Why we’re all to blame for British trains

I’ve recently returned from Japan where I travelled over 800 miles by rail and I was struck by the comparison of two first world rail systems – the Japanese and the British.

p1010466In Britain, we all know the shinkansen (which we dub the bullet train) for its speed. It links Japan’s cities at over 200mph. Indeed, the upcoming model will be travelling at closer to 250. And in that regard, its reputation doesn’t disappoint as you realise that your eyes can’t focus fast enough on any objects within a 200m of the track. Even distant scenery seems to be there one moment and replaced the next. But that’s not the most striking thing about this train network. That honour is reserved for the way the service is run.

My partner and I arrived at Tokyo station with reservations for a train to take us to Hiroshima – some 550 miles to the south-west. Having arrived in plenty of time, we surveyed the scene. Gathering at each platform gate was a pair of cleaners – women dressed in immaculate pink uniforms and men similarly smart in blue. They each had a utility belt with cleaning materials, rubbish bags and fresh supplies. With 14 carriages, there must have been at least 28 of them.

The train eased into the platform, and after respectfully bowing to each disembarking passenger, this courteous cleaning army set to work on the train. In six minutes, the entire train was refreshed from top to bottom, Floors were washed, rubbish was removed, every seat was rotated so that each passenger would be facing forward and all seats had a fresh linen antimacassar. I was then distracted by the two drivers – each resembling the smartest airline captain, complete with peaked caps and pilot style briefcases. They were striding along the platform to the cockpit and every staff member they passed bowed to them.

Eight minutes after the train had arrived, we boarded the spotless carriage and the platform guards performed their rituals, waving us off with a flag held in a white gloved hand, giving a deep bow to the train as it pulled out of the station. All this happened when the second hand told us it was EXACTLY the departure time of the train. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have not seen an operation like it this side of Trooping the Colour. I have to admit to being slightly emotional about the performance. After all, I was experiencing ‘world-class’.

p1010480Once on the train, the similarly white gloved train crew used an electronic device to survey the passengers in their carriage. It took me a little while to realise that if a passenger was in a seat that had been reserved, they didn’t disturb that individual. However, if they expected a seat to be empty and someone was occupying it, a quiet word was had … presumably to restore a sense of order as soon as possible. On leaving a carriage, the guard would turn to the assembled, bow, and then head through the door.

In the UK, I rely on the trains primarily to get in and out of London to see clients. I have to use the Southern Rail network, which currently has the worst track record, but over the last few years, South Eastern and South Western have also held that crown of thorns. I am writing this article on a Southern Rail train today. I’m lucky. My train is only 16 minutes late. On arriving at my town’s station, there was a board-full of cancellations, with the odd delayed train to provide some relief. And, of course, anybody who regularly uses British trains knows this is far from unusual. From what I gather, the shinkansens are only late if there is a passenger medical emergency. I’m guessing that when that happens, all members of staff involved, no matter how peripherally, feel a sense of darkness, as their customers didn’t receive the service they’ve come to expect. They feel shame.

Listen to any British commuter station announcer and you will hear the range of reasons why your journey has been ruined – shortage of train crew, points failure, a faulty train, industrial dispute, overrunning engineering works. The list goes on. So how can a system in one country have none of these things and in another, it’s de rigueur?

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Shinkansen food service

There is certainly a question of investment. Nearly 30 cleaners to refresh a train? That can’t make much economic sense. And yet that investment is made. Close to 100% track and rolling stock reliability? That’s got to be expensive. All those white gloves …?! On this point, I would concede that there is probably a middle ground that provides a clean, reliable service that could be a little more economically balanced.

But the thing that struck me again and again was the attitude of the Japanese staff. They had complete pride in everything. From their beautiful trains, to their immaculate uniforms … from the satisfaction of another train pulling away PRECISELY on time to providing a carriage floor that you could eat your dinner off. Pride in a job well done. Shame in a less than 100% service.

