zeelo lands at Gatwick Airport

Wednesday 21st August 2019

IMG_7431.jpgI sampled zeelo’s new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol back in the Spring and wrote about the company and my travel experience on 24th May. Now the enterprising entrepreneurs based at zeelo’s London Shoreditch HQ have started another new venture, also aimed at commuters, this time connecting part of Crawley with Gatwick Airport.

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You might be thinking “isn’t Crawley already well linked to Gatwick Airport by the award winning Metrobus company, part of the Go-Ahead Group” and you’d be bang on the runway with that thought. Frequent buses operating round the clock on a comprehensive network of routes aided by smart bus priority measures including Fastway branded segregated guided bus lanes whizzing buses straight across roundabouts and gliding passed traffic queues. It’s impressive.

IMG_7499.jpgAspiring bus companies have given the Crawley bus market a competitive try over the years, but none have survived; the well regarded Metrobus has proved unassailable against all upstart new entrants.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read zeelo fancied their chances in this already well served market. I’m guessing they reckon they’ll win over bus wary employees at Gatwick Airport by offering their unique “personalised bus service” business model necessitating pre-booking using smart technology on a less frequent but targetted service with cheaper fares.

According to the news release heralding this initiative, zeelo reckon their “new shared bus service targets areas where Gatwick Airport employees are currently poorly served by public transport”. Indeed, they’ve been canny in finding four bus stops (from which Metrobus don’t run a direct bus to Gatwick Airport) along a route on the Horsham Road originating at Breezehurst Roundabout between the well served Bewbush and Broadfield residential areas continuing via Southgate towards Crawley town centre (but avoiding stopping there) and instead taking in three more bus stops in London Road from where the bus runs non-stop to Gatwick’s South and North Terminal buildings.

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End to end journey time is scheduled for 27 minutes which compares to Metrobus route 10 taking 29 minutes for early morning journeys from Broadfield Barton to Gatwick’s North Terminal, as well as serving Crawley bus station, for the town centre, along the way.

It’s also noteworthy that Metrobus route 10 runs 24/7 (half hourly between midnight and 03:30) increasing to an impressive every 6-7 minutes between around 06:30 and 18:30. The new zeelo commuter service offers just eight journeys running half hourly between 05:10 and 08:40 with a similar service pattern in the afternoon between 15:10 and 18:40 only on Mondays to Fridays. Interestingly buses run in service “against the commuter flow” in both the morning and evening peaks, presumably because of shift workers, making for quite a tight schedule with three minutes stand time at the end of each journey for the two buses needed to run the service.

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Whereas on Metrobus you just turn up and board their frequent service at any bus stop, zeelo’s “personalised service” means you pre-book your journey either online or via their App and be committed to that particular departure time.

Zeelo offer various bulk buying options for this new service as they do with Newport/Bristol and their other bespoke commuter services for specific employers around the country (eg Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin in Warwickshire and Ocado in Hertfordshire ). For the Crawley to Gatwick market their best offer is 100 rides for £87.99 through deals covering 50, 30 and 10 rides down to a return ticket for £3.50 and a single trip for £2.50.

Metrobus also charge £2.50 for a single Bewbush/Broadfield to Gatwick ride reduced to £2.40 if bought on their App. A week’s travel is £19.20 on the Metrobus App which for a five-day-ten-journeys-a-week commuter works out at £1.92 per journey compared to zeelo’s £1.39 for the ten ride package; but you have “weekend” travel on Metrobus free as a bonus when not commuting. Zeelo’s 50 ride package at £52.99 is the same price as the Metrobus 25 journey package on their smartcard (£53) therefore offering a fifty per cent discount.

Zeelo are offering free travel for the first two weeks of operation (normal prices begin next Tuesday) so I downloaded my bundle of twenty free trips and headed to Crawley this afternoon to road test this latest market entrant to the world of ‘smarter travel’.

I decided to book myself on the first journey of the afternoon, at 15:10 from the first stop on the Gatwick bound route at the roundabout near Bewbush/Broadfield. I tried logging on to zeelo’s website last night to get this all sorted but for some odd reason my email address had got corrupted by one letter in the zeelo database and it couldn’t log me in nor send me a ‘forgotten your password’ link. I tried re-registering with a different email address but got stumped by having to add my mobile number which it understandably told me had “already been registered with another account”. So I was stuck; locked out.

I sent an email through to the “contact us” helpline explaining my dilemma, and within a couple of minutes, if that, Simon replied and he soon resolved the problem by correcting the corrupted email address and we were back in business. Highly impressive to have access to personal service sorting out a techy problem at about 20:30 in the evening, so full marks to the zeelo team and Simon in particular for that great service.

Another issue was finding the Gatwick service on the zeelo website. It doesn’t appear on the home page of their zeelo.co site nor through any links I could find; instead you need to visit the alternative travel.zeelo.co website which has news releases about the company, and from where you can click on news of the Gatwick service launch and land at the booking page.

When you book your journey on line, if it’s a return journey you’re after, for each journey inbound to Gatwick, an option is listed of a return on each of the individual journeys back from the Airport on that day, including the very next departure, three minutes after you’ve arrived. This seems a bit unnecessary and it might be better to just list all the journeys once with passengers ticking the journey on which they wish to travel.

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I decided to return back from Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal at 16:10 which would be the second departure after my 15:37 arrival.

