The year 2020 marks the 10th Anniversary of the formation of TML Travel Group Limited and 31 years since TML Travel Groups Founder, David Arkell, first set foot in the travel industry.
Carrie Drage, a close friend & former Deputy Editor of Group Travel Organiser Magazine takes a retrospective look back at David’s long-standing career and TML Travel Group's development over the past 10 years.
Like many people in the industry, David started out on the bottom rung of the ladder as a group organiser, but has since amassed a large number of friends and colleagues in the industry. Indeed, his association with travel begun largely by accident when he was just a fourteen-year-old schoolboy!
Back in the spring of 1989, while at senior school, David was approached by his deputy head teacher to organise an excursion to the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, in Cumbria, for the annual ‘Expeditions Day’ in July. He knew David was a member of the railway’s preservation society and asked him whether he was able to negotiate a group rate. The deputy head teacher was so pleased with David’s efforts regarding the tickets, he asked him to organise the coach as well, which he did. The trip turned out to be a huge hit with pupils and teachers alike.
Two years later, this was followed by a two-day educational break to London for the Sixth Form. This was David’s first foray into overnight tours by train and included a tour of the Palace of Westminster, a visit to the Bank of England Museum and an outing to the theatre to see ‘An Inspector Calls’.
Soon after, in 1992, David was asked to arrange a similar London break for his local church youth group. This was to mark the start of an eleven-year stint organising day trips and weekend breaks for his local church as Parish Outings Co-ordinator.
In the autumn of 1996, David moved away from using local coach operators, due to concerns about vehicle quality, and began what was to become a long association with Shearings Holidays. The new partnership allowed David to continue operating his own day excursions programme, with coach hire arranged through Shearings, and at the same time broadened the range of destinations for overnight tours (including city breaks abroad), which were packaged by Shearings. Weekend break destinations during this time included several breaks in Scotland, Yorkshire and also a weekend break to Paris. The partnership with Shearings continued until the winter of 1998, when the decision was made to move the tour planning back in-house in order to improve quality – mainly in relation to hotels. It also gave David greater freedom when planning specialist itineraries such as pilgrimages and religious heritage tours. Shearings would, however, continue to provide coach hire for both day excursions and weekend breaks that David organised, but he was once again wholly responsible for planning every last detail himself. The working relationship with Shearings taught David an awful lot about the travel industry, in particular the nuances of tour operation and management. It was also during this time that he began to forge contacts in the industry, many of whom have remained good friends of David all these years later.
Following the appointment of a new vicar in early 1998, St Michael's Travel Ministry was formed. In addition, David received the new title of Parish Tours Director, together with a vastly expanded brief. David recalls “the guy was obsessed with setting up everything in the church as a ministry.” At this point, the tours business remained a hobby and something David ran in his spare time while also holding down a full-time job in the shipping industry! The purpose of the new Travel Ministry was to promote fellowship among other churches locally as well as bring the church into the wider community. Under the new St Michael’s Travel Ministry banner, David attracted the support of five other local churches of various denominations. At its peak, St Michael’s Travel Ministry carried around 600 passengers per year and it was not uncommon to have two or three coaches operating on some excursions! There was also a broadening of the range of itineraries being offered, which now extended to pilgrimage and religious heritage tours. The first of these took place in April 2000 and was a five-day visit to Mull and Iona on the west coast of Scotland. This was followed by a trip to Oberammergau that summer to see the Passion Play, which was organised through Shearings Holidays.
At the start of the new millennium, David was the subject of an Organiser Focus feature in Group Leisure Magazine, which also led to him being nominated for the "Group Travel Organiser Of The Year" Award. At the same time, he also became involved with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK (the industry trade association representing coach, bus and light rail operators) and, in particular, it’s CoachMarque quality standard scheme. CPT where keen to find ways to promote CoachMarque to Group Organisers and as David already had experience of CoachMarque from a customer viewpoint (Shearings were members of CoachMarque at the time), they enlisted his help.
