Will 'Don’t Travel Empty' become a bus and coach-matching platform across Europe?

Monday, January 06, 2014

As part of our strategic plan to expand our Rentautobus coach hire comparison platform to the United Kingdom, we're building a network of like-minded individuals and bus operators located on the other side of the North Sea. About a week ago I had a long phone conversation with Mr Anthony Marett, a remarkable entrepreneur with a love for bus rentals, nature, and child education.

Map empty rides ant routes with planned trips

UK map with coach empty rides and coach trips with capacity to be filled out

Combining bus rentals, collaboration on empty rides and child education

For years his family has owned two businesses, both of which provide services aimed primarily at children: as coach operators, they provide private-hire and school-related transportation services in the Norfolk region. The name of their company is Marett's Chariots and they have an 18 -unit fleet of minibuses and coaches. In addition to their transportation service, they run an outdoor learning center focused on primary school kids under the name of ‘Aylmerton Field Study Centre’. They run one business from Aylmerton and the other from North Walsham, both in Norfolk.
As if managing two businesses simultaneously wasn't enough for Mr. Marett, a few years ago he took on the task of motivating and educating coach hire operators all over the UK to collaborate with each other in order to increase their profits by reducing empty rides.

Focus on collaboration between coach hire operators across the UK and Europe

While the transportation and coach hire market in the UK, Spain, and the rest of Europe has obliged bus rental companies to primarily focus on merely surviving, Mr. Marett has invested a great part of his time and energy to launch a digital coach operator hub which focuses more on collaboration than on competition between the rental companies. Under the name of Don’t Travel Empty (DTE), he has created a platform where bus operators can collaborate with fellow operators and make money while doing so. The concept is simple. A lot of bus trips are only ‘one way’ or ‘return trips’ with waiting days for the bus and driver in a specific destination. This implies having either vehicles parked in an ‘inactive’ state away from the home base of the transport company or having them driving empty. These so called ‘empty legs’ are both a waste of money and resources, but Mr. Marett hopes to turn them into a potential extra source of income for coach operators.
In a few years time his service has managed to enlist a group of about 1100 Coach operators, and in doing so he reached nationwide coverage across the UK. Regions like London and the Midlands have several operators listed, but even relatively remote areas like Cornwall and Scotland have enough operators enlisted to actively participate in matching rides and helping with vehicle replacements.

How does the UK bus operators collaboration network work?

Simply put: all ‘empty legs’ are matched in an automated way by the platform with requests for trips which are active in the system. The basic premise of the system is that it facilitates supply and demand. Operators can enjoy a free subscription or subscribe to a paid one which gives them more customization in matching and monetizing their needs for filling up empty legs.

See a few screenshots here below of how matching is done on the DTE platform:

DTE map of empty and full legs
Map of the UK showing empty and full legs for associated coach hire and bus operators

DTE possible match on sharing a ride
Example of an email notification send to bus and coach hire operators when the DTE system detects a possible match.

Bus fleet management system integration

This is what we admire Marett for most: he managed to convince several of the most-used bus operators in the UK who were using 3-Fleet management systems to integrate their fleet system software into the DTE platform. This integration makes it even easier for fleet managers to publish information about their empty vehicles on the DTE platform. They can either automatically publish information on all empty rides on the platform or they can let their fleet software send an automated warning that they have an empty vehicle with the request to publish it on DTE. The fleet manager can than simply accept or decline the request for publication.

What other services does DTE offer bus rental companies?

A truly creative mind never rests for long, and new services and products have been developed over the last few years.

Passenger recovery service

Members of DTE benefit from a kind of security against breakdown while touring far away from their base. If a breakdown happens, they can call the DTE service center and ask them to help them find a nearby replacement vehicle. The DTE service desk immediately searches for the nearest empty available vehicle on its database. If there are none, it sends out messages to its member via its platform, LinkedIn group, and via direct SMS to its members. As a result of these actions, in most cases a replacement vehicle is on the spot in less than 1 hour.
DTE members can therefore save money that they otherwise would have spent on an expensive company insurance policy for vehicle replacements while on the road. This service is cheaper and a lot faster than the four-hour delay that is promised by insurance companies.

Exchange of information between coach operators

Apart from the primary function of filling each other's empty rides, the bus operators can use the platform for daily communications with other operators. There is a chat functionality which enables users to see and contact fellow transporters and/or to post questions on a forum. In the last few months important information about clients and colleagues has been exchanged, saving some operators the hassle of contracting with a client that is not paying. In the past, if two operators worked together outside of the DTE umbrella and one didn’t pay, then the victimized operator would never work for the offending operator again, but the offending operator had relatively little to lose as they were only upsetting a single operator. By working through DTE there is strength in numbers. If the same situation occurred in DTE, the offending operator would upset 1100 colleagues. This is a very powerful and persuasive tool to prevent fraud and bad business practices.
In addition to the chat and forum functionalities on the DTE platform, there is a LinkedIn DTE group with the same name where users can communicate outside the platform.

How does DTE plan to connect with coach operators outside the UK?

As we understand it, Marett wants to move further than the UK only and cross the North Sea and get all European coach hire and minibus operators to collaborate on his platform, so we're curious to learn how he plans to make this happen. Will he connect to and integrate with all the fleet management software systems in all the different European countries like the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy? Will he appoint country managers for each of the countries or work with partners in a franchise system? How does he plan to overcome the cultural differences, language barriers, and different levels of internet knowledge which exist across transportation companies in the different countries?

What competition can DTE expect from related coach hire platforms?

What kind of competition does he think he’ll encounter when conquering the continent? How does he think that related coach hire platforms, such as RentAutobus, will react? What will the big fleet management software services do? Will they join him or will they create similar services? And is there really an advantage in spreading this service around Europe or would it maybe be better to keep focusing on other service products for the UK market? We're curious to hear your thoughts!