Setting aside the point about investment, the biggest difference is the pride … the deep-felt belief that delivering the best possible service is everything and will always take precedence over personal ends and means. We have not very clean trains, which are unreliable, on a track infrastructure that is falling apart, operated by people who would die laughing if you asked them to wear white gloves and bow to the carriage. So we complain. I see regular tweets from exasperated commuters using the British rail ‘service’. Are they right to complain?

Well, I would argue that passengers have every right to complain, but only if they are self-sacrificing in the service that they deliver to their customers … if the complaining passengers never take a half-warranted sick day, never take a shortcut at work, continually strive to improve, never complain of being bored, universally show respect to customers and colleagues, metaphorically grab the company logo to their breast like a player in a world cup final. But how many Brits can claim that? Are we, in a sense, all to blame for the appalling services we have to endure? We just don’t set a very good example to ourselves.

From a business perspective, what can we learn from the shinkansen staff? Is there any chance of building that sense of self-sacrificial pride in British employees? What could happen if we could? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Loch Lomond and the family ties

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Loch Lomond seen from Balmaha

No. It’s not the name of a band. But it is a story of a couple’s roots and their desire to keep their family close. The Commercial Traveller was enjoying an early April break in the gorgeous surroundings of Scotland’s Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Snow-capped mountains, broad expanses of water bejewelled with islands, coniferous forests and varied wildlife provided a fantastic backdrop to some fine walking. It seemed that every 20 metres, there was a different view – each one as jaw-dropping as the last.

So what of this couple? Sandy and Lucy Fraser met in a milk bar in Drymen on the eastern side of Loch Lomond – 15 miles north of Glasgow. And when Sandy’s mother’s car park in his home village of Balmaha became his, a plan formulated. The original idea was to build a milk bar on the site, to honour the couple’s first meeting. But this was the mid-1990s and milk bars had gone out of favour. So a somewhat grander plan was hatched.

P1010860Sandy and Lucy had eight children and they encountered a dilemma faced by many parents in beautiful, but somewhat remote areas. Of course, everyone wants the best for their children – for them to have stimulating careers and great opportunities in life. But on the flipside, it would be lovely to have the family close together and to share in and get the benefit of a stunning bucolic location. So in 1997, Sandy and Lucy went about creating a business that would provide fulfilling employment for the entire family and The Oak Tree Inn was born.

In the mid-90s, Balmaha, a village of some 400 residents, had a rather run down hotel and a small garden centre with a café. Feeling that there wasn’t much competition, the Frasers built a bar and restaurant with B&B accommodation on the former car park, right by the 500 year old oak tree that inspired the name.

WP_20160402_12_28_14_Pro 1The Commercial Traveller was particularly impressed by the way the entrepreneurial Frasers have branched out to generate additional revenue streams, employment opportunities and to ensure that all customers’ needs are met by the family business. They now run a coffee shop, have two ice-cream brands (including the fun Bal-moo-ha moniker) a brewery, much more accommodation and have even negotiated a fee with the visitor centre across the road to provide toilet facilities. The run down hotel has since been demolished and the garden centre has been turned into lodges, which provide hungry and thirsty customers making a beeline for the Oak Tree business.

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Bal-moo-ha ice cream served in the delightful coffee shop

So has there been any resentment in the village? Nina, one of the eight Fraser children, tells me that there have been little flashpoints in the community over the years, but that has now all but disappeared. Indeed, on a Saturday night, it is impossible to move in the Oak Tree bar for Balmaha residents.

When questioned about how the business is structured, Nina said that Sandy and her brother, Stuart, run the show. Sandy brings the creative, entrepreneurial side, whilst Stuart’s attention to detail ensures that operationally, the business runs smoothly. The management team consists of 10 department heads and these days, half of them are from the Fraser family and half are not. Nina goes on to state, unsurprisingly, that at first it was hard to find managers that cared as much about the business as those in the bloodline. But now she feels that the right balance has been struck and, as a guest at the Inn, The Commercial Traveller certainly felt in the embrace of a well-oiled machine.

