the sector is Brexit, adding that the CPT and the Department for Transport have confirmed that in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, UK coach operators will lose their right to operate coaches in the EU overnight on March 29, 2019.
“The government’s stated intention is to join [international coach operator organisation] Interbus, which will allow UK band bus companies to undertake most of the work we can perform at the moment, with the exception of Cabotage [working in one country].
“The UK is already a member of Interbus via the EU’s single membership, but would not be covered by that after Brexit.
“However, there is no guarantee they will be signed up to Interbus before 29 March and for a sector where, perhaps, 70 per cent of our work is pan-Europe you can see that the effect would be catastrophic, particularly given that the UK government has already committed to allowing EU coach operators to use their coaches in the UK after 29 March to minimise disruption for passengers.”
On a day-to-day level, like for many working in the sector, it’s business as usual for VFB, which has approximately 50 splitter vans – the number goes up and down during the year through fleet replacement – and 11 sleeper coaches.
It has also recently opened a branch at Heathrow Airport to service foreign artistes flying into the UK, and the London market.
“The market certainly seems to be growing for us,” says Anderson. “We have invested heavily in our fleet over the last two years. I think it’s becoming harder and harder for small operators to compete, particularly given ever-tightening [EU] emission regulations, as it’s imperative to keep investing in new vehicles.
“I think there is a shrinking number of operators who can deliver a reliable, high-quality product and service, so whether or not there is an increase in the demand for buses as a whole, I don’t know, but we have certainly had an increase in demand for our vehicles.”
The availability of double-deck coaches and staff loyalty are among the most common requests from artistes at VFB, which works with acts such as James Bay, Staves, Spandau Ballet, The Feeling, Skunk Anansie, Stiff Little Fingers, You Me At Six, The Proclaimers and Foals.
“Driver loyalty is definitely a factor,” he says. “When an artiste finds a driver they like they often stick with them and request the same driver for every subsequent tour. Our coaches can be configured to include star bedrooms or additional lounges instead of bunks. We find we are being asked for different configurations more and more.”
As for changes in the market between VFB launching and now, Anderson says the major differences are the price of the vehicles themselves, their maintenance requirements and the overall running costs.
“Gone are the days of the one-man operator buying a coach for £50,000 and running it from his mate’s yard,” he says.
One person who runs his own firm is Scott Fury of Bandrunner, whose clients include Heaven 17, Big Country, OMD and Ali Campbell.
“It’s really just me, driving all the band personnel around in a splitter van,” says Fury. “For a lot of the bands I work with, the backline is in a separate vehicle. Basically, I just take the band, and all that’s going to be in there are their personal instruments and obviously bags for the hotel. That is pretty much it.
“A lot of the bands I work with sometimes go on the tour, bus but al lot of them have had enough of time on a bus and would rather just go around in a splitter van and go straight to the hotel or the venue.”
A lot of the growth for Bandrunner, says Fury, is coming from ‘80s festivals such as Rewind (cap. 30,000) and Let’s Rock (2,000).
“You only have to look at Top of the Pops from any point up to the ‘80s and you had some amazing bands, some really good music,” he says. “You had all these acts that were formed organically and were big 30 years ago and all of a sudden they are headlining festivals again, and people who are in their 20s are going to see them.”
While the summer period can be busy, adds Fury, January and February can be more quiet, though not always so.
“A few years back I had a 32-date tour with The Mirror Trap, who were supporting Placebo, and next February I’m going out with Holy Holy, featuring Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory,” he says.
When it comes to repeat business, Fury says the type of vehicle and choice of driver is important. “You do build a relationship with a band,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I haven’t taken on another driver, because if someone calls me up and I say I can’t do it, they’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll try another company’.”
Trust is, however, still one of the biggest factors when it comes to bands deciding who to work with.
“I heard a story once where someone went out driving with a four-piece band, and then wrote a book about it,” he says. “When that book was published, two of the band members got divorced.”