Getting back on track

Roger Williams

Roger Williams, Chair of the International Rail Catering Group (IRCG), believes onboard catering can play a role in encouraging customers back onto intercity trains

Rail caterers are continuously looking for new ways to attract customers and following pandemic lockdowns, rail operators are facing an enormous challenge to get customers back. With general travel advice in favour of cars, it’s an uphill battle and caterers need to be even more imaginative than usual to support the cause.

Look back and learn

Until March 2020, passenger numbers rose year on year, with the comfort and convenience of long-distance rail driving exponential growth. Since then, COVID-19 has reversed decades of progress in getting people out of their cars and onto intercity trains. But history has a lesson for us. 30 years ago, train travel had, in many countries, experienced a fall in grace due to a lack of investment. Then as new trains were introduced, rail operator tactics changed to highlight how long-distance train travel was actually enjoyable and relaxing, taking passengers seamlessly from city centre to city centre – an easy alternative to long car journeys on crowded, dangerous roads.

In the UK, British Rail used a ‘relax’ theme for its TV adverts with Louis Armstrong’s dreamy We have all the time in the world playing over shots of great food, lovely views, reclining seats and customers wearing slippers as if they were at home! Trains were something to be enjoyed, safe and stress-free and the strategy worked well – until March 2020.

Focus on emotions

Now we need to learn from history and understand how to re-create that feeling of relaxed confidence in our railways again, reminding customers that high-speed trains are very safe, easy to use and an experience to look forward to.

That’s where my favourite business tool comes in – research. It’s critical to understand the emotions of people who are currently choosing train travel, how they are reacting to their journeys, what helps and what we can do better.

It’s also important to learn how to win back those who aren’t yet brave enough, for while many will want to get travelling again, others will be nervous of a journey that they would have previously thought of as risk free and exciting. For them exciting may now seem frightening and full of risk.

Research can be easily collected at the time of travel through feedback apps such as Eat on the move (used by global travel caterer SSP). Research on non-travellers is harder to collect, but savvy operators can sense-check reaction through targeted social media.

Highlight the hospitality

Today we have the added pull of new, clean, environmentally friendly, fast trains. We can prove that long-distance rail is incredibly safe, with every railway having an abundance of cleaning and procedures to protect customers. We can add free wifi into the mix and remind customers how easy it is to buy a ticket.
But something is still missing – where is the hospitality? Where is the food and drink? It seems to be missing or unnecessarily dumbed down on so many trains and that surely means we are missing a trick.

Catering services are fundamental to customer comfort and enjoyment on a long journey and one of the defining differences between car journeys and those by train. Just because customers wear a mask doesn’t mean they aren’t thirsty or hungry – in fact our research tells us the opposite.

Feedback tells us that we need to help passengers see they can enjoy travel again, showing that the balance of risk is in favour of using trains providing sensible precautions are taken.

We need to spark the enjoyable memories of previous journeys and bring some positivity back. It’s the only way they will believe it is worth returning and, whilst they perceive we only have ‘limited’ services, they will not be inspired to travel. As they say in marketing, perception is everything!

The economic triumph of the UK’s “Eat out to help out” scheme saw the successful return of high street catering, with 50% off meals and soft drinks Mon-Wed throughout August. Other countries have run similar schemes. These demonstrated that millions were prepared to go out to enjoy food and drink when encouraged to do so safely.

Eating out is a fundamental joy that we can all share and it’s no different when we travel – we need sustenance, nourishment, we need treats – now more than ever we need the joy of great food and drink to help us on our way.

Build confidence

The success of “Eat out to help out” continued even when full prices were charged, proving it wasn’t just about cost. It was also about building the confidence in people to go out again and enjoy the ‘new normal’ cafes and restaurants.

Train catering can learn from this and needs two very clear approaches – one for the enthusiastic traveller who is already up for the journey – and one for the more reluctant traveller who is strangely comforted by their new found isolation.

Key to both demographics are very strong messages of engagement, using enticing brands and special price offers supported by great hospitality at every point of the journey. That’s not easy in a mask but it is possible. ‘Eat onboard to help out’ doesn’t quite have the same ring, but price offers should be significant enough to attract higher volumes of sales from the ‘ready to go’ customers to start with.

Reluctant travellers require significant and additional reassurance about safety, cleanliness and the sense of wellbeing that a well-catered journey on a modern intercity train can provide, especially compared to a car.

Messaging counts

We need to reinforce these messages through social media and digital advertising and by getting the enthusiastic travellers to be advocates for our catering services – to remind their friends, families and colleagues how great it is now onboard.

A good example is shown by IRCG member Elvetino in Switzerland, which is using social media to showcase the option of a chilled glass of beautiful Swiss wine with freshly-prepared local cuisine in their onboard restaurants or at-seat from the Café Bar. It’s popular, simple and a reassuring image for the customer who may be looking to travel but hasn’t quite got the courage to go yet.

We need to remember building confidence is a very personal thing. It is not just about the train journey itself. It’s about clearly signposting every step for your customer from home to destination and back again.

Whilst many now buy tickets online, why not an app option for car parking as LNER has just introduced. You can also use an app to offer seamless access to onboard menus and at-seat food purchase options (similar to those JLV has used for a while and now being trialled on Avanti). Also select and advertise a highly recognisable high street coffee brand and, if possible, similarly high-profile fresh food brand that your customers trust in everyday life and will welcome when travelling.

Complement this with products with ‘line of route’ provenance combined with a carefully chosen charitable offer, encouraging customer engagement and showing you care about your region and its people. Ensure your lounge and onboard facilities are easy to locate, access and understand intuitively what is on offer. Finally, get that all-important feedback from the customer on their experience, providing the evidence to underpin future service decisions.

Catering can play a key role in driving up passenger confidence and trust by making the whole train guest experience as enjoyable as possible. This is how rail operators will build back customer trust and loyalty and hence generate customer advocacy and ultimately volume growth to get our industry back on track.

Good luck!

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