So have Sandy and Lucy met their goal? Many would argue that Balmaha is the wrong side of the Loch to attract sufficient custom, as the main road going northwards to the Highlands runs along the western shore. And it’s true to say that getting to the Oak Tree Inn is not that easy*. But I witnessed a thriving business and if Sandy and Lucy’s key measure of success was how many of the Fraser family still live in the Balmaha vicinity, the couple who met over a milkshake all those years ago have scored 100%.

*The next Fraser initiative is to build a pontoon to ferry visitors in from Balloch – the main town on the loch.

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Many thanks to Nina Fraser who took time out of her busy schedule to talk to The Commercial Traveller.

Seasonality and cocktails

This is a guest post from Sarah Evans. Sarah’s bio is at the end of the piece.

2016-02-25 17.15.52“Una mas Margarita?”

It’s 4.30pm on a Thursday afternoon at Fresh Restaurant and Lounge, I’m looking out onto the wide sandy expanse of Playa Zicatella, listening to live music and settling in for another glorious sunset. Our cute Mexican waiter Rodolfo in his kinky white Cuban-healed boots is hypnotising me with his offer to bring me another drink…I readily stare into his dreamy eyes and say “si, por favor, por supuesto!” without another thought – Yes please, of course!

Cocktail hour on the beach has been rejuvenated this winter season and these savvy Canadian owners of Fresh have captured the market perfectly.

2016-03-12 18.31.20Puerto Escondido is a small town on the Pacific Coast of Southern Mexico. It’s a real Mexican working town where fishing, farming and tourism are the main industries – you won’t find a Starbucks, McDonald’s, TGI Fridays or a Margaritaville here. It takes a bit of an effort to get here and this is why it retains tons of hidden Mexican charm.
There are 4 distinct types of tourists, the first are the cool surfer, backpacking crowd who travel here to try out the legendary Mexpipe killer waves. Secondly, the ‘wealthy’ Mexican Nationals , who enjoy beach holidays like everyone else, without the tourist trap feel, as in the likes of Cancun and Cozumel. The third group are from the masses of coach tours with lower income Mexican families who visit during the religious holidays of Christmas and Easter. They frolic only in the shallow waters edge as many cannot actually swim or own swimsuits, their hard earned money is spent in the local taco restaurants and they shop in Chedruai Supermarket for huge bottles of coke and enormous packets of crisps that all the family can enjoy on the beach. This group always remind me of the Birmingham visitors who drive to Weston-Super-Mare for Easter weekend. Enjoying the first escape to the seaside after a grey wet winter, all sitting along the seafront eating portions of fish and chips in paper, battling against the seagulls!

And then there are the Snowbirds. During the peak months from November to March, the town receives the annual migration of Canadian and American retirees and tourists who fly south for the winter, escaping their colder home climates. Many of these snowbirds stay for up to 3 months every year making their dollars spread that little bit further, some permanently settle into a very laid back lifestyle all year round.

These well-travelled foreigners dislike holidaying on the Mexican Yucatan, it’s too manicured and Americanised. Puerto is a bit rough around the edges but the beaches are spectacular and you don’t need to spend your children’s inheritance on a good night out. Even though the foreigners’ flip-flop feet might get dusty, they have high expectations when it comes to eating and drinking. There are far more restaurants in town then ever before and they all want a piece of this market.

2016-03-12 18.00.12This winter season, Clint and Yvette of Fresh have successfully catered to both the  Mexican nationals who find their dinner prices lower than they are used to paying in Mexico City, and the slightly hippie crowd of foreigners who love to flock together to party  but won’t pay Cancun cocktail prices.

With backgrounds in the hospitality industry, Clint and Yvette have lived and worked in Puerto for the last 8 years, thereby understanding their target audience and the ways of competing in a Mexican market – so they can still stay sane when things can and do go wrong.  Fresh opened for business in October 2015 and they have had a fabulous opening season. The main difference that has given them the edge over other businesses, is this understanding of their customer base and that they have a long term plan.

