Flying the flag for the UK at Cologne

Flying the flag for the UK at Cologne Flying the flag for the UK at Cologne
As an international showcase for the coach tourism sector, the RDA workshop held in Cologne each summer has no equal and the 2009 event was no exception with almost 12,000 visitors attending over the three days.

The show includes a wide variety of exhibitors from Europe and beyond and its grand scale means that it is like a World Travel Market, with the big difference being that all its exhibitors are totally focussed on the coach groups market.

It’s a mystery why more UK coach operators don’t take the opportunity to visit the event; they would certainly find it of real interest, and no, the language barrier is not a problem as English speakers are readily found on every stand.

The event is organised by the international tourism body RDA which has taken a prominent role in the recent lobbying campaign to reinstate the 12-day rule for coach drivers. RDA chief executive Dieter Gauf believes that the campaign, backed by the IRU and individual trade associations was a model of effective lobbying. “When we started out on this two years ago, we were told that the ‘train has already left the station’ and that we had no chance of changing the legislation,” says Gauf. “It shows that you can influence European bodies to change legislation when you can demonstrate that it is wrong and counterproductive.”

Gauf acknowledges that there are some criticisms of the new proposals but he is adamant that the deal that has been achieved is the best and only option that was available, and at least ensures that coach drivers can spend their rest periods at home.

The lobbying campaign involved working with politicians from all sides, points out Gauf. “We had to find a way of getting cross-party support so we stressed the arguments about drivers’ needs to some and those about the impact on the wider tourism industry to others.”

The RDA is supporting an IRU-led campaign on achieving a distinct set of rules for bus and coach drivers. “But first of all we need to get this step written into law,” he says, acknowledging that there is still no implementation date for the revised 12-day rule proposals.

Another of the RDA’s main campaign areas in recent years has been the environment. Gauf has spearheaded the gathering of reputable research data to back up the environment credentials of the coach. “Previously politicians only spoke of the train in environmental terms, now they quote the coach as well,” says Gauf. “As far as tackling climate change is concerned, the coach is definitely number one.”

Back at the exhibition, there were plenty of new ideas for coach operators including the emerging area of Sudtirol where a group of family-owned hotels unites under the Alpotels banner to offer specialist group accommodation and tour itineraries.

Sudtirol is a mainly German speaking area of northern Italy. It may be a little off the traditional coach routes, but Alpotels’ Anne Eppinger points out that Sudtirol is only one hour from Innsbruck and the same distance from Lake Garda. The group is receiving its first UK coaches this winter and is aiming to offer a range of year-round attractions from white Christmas specials to spring alpine walking and activities as well as artisan crafts and shopping.

You can even be entertained by your hosts in the Bergland hotel as owners Klaus and Johannes Gurschler are part of an award-winning folk group who regularly perform for guests as well at major events.

The German market is dominated by large wholesalers and tour operators and it is these groups that were the target for the UK contingent at RDA Workshop. The UK presence was a little bigger than the last time I visited the show two years ago, but it is still woefully small. There were plenty of jibes about ‘Invisible Britain’ given the distinct lack of support from Visit Britain but this should not take anything away from the hardy band of Kent-based destinations and attractions who attended.

Medway council’s Mary Sewell was the pioneer of the RDA show joining a group who attended six years ago when Visit Britain was interested. She was followed by Canterbury Cathedral’s Therese Heslop and this year’s RDA stand included English Heritage’s Christine Morgenstern, Visit Kent’s Rachel Wray and Hever Castle’s Ann Watt.

The group found a lot of interest among the wholesalers and tour operators at the Workshop and used the event to promote incoming visitors to Kent. There is already a steady stream of traffic coming in to Kent, swelled this year by a favourable exchange rate for visitors from Euro-land. And the Kent group are working closely with their  German contacts having hosted a tour operator familiarisation visit recently and planning a joint event with the RDA later this year in Canterbury.

“The show is a good opportunity for us to talk to the wholesalers and to support them by giving information to coach operators here,” says English Heritage’s Morgenstern, who used the opportunity to promote the recent investment at Dover Castle and the Darwin anniversary interest in Down House.

Hever Castle has seen a big growth in visitors from mainland Europe this year, according to Watt. Overall, visitors are up 28 per cent this year compared to 2008 and the site is to undergo a major investment next year with the redevelopment of the main restaurant in time for Easter 2010.

The Kentish presence was also boosted by Albatross which is a regular exhibitor at RDA. German-speaking MD Sean Taggart has a strong presence in the German market and uses the show to good effect, as well as flying the flag for the UK coach sector in his role as CTC chairman.

The Kentish bridgehead ought to  be a good platform for other UK venues and attractions to join in selling themselves to the mainland European market through RDA. The  group are keen to encourage others to join them in Cologne next year so that ‘invisible Britain’ becomes a thing of the past.

If any operators are interested in making the trip next summer, Bus and Coach Professional would be delighted to work with them in arranging a trip and the RDA  Workshop organisers and all the exhibitors would undoubtedly welcome them with open arms. If you’re interested, please contact us.