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Over 550 National Express coaches run on Britain's roads every day, ferrying around 19 million passengers up and down the country every year. Barney Williams, the founder of pop-up coach start-up Zeelo, hopes to disrupt the coach sector by tearing up the timetable and providing transport where and when people need it.

Zeelo is a pop-up coach company for “when demand needs it,” says Williams. The company, which is backed by the UK’s largest coach aggregator Coachhire.com, uses big data from Google searches and third-party providers to list routes that are going to prove the most popular. “We aren't scheduled, so we aren't like a typical National Express that runs four routes every day and hopes the demand is going to be there,” says Williams. “We believe that through data we can see which routes are going to be commercially viable, so we put those routes up at those times.” The company then advertises these routes to various audiences – from football fanatics travelling to an away game, to music fans heading to a festival, or university students travelling back to school.

From leaking AC to uncomfortable seats, long distance bus and coach travel gets a bad rep in the UK; Megabus scores a measly 2.5 out of ten on Trustpilot. But Zeelo wants to change that by offering cheaper, convenient and efficient travel. “We offer a direct service meaning that passengers can enjoy a fast ride with no irritating changes,” says Williams. The company also picks passengers up from where they are based. “We don't necessarily pick up people from the centre of town. If they're students, we'll pick them up from the student areas, or if they're football fans, then we'll pick them up from the areas that they live.”

Its aspirations are paying off; a trial in Bristol scored the company a 9/10 Trustpilot rating and Zeelo will be rolling out across the UK in 2017. Although there are other start-ups, such as Vieni and Snap, focusing on making coach travel cool, Zeelo's use of big data means that it straddles both the public transport and on-demand taxi sectors. “We're a hybrid of National Express and Uber," says Williams. "Our direct service and our flexibility of supply means we can offer longer routes, but the way we pool demand and tailor routes for football fans or festival goers means we're running a more tailored services for different communities.”

While, in Europe, a service like BlaBlaCar might also be seen as a competitor, Zeelo is catering to a very ‘British’ customer. “The UK is different to France and Spain,” says Williams. “Brits are just not as sociable and also not as trusting. There's a perception that if you get into a car with a stranger it's unsafe, whereas with us, we've got a vetted driver. It's not just a random bloke in a car driving to Cambridge.”

A universal part of Zeelo’s appeal is that it replaces a restrictive timetable with an on-demand approach. On-demand services were once limited to media streaming, but driven by the success of Uber, Amazon and their contemporaries, no industry has been left undisrupted. Zeelo brings the culture of 'I want it now' to the coach station.


Jo Allison is Canvas8’s editor. Previously, she worked for retail trends consultancy GDR, where shopping was part of the job description. When she’s not getting her head around the quirks of human behaviour, she’s busy ‘researching’ the latest food or fitness fad.


10 Feb 17
3 min read

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