By the spring of 2002, David was making arrangements for a five-day ‘Pilgrimage & Religious Heritage Tour’ to the North East and Lindisfarne for the church’s centenary. That same year, David was asked to join a working party by the Confederation of Passenger Transport formed of industry stakeholders. The purpose of this working party was to represent a cross-section of the industry during a consultation process with the EU, regarding proposed changes to EU drivers’ hours and tachograph regulations. David was also encouraged to sit his Transport Managers CPC in National Passenger Transport Operations, which he passed in the autumn.
The Spring of 2003 saw David the subject of the Group Experience feature in Group Travel Organiser Magazine, catching up with him five years after the formation of St Michael's Travel Ministry.
In the Summer of 2003, due to increasing legislation and regulation, the church decided, on the advice of the Diocese, to disband St Michael’s Travel Ministry. But all was not lost. Rather, David was encouraged to set up his own business and The Travel Ministry Limited (TML) was born! As part of the new business, Shearings Holidays continued to supply coaches through to the autumn of 2007. This enabled David to operate trips for his local church, while also tendering for tours on behalf of other groups and organisations around the country. He also offered a small number of brochured tours.
In late 2007, The Travel Ministry Limited was disbanded and merged into its sister company, TML Consultancy Limited, due to an increasing amount of consultancy work. To reflect this move, TML Consultancy Limited was renamed TML Travel & Consultancy Limited in May 2009. At the time, there were no tours being operated, although it did leave the door open for any future plans.
In late 2003, David was invited to become a consultant to the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, and in particular its CoachMarque quality standard scheme. His responsibilities at CPT included representing CoachMarque at various trade events and functions, organising and managing delegate transport sponsored by CoachMarque at various conferences, events & familiarisation weekends. He also frequently hosted CoachMarque industry seminars and sat on a number of expert panels.
Over the Winter of 2005, David was asked by the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK to join a small working party as part of a Europe wide study to look into and investigate the issue of vehicle weights. The study was funded by the EU and the International Road Union (IRU) to look into the weight of current passenger vehicles during their everyday work. It had been felt for sometime that the existing regulations concerning vehicle weights were not satisfactory given the demands of other legislative requirements, modern technological advances and customer expectations. As a consequence, many vehicles operating on Europe's roads were felt to be operating very close to their legal Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) under existing regulations. The study involved travelling to pre-agreed locations across the UK including the international departures section at Victoria Coach Station, to weigh vehicles, passengers and their luggage. The upshot of this study is that it has led to vehicle lengths being increased to 15 metres and Gross Vehicles Weights (GVW) being increased through the provision of an additional rear axle as a result.
Over the years, he has also written for some well-established group travel publications on a variety of issues relevant to the industry. In particular, and building on his experience as a group organiser initially, he was jointly responsible for the launch of “Check Points”. “Check Points” is a monthly feature in Group Travel Organiser Magazine advising readers on best practice, insurance and regulatory compliance when organising trips for their groups. The feature was launched in the autumn of 2004 and is sponsored by the CoachMarque scheme and it’s members. Ten years on, this feature is still going strong.
In May 2008, following some friendly encouragement (and arm-twisting!) by industry colleagues, David passed his full PCV licence. It is an achievement he is very proud of. He still uses it frequently to this day.
In April 2010, following research into the future of the coach industry by means of the Mintel report, it was decided to recommence tour operations. The report acknowledged that a continuing slant towards higher socio-economic groups in coming years would generate a more affluent customer who is willing to pay for luxury, comfort and exclusivity. The report also acknowledged that economic uncertainty and higher exchange rates should see a boom in domestic tourism over the coming years.
As a consequence of these findings, David believed that the luxury sector of the market held much promise.
It is widely acknowledged in the coach industry that cruise customers are potential coach customers, so long as the product offering is right. This provided a springboard for David’s strategic partnership with Eavesway Travel, as it was recognised that by combining David’s experience with Eavesway’s reputation and experience, there was the basis to offer something very special to each of their respective client bases.
It was under the new TML Travel Group banner (this trading style was adopted to bring the consultancy & tour operations under one brand name), that the "Discerning Tours For Discerning People" brand was born and the partnership with Eavesway Travel began.
