Chalkwell Coaches: Roland Eglinton on adapting to change 03/11/2020

Roland Eglinton, Managing Director at Chalkwell Coaches, recaps for CPT the impact of the pandemic on Chalkwell Coaches and adapting to tackle new challenges. Roland is also CPT London and South East Regional representative for Coach Commission. 

As I sit in my part of Kent, watching the news about the various lockdowns around the UK, it would seem like a good time to reflect on how we’ve coped so far at Chalkwell. Perhaps more importantly, we need to consider how will we cope with what is coming towards us.

My own personal difficulty when Covid first unfolded was somewhat unique. My family and I were in Australia on holiday and ended up stranded for three months. The regular CPT Zoom calls came at just the right time and were invaluable in keeping myself and other members connected and updated.

Every business is different and has its own things to think about. Chalkwell is diverse in that we do a variety of different work including coach hire, local bus services, special needs transport and rail replacement. Additionally we have our own programme of DayBreaks, where we’ve been able to get a handful of departures away despite an avalanche of cancellations. It is encouraging that there is still an appetite for people to get out and about, despite the reluctance of venues to accept groups.

Our coach hire bookings have been reduced to next to nothing. Fortunately, our other work has helped us keep our heads above water and importantly, keep all of our staff employed. I’m fortunate to have a great team around me, including our drivers, and everyone has pulled together and embraced change on a ‘needs must’ basis.

Like everyone we have had to adapt our procedures in order to provide Covid-secure transport. Vehicle fogging is such an impressive visual, and I even thought we had a vehicle on fire at one point. Luckily, it turned out to just be a coach being fogged with the door left open!

We are also carrying out Government funded extra school runs, which has kept us fairly busy. It’s not sexy or glamorous like touring, but businesses who can pivot and adapt in this way stand a much better chance of survival. I would also stress that CPT have played an important part in this. Our Kent and Medway group have a good relationship with local authorities, which has helped. And while not as much of this money has filtered down to coach operators as could have, being part of the CPT network has seen operators work together and hire each other in to ensure a better distribution of the work.

I would also encourage members to think about how you can use any quieter times effectively. It’s amazing what a bit of productivity can do for confidence and mindset. We’ve reviewed our business plans, cleared out some storage and even done some online training. I was particularly impressed with the Transport Manager refresher that I did online with BackHouse Jones. Who would have thought a few months ago that this would even be possible?

While the wheels aren’t turning, we are able to look at getting some of our coaches converted for PSVAR. The deliberations with DfT are still ongoing, with CPT at the forefront, but PSVAR is here to stay in one way or another. The conversions aren’t cheap, but futureproofing our business as far as possible seems like a worthwhile investment.

I would encourage members to take another look at the CBILS scheme. We found the process relatively straightforward with our bank, and the borrowing is comparatively cheap. At the moment we haven’t used the money, but it sits in our account should the need arise, and we don’t know what opportunities will come up that will require cash in order to get things moving. Whatever size your business is, you need to be taking solid financial advice. Your accountant, whether internal or external, should be part of your team and adding value all year round (not just once a year).

So where will the next few months take us? In truth, no one really knows, but the new lockdowns will effectively wipe out whatever coach work was starting to happen.  A new wave of the virus could mean staff shortages, so we are looking at how we can tighten up our procedures to catch infections early. We have also put in place a rapid testing arrangement with a private medical practice. Not cheap, but it means we can get staff back to work quicker if there is any doubt.

I firmly believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t yet know when it is coming or what it will even look like for sure. I would reiterate my comment about being adaptable, as while the industry may well be smaller it is likely that transport needs will change.

Being part of CPT means we are a good place to understand these changes, and also to support each other when times are tough. And for that, I am truly appreciative.

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