Some other bars and restaurants nearby sit empty, as they offer a redundant menu and service, expecting people to visit just because it has a fancy deck or jazzy lights. They haven’t set out to capture a target market or just have no concept of keeping up with the tourism trends of actual demand and changing consumer attitudes.

At Fresh, their staff are being trained to interpret all the indicators of their customers needs. My Margarita was offered to be refreshed as soon as I started to sip to the end of the glass. The ambience is buzzing with weekly live lounge music for the Wednesday and Saturday night dinner crowd and with upbeat mellow sunset tunes for Thursday cocktail hour.

2016-03-03 16.58.14They have become successful by building a great team that offers awesome customer service, a great atmosphere and super fresh-cooked food at prices that are competitive for a beachfront setting. These should be standard practices for any aspiring restaurant but are often lacking in many.

With the snowbird season coming to an end, Clint is networking all over social media, making contacts ‘down under’ for the summer season. If you surf in Australia you will of course have heard of Puerto Escondido. The visiting surfing crowd and young Aussie honeymooners will be the target market in Puerto during the upcoming summer months for Fresh.

For this younger crowd, they will change the menu slightly, but keep crowd-pleasers for their all year round regular customers of local business owners. They will start to offer wines of the day and special daily lunches and dinners – obtaining regular supplies of certain products is just one of the challenges any restaurant in Puerto has to deal with. And of course they will continue to offer live music during the summer months, when many others may not.

Already at number 4 on Trip Advisor, Fresh is certainly making a name for itself. While I was chatting to Clint an Australian couple came in to make dinner reservations. They had met another Aussie couple in Mexico City who had been to Puerto, they were given a recommendation – “You must go to Fresh!”

On that note, I think it’s time for one more delicious Margarita….

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Many thanks to Sarah Evans for this wonderful post and photos. Sarah has been using Puerto Escondido as a base since November 2014, popping off to explore Central and South America. You can read all about Sarah’s travels here.

Anyone for pig’s organ soup?

There’s much to like about Singapore. Lovely climate, interesting juxtaposition of colonial history and the ultramodern, and a political system that, whilst wildly different from western democracy, appears to be effective. It’s also a wonderful place to indulge the taste buds, with a cuisine that fuses Indian, Chinese and Malay.

I was staying with some expat friends, who teach at one of the international schools. Unsurprisingly, they love the Singaporean lifestyle, with the only downside to the place being its size. Island fever has them popping over to the Malay Peninsula or elsewhere in south east Asia on a fairly regular basis.

It was our main sight-seeing day. We’d roamed the streets of both Little India and Chinatown, drinking in the sights and smells – colourful 19th century shops and houses that looked down upon the bustle beneath them with gentle disregard. An ice-cold mango lassi provided welcome refreshment in a little café which could have been transplanted from Mumbai.

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Little India

People are very proud to call themselves Singaporean and whilst it is possible to experience distinct foreign cultures on the island, there are also aspects that are unique. This is probably best exemplified in the food, where you will find inimitable dishes. My friends wanted to show me what this really meant and so our lunch stop was Lau Pa Sat (literally “old market”), also known as the hawker centre.

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Lau Pa Sat has a rich and somewhat chequered history, stretching back to the 1820s. Due to land reclamation and reuse, the old market has changed location several times. The current structure still has the cast iron beams that were forged in Scotland and shipped over in 1894. These beams had been in storage for many years before forming the octagonal skeleton for the current building which was erected in the late 1980s.

It now houses a food court containing a plethora of outlets, with a large seating area in the centre. Planted slap bang in the centre of the skyscrapers of the financial district, Lau Pa Sat is the feeding trough for city workers Monday to Friday. We were there on a Saturday and the place reminded me of London’s Leadenhall market at the weekend. Listen hard enough and you can hear the echoes of the mid-week bustle.

All manner of Singaporean food is here, as well as favourites from around the world. The sweet cinnamon scent of fried carrot cake vies with fragrant chilli crab for your lunchtime Sing dollars. But how do you choose when there are over 60 outlets and no overlap? This conundrum got The Commercial Traveller thinking – especially when confronted with the Pig’s Organ Soup outlet.

