An Expert View With…

JOE THURGOOD

ACCOUNT MANAGER, GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY

What’s your experience of working with groups by train?

My first experience of dealing with the groups market was working for Eurostar, managing the Specialist Sales department – dealing with schools, large corporates, small businesses, tour operators and group organisers, plus the charter and exclusive carriage markets. The first thing you learn is that groups have an expectation of lower, specialised pricing, the second is that to get that lower fare groups indicate that they can be far more flexible. Taking this forward we restructured how we sold groups, added a few products, lopped off a few others and soon saw double digit growth! After a spell as Call Centre Manger, working with Vodafone, John Aspinall Foundation and Saga I returned to rail with GWR (Great Western Railway).

How well would you say that group travel by train is recognised as an option?

Domestically, not that well. Eurostar quickly took volume from airline and coach travel across the channel: it’s cheaper than a flight, quicker than a coach, centre to centre. And it actually carried volumes for airlines and coach operators, who instead of treating it as opposition, worked in unison to benefit of all. The task now is changing some preconceptions about domestic rail travel for leisure groups – which, considering that the introduction of train travel popularised group travel in the first place, should be easier than sometimes it feels. From attending the recent GTO shows, and speaking to organisers, two issues became clear; price and people’s existing love of coaches.

It is actually not true that trains are too expensive as there are multiple savings to be made if you are flexible enough, nor are most trains old and dirty. By the end of 2018, GWR will have 93 new trains in its fleet.

What does GWR offer to groups?

GWR already offer a minimum of 26% off certain of its standard fares types for groups, but from my conversations with group organisers it was evident that even with this discount we were still not seen as being competitive against coach travel. So the aim now is to create some bespoke fares that would only be available for readers of GTO magazine. I’d like to get the train to help GTOs make visits to outstanding areas that people never think to travel to – for whatever reason that may be. After a visit to Cardiff, and being suitably impressed by what was on offer, I was surprised to hear from leisure operators, that nobody offered it as a destination. All the talk was about Bath, Oxford, London and Windsor. It’s a great city that people are missing out on, and which, with other places such as Bristol, Wells and Cheltenham, we can serve with a great deal.

With this in mind, if travellers can be flexible on dates and times, GWR can offer promotional fares to specific destinations like these for extremely low prices. I’m currently looking to introduce a return to Cardiff for just £20, for example. You have a beautiful city full of things to do, it’s just two hours from London and it’s barely explored! If I can encourage groups to Cardiff with a promotional fare then Cardiff gets visitors, groups enjoy a great destination and we fill empty seats on trains. Everyone wins! For those who can be flexible with dates and timings, GWR can offer ‘coach-competitive’ pricing.

How do you approach customer relationship management with group buyers?

Listen – in fact, a lot of listening. It is also important to deliver on any timelines and promises made. Aside from the common denominator of groups wanting a special fare, and the obvious desire of having excellent customer service, each group is as different as the personalities that comprise them. Schools groups are excitable, Corporates are focused!

There is huge potential to grow the market, and it would be foolish not to listen to the experts, the group travel organisers, who know their customers, their needs and wants. And though there will always be a certain element that will always favour coach over train, it is important that there is choice on offer and that the capability of rail is fully appreciated. I welcome all conversations with groups about how we can meet their needs.