Commuting with Zeelo

Friday 24th May 2019

There was a time if you fancied running a coach travel business you’d get yourself a coach or two (probably decent second-hand stock to begin with), pick up a school contract to run, get known among well-to-do local clubs and societies for those lucrative private hires and maybe run a small excursion programme.

Nowadays if you’re an aspiring travel entrepreneur you’ll get yourself some ‘angel investment’ backing, a friend who understands algorithms, a website and social media presence and a list of decent coach companies you can call on. You won’t be owning any coaches, renting a garage and employing drivers.

That’s exactly what Snap are doing to build a share of the express coach market which I tried out last October between London and Bristol and this morning I gave a try out of another new player in the ‘online-travel-with-no vehicles-of-their-own’ sector called Zeelo who’ve recently started a new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol.

According to their website Zeelo founders Sam Ryan and Barney Williams “didn’t understand why public transport options outside of cities were slow, crowded and too expensive”. Travelling to support their football team playing away matches turned out to be a right hassle.

So they teamed up with their friend Dani and “unlocked the power of data”. Dani built an algorithm for Sam and Barney “that understood when large groups of underserved people wanted to travel”.

Their travel-to-event business was born “transporting 750 like-minded fans to Wembley”. Unfortunately their team lost but that experience “was just the start” as the Zeelo website goes on to explain “that daily grind needed fixing, so they rolled out their commuting service, offering car users a viable stress free alternative to get to work”. Apparently “Zeelo is now loved by thousands of riders. By providing exceptional rider experience Zeelo has grown rapidly, but we’re just getting started. Join us on the journey.”

I couldn’t resist an invitation like that and was full of eager anticipation to join the growing band of happy commuters full of smiles over their laptops as they leave the daily grind behind.

All the more so as although the single ride fare of £7 for a peak hour trip from Newport to Bristol seemed reasonable enough I spotted on the Zeelo website a sign up offer of ten free rides by using the promotional codeword COMMUTE.

That was just as well as I then realised you’re not able to buy just one ride for £7, you have to spend a minimum of £70 on a ten-ride package which I wasn’t so keen on in the name of just a one-off research project for this blog, but I suppose it’s fair enough for a five-day a week regular commuter to buy a week’s travel in one hit and have the option of using any leftover rides with days missed in a following week.

This same bulk purchase of rides is the norm on Zeelo’s more bespoke commuter trips they’re promoting on their website to places like Jaguar Land Rover’s plant at Gaydon, Ocado’s head office in Hatfield or to three private schools in the Hampstead area London NW3. Those are just some of the journeys that come up when you hit the ‘Browse Rides’ button on Dani’s website masterpiece.

But unless I’m an employee of JLR or Aston Martin in Gaydon, Ocado in Hatfield or a student in Hampstead the options are not particularly attractive for me.

However, I did try entering ‘Brighton’ in the ‘Where are you going?’ box as encouraged and up came a ride option on each of the five days programme of horse racing at Goodwood at the end of July with pick ups in Hastings, Brighton or Portsmouth for £14.99. In the old days we’d list those trips in a colourful leaflet/brochure called Excursions now you have the fun of entering somewhere you might want to go in a blank box on a screen and see what comes back!

I spotted on the Zeelo twitter feed some excitement a week or so ago about the upcoming Tottenham Hotspur versus Liverpool Champions League final in Madrid. “No need to spend £1,000 on air fares” as it turns out Zeelo have arranged coaches from north London to the match for £299.99 leaving at 0530 and arriving 0600 (the next day obviously!). So far no coaches from Liverpool but you can register an interest and see what the algorithm comes up with.

Dani’s algorithm’s secret is to keep an eye on all sorts of events and monitor chitter chatter or expressions of interest on social media and then marry the two together when it looks as though a coach of paying punters can be mustered. Hire in a coach from a preferred supplier who’s happy to take a guaranteed price irrespective of how many may be on board and away you go.

In the old days you’d stick a chalkboard outside your physical shop window; now you have a virtual shop window available anywhere in the world – indeed Zeelo also have transport interests in South Africa.

Talking of anywhere in the world brings me to Newport and this morning’s commuter trip to Bristol. Apparently Sam and Barney reckon there’ve picked up vibes there’s a gap in the commuter market across the Severn and the Zeelo business model’s the way to fill it.