WP_20150404_17_19_55_Pro 1Now maybe pig’s organ soup is the most popular lunch item on sale. I don’t know and to be honest, I didn’t try it. But let’s assume it’s an acquired taste. How do you compete for attention when you are a niche player? Well, there a number of options. You can let people revel in very fact that they are part of a select group of customers that swears by your product. Make a ‘club’ out of it. Marmite, for instance, makes a virtue of the fact that some people will hate their product, leaving the ‘lovers’ by default in a ‘club’.

Another option is to use promotional devices to get people to try it. On the basis that a portion of the population will like your product, you can build a market. The Commercial Traveller has many times been offered the likes of soya milk yoghurts or a new brand of shampoo at London rail terminals. This is the ‘try it, you might like it!’ approach.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that there a lot of advantages for a small business in operating in a niche market:

  1. You don’t have to spread yourself too thinly.
  2. It’s easier to become an expert and well known.
  3. Being unique means less competition.
  4. Marketing becomes easier.
  5. More repeat business.

The owners of the pig’s organ soup concession recognise that they don’t need to feed the 2,500 people that can fit into Lau Pa Sat at any one time. They just need to sell the 50 or so portions over a lunchtime that gives them a decent living. And I suspect they find that quite easy.

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The Commercial Traveller eats fried carrot cake

Me? I’ll stick to the fried carrot cake.

 

 

 

Many thanks to Nicki Hambleton for providing some of the photos and being my host on this trip. You can view more of Nicki’s wonderful photography here.

Gingerbread man – too much of a good thing

Marrakesh. Jemaa El Fna. 11.30am.

I was travelling with my daughters, aged 15 and 13. I have travelled to a number of Arab and Islamic countries and am somewhat accustomed to the sights and sounds of the souk. But even I was blown away by assault on the sense of this place. As for my daughters, they were slack-jawed and saucer-eyed.

Given my previous experiences in places like Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Tunisia, I had taken time to explain to my daughters that they needed to be on their toes, alert to everything and prepared for anything. And if this is true of anywhere in the world, it’s this UNESCO world heritage site – the main trading square at one end of the Sahara. A place where snake charmers rub shoulders with dancers and story-tellers … where, by day, trade is everything and, by night, flavoursome Berber food takes centre stage.

Snake charmersI wanted the three of us to cut a fine line between taking it all in and being taken in. Toothless Bedouin women were keen on grabbing my daughters’ arms to try and start a black henna tattoo, before anyone had time to object. Encouraged by me, they were just about holding their own. I could see that they were loving the experience and slightly terrified at the same time. Exactly the reasons why I had brought them to this riveting, intoxicating city.

We then came across a gentle, smiling street seller who had a slab of thick gingerbread, resting on a plank placed across an upturned crate. He had little tasters of this confection and the aroma of treacly ginger enticed us over. He calmly and politely offered us each a piece, starting with my younger daughter and ending with me. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the most incredible, moist, chewy, sweet, fragrant delight that any of us had ever tasted. It was angel food and its maker knew it.

He motioned towards the 2ft by 1ft slab on the plank … “would you like to buy some to eat in the park over there?” He pointed to a pretty spot just beyond the square, with cooling shade provided by verdant date palms. The girls turned their gaze on me. They clearly wanted more of this delicious treat, but I needed to show them that guardedness equated to survival in this place.

“How much is it?”, I ventured. “Only thirty dirhams for one hundred grams, sir”. Ok. About two pounds sterling. That would work. Dad would be a hero and it wouldn’t cost him an arm and a leg. “Ok. We’ll take some.” The girls were beaming. Our new friend hovered his large knife halfway down the slab. “This much?” “No, no, no”, I exclaimed. He slid his knife to halve the half. “This much?” I pointed to half of that piece. He swiftly brought his knife down and wrapped the piece up in some grease-proof paper, smiling at me and my daughters.

