Behind-the-scenes: Planning a bus tour

With daffodils in bloom and the temperature rising, summer is fast approaching. With it comes the annual fixture in the StartUp Britain calendar – our national bus tour!

For four years now – under the original founders and more recently the Centre for Entrepreneurs – StartUp Britain has hit the road, touring the country to promote entrepreneurship. The tour uses a simple but well-proven model – parking the bus in high-footfall town squares and filling it with experts to give free and impartial advice to aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs.

Plans for this year’s tour are well developed and we’ll be announcing the schedule as soon as the last few locations confirm. In the mean time, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in simply choosing and pinning down the locations for the tour.

Length of tour
Last year we announced a 25 city tour and were promptly overloaded with requests for additional stops. Choosing a few strong proposals, we extended the tour to an additional three locations. Of course, we can’t stay on tour forever – team and PR fatique, planning complexity and the tour budget are the primary limiting factors.

This year we’ll be visiting 30 towns and cities between 13th June and 29th July – a balance that allows us to visit more locations, while keeping it manageable. Having said that, what it means for the team is three weeks on the road without returning home; a week’s break; then another three weeks on the road.

Cities or towns?
By its nature, a StartUp Britain national tour needs to visit every corner of England, Wales and Scotland. It also needs to keep up momentum, visiting 5 towns/cities a week to ensure it makes the most of the six week schedule. Given we spend a full day at each location, the tour needs to be structured in a way that the bus can get to the next location in less than four hours. This is limited slightly by the fact NatWest’s beautiful 1966 Routemaster bus can only go around 45mph – nearly doubling the average journey time.

It’s also important to get a mix of big cities and smaller towns. Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Nottingham have large populations and developed entrepreneurial ecosystems that allow us to engage a lot of people, but arguably smaller towns like Margate, Inverness and Middlesbrough (all on the 2015 tour) with nascent ecosystems could benefit more from the bus visiting.

Town squares
To promote entrepreneurship to the British public, we need to park the bus in high-footfall areas – it’s the physical presence of the bus that catches people’s attention and encourages them to come on-board for a chat about an idea they’ve had for years but never acted on. This means normally we look for public squares or large pedestrianised high streets. A lot of the initial planning is conducted using Google Maps and Streetview, then confirmed by speaking to local contacts.

It’s surprising how many cities and towns don’t have squares, or due to urban planning have shifted the epicentre away from the town square to a new shopping centre elsewhere. Hull presents a temporary challenge which has stopped us from visiting this year – the entire town centre is being dug up in preparation for its role as European City of Culture in 2017. Paternoster Square – another desired location – has recently signed up the City Walkway which bans any vehicles from entering. Our position in Nottingham this year won’t match the prime position we enjoyed outside the council house last year, as every July the town square turns into a giant beach!

Entrepreneurial councils
Once we have a draft schedule and have identified public squares we wish to use, we then need to get permission – normally from the local authority. The vast majority of councils are fantastic – attentive, responsive and willing to help.

The main challenge we face when interacting with councils is that are now rather “entrepreneurial” and, rightly, charge fees to secure licenses to use public spaces. Many councils now charge admin fees at cost – anything from £20 to £120. For other councils though, license fees are now a source of revenue, to be maximised to help offset cuts elsewhere. For the larger cities where big businesses regularly undertake promotional campaigns, councils have adjusted their fees appropriately – with some rising above £2,000 for a commercial license.

Thankfully, we’re a non-profit, and given we’re offering free business advice to help the local population start and grow businesses, we can normally convince the council of the wider economic benefit of our visit.

So, that’s what we’ve been up to for the past few months with the help of our wonderful sponsor (and owner of the bus), NatWest. In part two, I’ll explain how we keep a 30 day tour on track and what we’ll be doing differently this year.