Enterprise: Tourists flock to go topless: The success of uncovered buses in Britain has led one operator to expand into Europe

Chris Arnot
Saturday 10 July 1993 23:02

LOOK across Roger Thompson's expansive desk and over his shoulder, and the rooftops of Stratford-upon-Avon stretch into the middle distance.

The view seems just right for one who pioneered the business of open-topped bus tours.

Only a supremely confident businessman could lure so many Britons, Americans and Japanese away from cars and on to a bus.

Only a very persuasive salesman could entice hardy souls on to open-topped tours of York in freezing fog two weeks before Christmas.

Yet a million tourists a year are seeing the sights from Mr Thompson's converted double- deckers - not just in Stratford and York but in 15 centres from Inverness to Plymouth. They are picked out by pink pins on a map of Britain to the side of his office window.

Now his Guide Friday tours are moving into Europe. His buses are already running in Seville, and negotiations are under way with the authorities in Paris and Berlin.

'It's hard to get established in France and Germany because there are so many laws and regulations,' he says.

In deregulated Britain, competition can be cut-throat. When the first Guide Friday buses arrived in Edinburgh, for instance, they found their progress blocked by the opposition.

Mr Thompson has stayed ahead of the pack through shrewd marketing. Deals with British Rail and British Airways Fly-Drive have ensured that Guide Friday tickets are part of a package for many tourists. Anyone who buys a pounds 6 ticket in one location is entitled to 50p off the fare in another. 'In that way, we retain our customers as they roll across the country. Over 40 per cent of our sales are referrals from one town or city to another.'

Guide Friday has a turnover of pounds 4m and employs 600 staff in summer. All have to complete a training course and pass examinations. Tour guides are monitored for their performance. They include students, doctors' wives, 'resting' sales executives and a former member of the cast of Oh Calcutta.

Mr Thompson describes himself as 'a mine of useless information' acquired over years of experience as a tour guide ferrying Americans around Britain in a Rolls-Royce.

But the supply of rich Americans tended to go up and down with the dollar and the threat of terrorism. The idea of the open- topped buses began to germinate. 'At ground level, high streets were beginning to look very much the same. But the roof line of a city offered a very different panorama,' he says.

'I have gone from taking a large amount of money from a small amount of people to taking a small amount from a large number.'

He has also achieved what must be a first - going from a Rolls-Royce to a bus and still being considered a business success.

(Photograph omitted)

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