Has your bus journey ever included a free ice cream?! Mark Holroyd, the New Forest National Park Authority’s Transport, Access and Sustainable Tourism Manager, tells us about how, after bus subsidies were cut, savvy marketing, the support of sponsors and increasing bus frequencies gave the 112 bus a new lease of life.
In 2012/13, our local councils started to feel the significant reduction in the subsidies available to support local bus services leading to concern about the viability of some routes. People were concerned about a reduction in their mobility if buses were cut, as well as the risk of worsening traffic congestion.
For the last nine years, the New Forest National Park Authority has run a successful ‘New Forest Tour’ - a bus, supported by local advertisers, which offered audio commentary and open top rides in the summer. Accommodation providers throughout the Forest sell tickets directly to guests at reception, and some even include it within their room rate. It runs without any subsidy and each year, around 40,000 passenger journeys are made on the New Forest Tour. This helps to make cars an unnecessary part of a stay in the National Park.
We began to look at how we could apply some of the principles developed through the New Forest Tour to other services. How could we encourage visitors to use a service, in order to sustain a route which supports the needs of local people? Our opportunity came with the 112 service between Lymington and Hythe, which operates three days a week all year around linking some of the smaller villages.
The Beach Bus
In the summer months, we tweaked the route of the 112 to take in more of the key attractions of this coastal area of the National Park – Beaulieu, Bucklers Hard, Exbury Gardens and Lepe Country Park. These are all locations you’d struggle normally to reach without a car, so we were pushing at an open door to get their support. We invested in increasing the frequency of the service to almost hourly, so it became practical to use the service for a day out with some flexibility. The 112 transformed into the Beach Bus.
We tried to develop the experience and the brand, to create compelling reasons for travel on the route. Our vehicles were single-deckers buses – less inspiring than having the wind in your hair on an open-top deck! So we rode the wave of a ‘retro’ design trend associated with old railway posters of the past with the help of Lymington designer Bradley Hutchings. It transformed the vehicles and the route completely into something eye-catching as it drove around the area. In fact, the designs of our bus stop flags and posters were so appealing we had some stolen in the first year, and so we started to sell them in local shops creating an unexpected income stream!
We still needed a more compelling reason to travel; so we created a 'Unique Selling Point' in the form of a free ice cream for fare-paying passengers at Lepe Country Park! About 600 ice creams (and flakes) are issued each year – giving us an excuse to register the service as the number 99. Generous discounts at attractions along the route provide an additional incentive for passengers.
The Beach Bus carries around 8000 passenger journeys each summer; it operates for five weeks. We are especially grateful to New Forest Ice Cream and ExxonMobil who sponsor it. However, the service is not without its challenges; in particular, the imbalance of the full-fare paying customers to concessionary pass holders is becoming increasingly challenging. While the New Forest Tour is exempt from accepting concessionary bus passes (a discount is offered instead), the Beach Bus is not eligible for this exemption because it serves as a local bus service. The fixed fare the bus operator receives is less than the cost and the number of concessions using the service is increasing. While this is great for passenger numbers, we need to attract more full fare-paying passengers to keep this service operating in the long-term.
Delivering for the National Park
The success of these services lies in their ability to deliver for both National Park purposes and duty, at limited cost to the taxpayer. By reducing the need for visitors to travel around the Forest by car, we help to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and protect the National Park. We help the public to understand and enjoy the things that make the Forest special through our informative commentary and guide books, as well as enabling a ‘grandstand’ view of the surrounding landscape rather the tarmac and exhaust fumes ahead! And finally, by delivering customers directly to local businesses, we support our rural economy and sustain services which wouldn’t ordinarily exist for the benefit of local residents.
If you’re interested in learning more about improving visitor bus services, we’ve developed a Visitor Bus Toolkit for protected landscapes available here: http://www.newforestnpa.gov.uk/downloads/download/286/visitor_bus_toolkit