There’s a choice of two journeys from Newport at either 0645 or 0730 both scheduled to take an hour for the trip across to Bristol with return times offered at 1715 or 1815.

I booked a ride online yesterday morning for the 0730 journey this morning grabbing the first of my sign up ten free rides. I didn’t receive any electronic acknowledgment but could reassuringly see confirmation was recorded whenever I logged on to the website.

A confirmatory text arrived on my mobile phone at 0645 this morning including the driver’s name and registration number of the coach …

….and the coach was impressively already waiting at the departure bus stop alongside Newport station when I arrived at 0715.

It was an eight year old Mercedes Benz Tourismo operated by Creigiau Travel of Cardiff (formerly owned by Clarkes of Sydenham, London). Sadly not quite up to the luxury standards depicted on the Zeelo website but what did surprise me was being liveried in prominent Zeelo branding, something rival Snap doesn’t do, as they use companies with high quality coaches used on other prestigious work when not ‘snapping’.

There was no wi-if, nor usb sockets, no luxury seats, no tables and with 51 seats (albeit spaced in 12 metres) the leg room wasn’t generous. There was a hot water supply to enable free coffee and the usual toilet crammed under that by the centre emergency exit.

We were expecting six passengers but by our 0730 departure time only four of us were on board. Our friendly driver made a call to base and I guess was told to give it five minutes as we left spot on 0735 with two no shows (the problem of giving free rides presumably).

Whilst the quality of the coach interior may have been underwhelming the smooth congestion free ride was excellent and I was impressed as we joined the M4 just outside Newport after ten minutes at 0745…

…went over the second Severn Crossing five minutes later at 0755…

…the start of the M32 at 0805…

…Cabot Circus at 0815, just forty minutes after leaving Newport…

…and alongside the walkway through to Temple Meads at 0820: a ride time of 45 minutes.

Using the new bus lane on the M32 approach into Bristol probably saved us around 5-10 minutes but otherwise we encountered no congestion along the peak hour motorway journey at all.

GWR run an hourly train service between Newport and Bristol Temple Meads taking 38 minutes so there’s not much difference in journey time and Zeelo definitely wins if you work in the Cabot Circus area of Bristol which is a fair walk or bus ride from the station.

Zeelo’s ‘£70 for ten rides’ price is comparable with GWR’s weekly season price of £67.40 which of course doesn’t offer the flexibility of carrying forward rides not used.

If you’re a truly committed Zeelo fan and trust their longevity in the market you can grab yourself a 100 ride package for £540 working out at just £5.40 per ride.

Railcard holders can get discounts on the full whack GWR day return price of £15.80 which with my Senior Railcard would reduce to £10.45 so attractively cheaper than £14 with Zeelo. But most commuters aren’t Railcard holders so Zeelo have got good comparability on both price and journey time with rail.

GWR are upping their game on train quality as new trains cascade stock to other lines including the Cardiff-Bristol-Portsmouth route so it may be less of a squeeze on board in the future but with Zeelo you’re guaranteed a seat and so all the more reason I would suggest to make sure that’s a comfortable ‘luxury’ seat as promoted on the website.

Aside from myself, this morning’s three fellow passengers are obviously not going to make Sam, Barney and Dani a profitable future and their hope must be to build the business; and that, as always, is the hard part. Building a website and even an algorithm is one thing, finding a sustainable profitable market in the coach commuting business and building that up is quite another.

Creating product awareness and turning that into a committed purchase is as hard to achieve online as in the physical world of selling travel. It costs a lot of money.

For now, as explained on Zeelo’s website, after initial “angel investment” a recent injection of £4.25 million into the business by sustainability investor ETF Partners whose managing partner Patrick Sheehan has joined the Zeelo board is giving the team optimism and confidence.

Zeelo are on a mission to reduce car use for commuting. Whereas traditionally transport entrepreneurs would probably have splashed £4.25 million on some shiny new coaches the Zeelo team are investing it in ‘doubling down on our data led approach; investing in product and technology; investing in new vehicle technology including EVs and AVs; investing in the onboard experience; and continuing putting our customers first”.

Good luck Zeelo, hopefully this time your team won’t lose.

Roger French

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