EUROLINES has risen to the challenge posed by low-cost European airlines by expanding its Red Hot promotional return fares to key cities across the Continent.
The scheduled coach operator's new tiered price structure is a direct response to low fares on offer from carriers such as Ryanair, EasyJet and British Airways' budget airline, Go.
Eurolines' Red Hot Fares - bookable 14 days in advance - start at £33 return from London to Paris, Amsterdam or Brussels and include Prague at £69 return and Vienna at £89 return.
Eurolines marketing director Dave Watkin said: "We offer a different product to the airlines - no frills, but quality. Travel is city centre to city centre with no add-on costs like airport taxes and transfers.
"The low-cost airlines are our main competition, but Eurostar is in there, too. Though it initially went for the top end of the market, Eurostar is now clearing seats at lower rates."
Eurolines' extended Red Hot Fares are available to 100 destinations. "We've filled the gaps, especially in France, and added Switzerland and Italy," said Watkin.
Besides the standard and Red Hot tariffs, occasional off-season promotional fares are offered. "These are tactical fares designed to stimulate the market," said Watkin.
The Eurolines organisation comprises 25 member companies - one per country - recent newcomers are Latvia and Estonia. Eurolines UK, based in Luton, is owned by the National Express Group.
A rigid membership criteria operates, with standards to which all operators strictly adhere. These range from the quality and age of the coaches to the experience of the drivers.
Eurolines routes serve 450 points across Europe from Marseilles to Moscow, Torremolinos to Tallinn. Member coach operators are serviced by a secretariat based in Brussels.
The network includes comprehensive Ireland coverage, with London-Dublin return fares from £29.
Eurolines has taken over National Express services to Belfast this year and plans to expand in Northern Ireland in 2000.
Among the most popular ex-UK routes are those to Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk in Poland, serving a joint ethnic and leisure market. "Tallinn is also doing well - the whole Baltic region is opening up for tourism," said Watkin.
There are 30 departures daily from London's Victoria Coach Station in peak season and around 24 at other times. Points not served direct from the UK can be reached by changing in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels or Frankfurt.
"Most services operate straight through from London, without change of coach - it's good for our elderly passengers and one of Eurolines' most popular aspects," said Watkin.
Eurolines is currently expanding its Internet site to include the full network timetable - a development that could lead to a significant increase in bookings, according to Watkin.
"Most of our business currently comes through the trade - we have 2,600 appointed agents throughout Britain," he said. "We do only a small amount through the Internet at present."
The company has a high-street presence in the multiples through operators featuring Eurolines. They include Bridge Travel Group, Cresta and Thomson Breakaway.
National sales manager Sue Copper said: "We've been working closely with Advantage at roadshows during the past year and are closely involved with ARTAC through National Express. We do a dozen or so educationals a year."
Eurolines is seeking added agent support for its Euro Explorer passes, valid for six months, that offer nine combinations of cities. Prices start at £49 for London-Brussels-Paris.
"The Euro Explorers are cheaper this year. They are popular with students taking a year out and will form an even more important part of our programme in 2000," said Watkin.
Another product is the Eurolines Pass, which offers unlimited travel between 48 cities in 21 countries over 30 days, from £159 to £229, or 60 days from £199 to £279.
With the current rate of expansion in low-cost European travel, where does Eurolines expect to be positioned in five years time?
"The competition doesn't worry me," said Watkin. "Discounting airlines have been around for two years now and business keeps growing. "We can offer more fares and destinations than the airlines. They have to cope with clogged- up airports and delays - problems which don't affect us. We're best placed to capitalise as European travel becomes even more commonplace," he said.
"Last year, Eurolines carried 563,000 passengers in and out of the UK, a 10% increase. This year we're another 5% up."
Standard fares: from London to Paris £49 return peak, £44 off peak; Chamonix £107/£99; Rome £135/£125; Prague £95/£89; Vienna £119/£109. Reduced fares for youths, senior citizens and children.
Red Hot Fares: from London to Amsterdam £39 return peak, £33 off peak; Marseille £79/£69; Nice £79/£69; Geneva £75/£69. Bookable 14 days in advance.
Euro Explorer: includes London-Dublin-Galway-Killarney-Cork-London at £59; London-Paris-Madrid-Lisbon-Bordeaux-London at £169.
Eurolines Pass: 30 days' unlimited travel between 48 cities in 21 countries from £199 (youths/seniors from £159); 60 days from £249 (youths/seniors from £199).
There are three main categories of Eurolines client.
Youth market (under 26): the biggest sector, it consists mainly of students and other young backpackers travelling on a budget.
Senior citizens: includes early retired and older travellers with time at their disposal - also those with a fear offlying.
The ethnic market: particularly strong between the UK and both Ireland and Poland. Coach transport is much favoured by au pairs.
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