In the latter part of 2010, David was invited to become a consultant to Transport Partners Ltd (a small transport consultancy business based in Olney near Milton Keynes) and ROSCO (The Road Operators Safety Council), which promotes safe driving among professional drivers and operators. He remains a freelance consultant to both of these organisations to this day.
More recently, in 2012, David was approached to provide operational management support to Iluka (a worldwide event management company providing corporate hospitality programmes for major Blue Chip companies across the globe) and Transport Partners Ltd at the London Olympics, managing a fleet of over 50 coaches and 130 drivers from a depot in Barking. In this role, he worked on corporate hospitality programmes for companies such as BP, Lloyds Banking Group, EDF Energy, Cadbury's, GSK and NBC.
In the spring of 2013, David received news that a coach operator in the north east of England was retiring, which prompted the move to launch Smart Breaks Limited, a subsidiary company to TML Travel Group.
Exclusive to the north east of England, Smart Breaks is promoted as a new budget brand offering an ideal way to travel and see the best of Britain at an affordable price. Smart Breaks are designed as a more budget style product using budget brand or 3* start hotels and lower specification vehicles with less legroom & larger seating capacities. Some tours are also operated using 16 seater minibuses and unlike the more upmarket tours, there is no porterage, tour manager or onboard refreshments service provided. A driver purely accompanies the tours. The excursions to are also a lot more basic with greater emphasis on clients making their own enjoyment or purchasing optional excursions to enhance their holiday experience. Operated in conjunction with two family-run operators - Hodgson’s of Barnard Castle and Hartshorn’s of Langley Park in Durham (both of which also act as main booking agents), Smart Breaks are a very different kind of product to the more upmarket style of product, offered through the partnership with Eavesway Travel.
The Smart Breaks brand was discontinued in the autumn of 2016 as the company realised its core focus should be on what it does best - its discerning tours for discerning people brand.
In the summer of 2013, David was awarded his Transport Managers CPC for International Passenger Transport Operations.
During 2014, David has received a number of approaches from various organisations to take up a variety of operational roles, most notably Deputy Bus System Manager working for MV Transit on the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. In addition to this he was also offered the position of Transport Manager with Battersby Silver Grey Coaches of Morecambe.
David took up his post with Battersby Silver Grey Coaches of Morecambe on Tuesday 1st April 2014 and he quickly realised the grass is not always greener elsewhere! Following two months with Battersbys, David returned to TML Travel Group full time in June 2014 to head up some high profile consultancy projects. These include work on the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games amongst others.
The summer of 2014 saw David seconded to Glasgow to manage the transport on a Corporate Sponsor Programme on behalf of Transport Partners at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. This was a big achievement for the business and saw TML's Consultancy Service build on it's previous successes. As a result of a "job well done" in Glasgow, David received further approaches for TML Consultancy's services from other companies.
In the autumn of 2014, TML Consultancy were approached by TBR Global who worked with David in Glasgow, to assist in the management of transport operations for delegates attending a major conference in London. The project involved managing the transport for 600 delegates arriving into Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted & London City airports from across the globe. To achieve this TML coordinated the transport movements between the various airports and Central London hotels. The second phase of this contract involved positioning additional TML personnel in London to coordinate the transfers between the QE2 Conference Centre in Westminster and a dinner at the Connaught Rooms before returning delegates to their respective hotels.
July 2015 saw TML Consultancy take on a long term contract providing external transport management to a high profile provider of school transport services in Yorkshire.
In December 2015, TML Travel & Consulatncy Limited T/As. Travel Group changed it's name to TML Travel Group Limited to better reflect the various areas of operation.
2016 has seen a return to offering Religious Heritage Tours to organised groups, which have proved very successful. It is anticipated this growth will continue into 2017 with further expansion planned. New itineraries and destinations are planned for 2019 & 2021.