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The vehicles and drivers are provided by Ashford (Middlesex) based Passenger Plus+. The two mini-coaches used are based closer to Gatwick Airport though, at Pfizer’s UK headquarters in Tadworth – I’m guessing Passenger Plus+ do some contract work for Pfizer, so have a parking facility there.

IMG_7449.jpgThe two vehicles branded for zeelo are a ’16’ plate Mercedes 19 seater and a brand new very smart ’19’ plate Indcar (a Spanish manufacturer) 29 seater. Neither mini-coaches are accessible for wheelchairs and I noticed there’s not much room for luggage – the wheelie type compact suitcases beloved of flight crews. Not a problem in the early stages of the operation when passenger loadings are likely to be small, but it could be an issue if the buses get busy, especially the 19 seater.

IMG_7412.jpgI arrived at the Breezehurst Roundabout bus stop on the Horsham Road in good time for my 15:10 departure this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to be joined soon after by another passenger. She was a student working as an intern at Gatwick Airport for a month and had seen the minibuses on the road over the last few days so booked herself a journey to work “especially as it’s free at the moment”.

IMG_7410.jpgThis bit of Horsham Road is unserved by Metrobus and the bus stop pole is flag-less but specific stop information available in the zeelo App as well as online reassures that this is exactly the correct place to be waiting, and sure enough, on the dot of 15:10, Peter arrives to pick us up.

There’s no need to show him an electronic copy of the ticket as Peter simply checks our names which he is aware of and we set off. I’d been sceptical about whether we’d pick anyone else up at this time of the day, but sure enough as the journey continued we picked up two more passengers – both easyJet cabin crew going to work for a late shift – one at the Orchard Street stop in Peglar Way (near the town centre) and another on London Road.

IMG_7448.jpgIMG_7438.jpgThe Mercedes mini-coach has a ‘luxurious’ feel to it with comfortable seats, wi-fi and usb sockets. Peter gave us a smooth ride to the Airport. No-one on board alighted at Atlantic House at the South Terminal and we all continued to the bus stop by Jubilee House at the North Terminal – just two to three minutes walk from the Terminal building itself – where we arrived at 15:30. An impressive twenty minute ride. At this time of the day, Metrobus’s route 10 would have taken around thirty minutes travelling through Broadfield and the town centre as well as Manor Royal.

My fellow ‘intern’ passenger told me she was impressed with the quickness of the journey compared to route 10 which she had been using.

Peter didn’t wait until the next departure time of 15:40 back to Crawley but drove off after just a few minutes, presumably because no-one had booked for a ride so there was no need to wait.

IMG_7525.jpgMy return journey was the next departure at 16:10 and my driver Tembi again arrived on the dot of that time – it turned out no-one had booked on the incoming journey so he’d started this part of his shift from the North Terminal.

IMG_7527.jpgThis was the very impressive brand new Indcar 29 seater. Again, nice comfortable seats and a smooth ride; and this time it was just me travelling.

IMG_7528.jpgWe had a bit of a delay leaving the North Terminal being stuck behind a trio of National Express coaches loading up and there was a hold up by the level crossing in Horsham Road where a badly parked taxi led to alternate working.

IMG_7532.jpgDespite this we arrived back at the Breezehurst Roundabout (this time marked with a flag for only the first journey on route 24!) at 16:34 taking just 24 minutes.

IMG_7534.jpgIt made me wonder though, whether the 27 minute journey time over the next couple of hours of Crawley’s heavy peak hour late afternoon traffic might be a bit tight, especially as the mini-coaches don’t use Crawley’s bus lanes.

IMG_7446.jpgTembi was very friendly and was naturally hoping this new zeelo venture would be a success. He’s been with Passenger Plus+ for some time, having previously worked with Metrobus, and explained that his duty involved working on other contract work Passenger Plus+ have in their portfolio in the Crawley area in the morning switching to the zeelo work in the afternoon. It looks as though zeelo is a perfect fit for Passenger Plus+ and being a quality operator, they’re a perfect fit for zeelo.

Whether this new venture is a success will simply come down to if zeelo have found a big enough market served by the seven bus stops in Horsham Road and London Road to sustain eight journeys morning and afternoon to and from Gatwick Airport. I have my doubts, but I was very impressed that three passengers travelled on my outward journey after just a few days operation.

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Travelling with zeelo offers a great customer experience and full marks for that, although in addition to the website confusion mentioned earlier, there were one or two other teething problems with the technology, for example not being able to track where the driver was (even though a link was provided by text to my phone) and pick up locations being duplicated rather than showing the drop off location.

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Metrobus also has a well deserved excellent reputation for offering a great customer experience too; their Crawley garage has topped the UK Bus Awards Garage of the Year on a number of occasions and the company as a whole is a regular in the finalists’ short list. You might conclude that if there was a profitable market from those seven bus stops, then Metrobus would already be there.

Zeelo’s prices are excellent value, but it might need a build up in confidence among passengers before they’re prepared to outlay £88 for that bargain 88p a ride within the 100 ride package.

Metrobus have the benefit of serving a much wider area including penertrating residential areas and serving the town centre and Manor Royal. Those markets are unavilable on the zeelo service.

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Comparing posters advertising departures at the North Terminal highlights the different options now on offer for Airport employees living on the edge of Bewbush and Broadfield. Frequency versus fast and cheap.

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It’s certainly an interesting development in the expanding Gatwick and Crawley transport market and certainly one to watch in the coming months.

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Roger French

 

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