Exploring (S)pringbok (A)tlas
Springbok Atlas Charter Transport Division has grown form strength to strength and become one of the largest and most experienced luxury coach operators in southern Africa. JACO DE KLERK takes a look at the company’s history and future…
Springbok Atlas Charter Transport Division has been in operation since 1946 and is now one of southern Africa’s best-known coach and bus operators. The company offers services throughout the region – from its own operations in South Africa and Namibia to affiliations in Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and East Africa. Imperial – one of South Africa’s leading public companies – acquired Springbok Atlas in December 1992. However, things have certainly changed since then.
Craig Drysdale – chief executive officer of the Coach Charter Transport Division at Springbok Atlas – says there were only two big competitors in the South African coach industry when he started at the company in 1996. Springbok Atlas was the dominant one by far – holding 70 to 75 percent of market share. However, when South Africa became a democracy competition grew as the market opened to new players.
Drysdale says he’s seen, over the 16 years he’s been with the company, coach businesses come and go. “Guys have tried to be coach operators and didn’t succeed. But I’ve also seen companies that started and thought they wouldn’t succeed that actually did very well: I guess they had the right formula.”
To combat its competition and remain on top Springbok Atlas (in partnership with Imperial) has spent a considerable amount of resources in repositioning and improving itself. That included extensive investments in a new world-class fleet, management information technology and the development of management and staff – which led to Springbok Atlas being recognised as one of the top 10 brands in South Africa’s tourism industry in an independent survey conducted among international operators last year.
The company also belongs to various southern African and overseas touring associations that aim to improve and promote touring facilities and services here. These include Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA), Southern Africa Association for the Conference Industry (SAACI), Society of Incentive Travel Executives (SITE) and the Tour and Safari Association of Namibia (TASA). Springbok Atlas is also a founder member of the Coach Operators’ Association of South Africa (COASA), showing its dedication to providing first-class services.
“Springbok Atlas is the company with the longest-serving staff and managers,” says Drysdale. The Cape Town operations manager has been with the company for more than 37 years, the manager in Johannesburg for 20 years and the national technical director for 23 years. “Collectively, the charter management staff of Springbok Atlas has 450 years of experience in this industry.”
All those various attributes make Springbok Atlas the perfect coach and bus supplier – to official teams and supporters – for all major sporting events in South Africa, from rugby to cricket. But one event certainly stands out above all the others. “I must say the highlight – if you want my number one highlight – was the Soccer World Cup 2010. When I’m an old man one day and I look back at my career, my highlight would definitely be the Soccer World Cup. That was the biggest event South Africa had ever seen and the biggest event we have ever run,” says Drysdale.
The company looked after all 32 official Soccer World Cup teams and the international supporters, running more than 400 coaches over a two-month period. “For us that was great, because it was such a huge success – despite all the prophets of doom and gloom,” Drysdale says. “At times we were stressing – not because we weren’t prepared, but because we weren’t sure the road infrastructure would be prepared, that the stadiums would be prepared or the traffic marshalling would be prepared. It surprised me that everything worked: really, it worked just like clockwork. Which shows this country can in fact do anything.”
However, the Soccer World Cup wasn’t all fun and games: it had some negative effects for Springbok Atlas. There were approximately 800 super-luxury and luxury coaches in South Africa before 2010. Some companies bought up to 450 coaches just for the World Cup event – pushing the number of coaches up to 1 300 countrywide. That led to an abundance of coaches in the market, resulting in massive competitiveness between operators and price-conscious customers. “There’s an incredible price war at the moment, with an oversupply of coaches and a diminished demand from customers,” says Drysdale.
Springbok Atlas’ trade is built on inbound business – international business coming here – with its focus on the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. As those markets are greatly affected by the economic recession the company will also feel the effects. “We see the forthcoming year as being extremely tough,” notes Drysdale.
Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel – or more so within it. Says Drysdale: “We’ve seen in the past few years an increase in domestic tourism. If I can quote it, ‘moving South Africa’ is up at the moment. We used to focus on moving the world but now our business is mostly coming from South Africans and not international tourists.” That’s led to a change in the mix of products Springbok Atlas provides: instead of focusing on super-luxury coaches it’s using semi-luxury ones.
The company has a fleet of more than 187 vehicles, comprising Scania, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, with bodies sourced from Marcopolo, Busscar and Irizar. All fitments, refurbishments, repairs and maintenance of coaches is carried out at Springbok Atlas-owned workshops at depots in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The exception being Durban, where those tasks are outsourced to the original manufacturer’s workshops. All new coaches are fitted with seat belts and equipped with cellular telephones and also carry the relevant safety and operating permits required under South African Law.
This multi-model fleet consists of various sizes, including luxury touring coaches, that mainly serve international tourists and South African companies and organisations in 38- to 44-seat configurations; smaller, 18-seat coaches and nine-seat microbuses, which is in line with current market trends; and 60-seat semi-luxury coaches – primarily serving the domestic market and hired by conference and event organisers, schools, sports’ clubs and associations.
Springbok Atlas has also recognised a need to be socially responsible, addressing that by contributing to “greening”. Last year the company donated and now manages a “Conservation on wheels” fleet with KwaZulu-Natal-based Izemvelo Wildlife, teaching children and communities about fauna, flora and biodiversity. These vehicles are also used as moving classrooms and cinemas for schools and communities in the province, providing joy and learning opportunities to many.
However, the transport sector is certainly a stressful one. Drysdale says Afrikaans people have an old saying: “tran(e)sport” (tears-sport). “Sometimes we have more ‘trane’ (tears) and ‘geen sport’ (no sport). I think this is a stressful but fulfilling industry. There’s always the responsibility of ensuring your drivers and vehicles are operating at 100 percent – you’re accountable for people’s lives.” To address that, Springbok Atlas ensures its vehicles are always maintained and its drivers receive all the necessary training. “A typical day at the office is checking all systems. I receive a CTrack report every morning from all our branches highlighting if drivers are speeding or driving irresponsibly – which we then attack, as it’s a safety concern,” says Drysdale, demonstrating just how focused the company is on safety.
So even though the industry has substantially changed over the past six decades, and the future filled with uncertainty, Springbok Atlas has kept to its core values: putting the safety of its customers first. It’s also placing more focus on the African continent. “Africa is certainly the way to go: it is – I would say – the new frontier,” says Drysdale.