July 2019 marked 30 years since David operated his very first coach tour and we ran a special anniversary 'Grand Day Out' titled 'A Lakeland Odyssey' for long standing clientsto mark the occassion. This very special day out consisted of a traditional touring style itinerary designed to recapture the essence of the 'golden age of travel. The desination for this tour was th Lake District and included a journey on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, a full length cruise on Lake Windermere aboard one of the famous 1930's steamers followed by some time at leisure in Ambleside. The afternoon consisted of a scenic drive through the central & northern lakes before joining the motorway at Penrith for an anniversary dinner at the 4* Preston Marriott hotel, after which it was time to head for home.
David is very firm in his belief - shared by others in the industry - that if the coach sector is to have a sustainable future, it needs to ‘up it’s game’. He says, “there are too many operators out there who take the view ‘this is the way things are done and always will be.’ As a consequence, they are struggling to attract younger or newer customers to replace those that are no longer able to travel”. There are a few operators who have taken a gamble and aimed their products at the younger, more upmarket and less traditional coach passenger, and this is beginning to pay dividends. The days of the old-fashioned coach holiday to traditional seaside resorts are very much in decline.
At the same time, he feels more needs to be done to help change public perception of the coach industry. Many people still picture the dirty, smelly vehicles they travelled on 30 years ago, not the modern, state-of-the-art (and, indeed, very expensive!) hi-tech, environmentally friendly vehicles of today. This is not helped by those operators who perpetuate the ‘working class’ image that some customers, and more importantly, prospective customers hold. As a result, perceptions have become distorted.
It is not just new vehicle costs that affect the cost of a holiday, but over the last 20 years particularly, there have been major increases in fuel prices and also operating costs due to increased regulation. Another major element that makes up the holiday prices is the cost of hotel accommodation. David comments, "In recent years, we have noticed that a lot of the mainstream hotel brands are watching their margins very closely and hardly a year goes by without some level of increase."
Auxilliary services also add to the cost of tours these days, such as the provision of tour managers, porterage and the inclusion of admission to visitor attractions as part of the excursion programme. David says, "It's very much a balancing act trying to find a happy medium in order to offer a product that offers quality & service combined with interesting itineraries at a reasonable price."
David says, “You get what you pay for in this industry and customers often remark on how nice the coaches are that we use, but when they ask me how much they cost to buy, they have heart failure! It’s quite a shock for them to hear that their house is most likely worth less than the vehicle they are travelling on.” It has to be said, however, that the vehicles David employs from Eavesway are somewhat unique in their specification and, as a result, are among the most expensive in the UK. At £350,000 per vehicle, they are roughly £120,000 more than the average competitor coach, but the quality is unrivalled and has to be experienced to be believed. David says, “If the industry wants to attract a younger, more affluent clientele to secure its future then it has to offer greater luxury, comfort, better quality hotels, greater personal service and more innovative itineraries. These days, consumers expect greater standards of service for their holiday spend and this relates to all aspects of the travel experience, not just the coaches. However, all of this comes at a price and if customers want better service and quality, like with most things in life, they have to be prepared to pay for it.”
It is David's belief that the "mass market" traditional coach holiday industry will be around for sometime, but this is in decline. Some of the larger carriers seem to be perpetuating a "race to the bottom" with their pricing strategy and marketing approach. As a consequence, they are attracting a new type of clientele, but also alienating their existing client base. David's view is - leave them to get on with it because he believes this will in time create a modal shift in customer buying behaviour towards the smaller, more niche market family run operations (such as TML Travel Group), who focus on quality and service rather than price.
Thinking slightly outside the box, David also feels that tours & city breaks by rail have some future - especially to cities such as London or Edinburgh. Obviously these aren't as convenient as travel by coach, but with adequate ground handling in place at either end of the journey, it is certainly something to consider. This would also mean smaller, more exclusive groups could be carried and David is not dismissing the idea.
It would be quite ironic in many ways if David did implement the Rail Tours idea because back in 1991, that is exactly how he operated his first overnight tour to London.
First Published - December 2013 (Updated March 2014, August 2014, January 2015, December 2015, October 2016, January 2019 & January 2020)
With grateful thanks to Carrie Drage for her assistance in putting together this biography.