He then proceeded to bring a set of electronic scales from under the crate and plonked our portion onto them. “That’ll be three hundred dirhams, sir.” About twenty quid! I looked suspiciously at the scales, but they were proudly displaying 1.05kg. It appears that he’d let me off the odd fifteen dirhams. I picked up the gingerbread and handed it to my elder daughter. To be fair, it did feel the weight of a bag of sugar.

Muttering under my breath, I took three hundred dirhams out and gave the baker a look that said ‘we both know what’s gone on here’ and shepherded my girls to the park.

A few moments later, we were sitting on a cool bench, relishing the spicy treat. What had The Commercial Traveller learnt? Firstly, that really understanding units of measure is so vital when it comesJemma evening to negotiation. I know what a kilo is and I know how much a dirham is worth. The seller had not been at all disingenuous. I had bought what I asked for. My problem was that I didn’t factor in density. When negotiating, knowing how much of a product or service you need is way more important than a deal that might be on offer.

Secondly, there is a lesson about the value of a product or service. My first inclination was that I had been ripped off …. that he might have ‘got me’ this time, but that is never a way to treat your customers. However, sitting there in the park with my two daughters, enraptured whilst chomping this exquisite slab of rich perfection, my annoyance started to melt away. Maybe that moment, in retrospect, had a value that easily equalled two tenners.

I bet the baker has daughters.

 

Photos kindly provided by www.visitmorocco.com.

Too high to eat

My appetite was non-existent.

This was the predominant altitude sickness symptom that I suffered whilst trekking to Everest Base Camp, at a height of 5,364m or 17,598ft. It had been 3 days since I had reached the camp and I had made the descent back into Lukla. Although I had knocked 2,500m off my altitude, the effects of the thin air had not yet worn off. So despite using up well over 5,000 calories per day, I was struggling to take on 500.

But there I was, at the end of my trek, feeling for all the world like a conquering hero, strolling into Lukla ‘high street’. Lukla is vital to trekking in the Everest region, as it has an airport and so provides a beginning and an end to many an adventure. Unsurprisingly, it is a thriving town – there’s nothing like a captive market. Visitors on the way up buy trekking gear, hire guides and maybe imbibe their last beer before setting off. People at the end of their trek – like me – crave a shower, to feel ‘normal’ again and to secure a vital boarding pass for a plane back to Kathmandu.

So there are two distinct markets in Lukla – those starting out and returnees. And the ‘high street’ was equally divided between the two. And this is commerce as its most basic. Supply and demand. Haggling expected. Premiums applied due to lack of competition. I’ve got it, you need it, pay through the nose. But in true Nepalese style, this was all done with a certain grace and politeness.

A particular aspect of this world stuck out to The Commercial Traveller – the tongue-in-cheek rip-offs of Western brands. Even in myP1010037 weary state, completely spent from the toughest physical and mental challenge of my life, the corners of my mouth formed a wry smile at the sight of the Yakdonalds sign. And I’m not entirely sure that Seattle HQ is aware of the Lukla branch of Starbucks. Which got me thinking about ‘passing off’- making some false representation likely to induce a person to believe that the goods or services are those of another.

Of course, in markets where McDonalds and Starbucks may want to operate, it is vital that they protect their marques. Their share prices include a substantial premium for the value of their brands. The fact that establishments in this Himalayan town, that has never seen a car, feel that playing with those names is good for business is testament to the value of the brands.

So how do you develop brand value if you are small business? Clearly, it is impossible to become a global name in all markets. That takes investment running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But it is important to gain reputation. You just have to be really focussed on the circles in which you wish to be known and keep them small and contained. It would be more valuable to be the most highly recognised employment law firm in a county, for instance, than one with scant recognition over a wider geographical area or over multiple specialisms.

Not only is this focus good for the value of your brand, but it makes marketing easier too. Don’t be all things to all men. Be crystal clear about your target market and then speak to them with a consistent, authoritative voice. They will end up knowing exactly where to look when they have a need for your product or service. And that is what brands are built upon, with the added benefit that your business valuation will increase.

Over the next few days, my appetite got back to normal.

And I, for one, can vouch for the yakburgers.

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