Thursday, 5 April 2007

Volo, Velle, Volui

On Monday the train pulled in, on time, (amazing) to Didcot at 7.06am, and carriage B was a Volo carriage. This doesn't normally happen on this train, they normally save it for later services, so you can imagine the raised eyebrows and faint intrigued murmurs of 'ohh' by those who didn't want to draw any attention to themselves by commenting any louder. Due to where I was standing on the platform (same place every day, seeing the same people exhibiting the same thinly veiled desperation to be among the first to board the train when it comes in to try and grab a spare double seat...) I ended up on this carriage. Quite apart from the most uncomfortable seats I've ever encountered on any public transport, obviously designed for 6' skinny blokes not 5'4" chubbier girls, the notable thing about the carriage was the absence of the 'entertainment centres' they shout about on the outside of it to entice you to choose to sit there. At every seat there is meant to be a flat screen where you can pay some cash to watch different TV channels, play a game, watch the news or listen to radio channels - a bit like in-flight screens. However, they had all been unscrewed from the seat backs so there was nothing there - not even a pull down table (although there were a couple of grubby cup holders a bit further down).

It got me thinking along 2 lines - first, what did they do when they removed them - just take them all out one night and not tell anyone? Were they being vandalised or did they just not work properly? Heaven forbid, were First Great Western unable to take any payment through them so they became uneconomic to run? As far as I could tell there were no signs explaining their absence throughout the carriage, so there may (possibly) have been some people, maybe families with young kids, who wanted a bit of entertainment on their journey, forgot the portable DVD player and iPod, and actually chose to sit in the carriage for a reason. How disappointed they must have been....

Second, working as I do in marketing (don't tell Ali) and a consumer of various trade magazines and industry websites / blogs, it struck me that train companies don't generally do all that well at marketing themselves. There's loads of posters up on platforms and on the trains themselves, and once I actually got a bit of direct mail from FGW exhorting me to travel to Bristol at the weekends on my gold season ticket, but overall you don't tend to see what else they are doing to promote themselves to the public. Is this because their marketing budgets are tiny? (probably). Do the public hate the train operating companies so much nowadays that any more overt marketing would just fall on deaf ears / eyeballs? (also quite probable). I don't recall seeing any online ads, press ads, TV etc when they launched the Volo entertainment service, and likewise FGW have both my home address and my email address so they could easily have launched with a bit more of a fanfare. My guess is that their customer base is already travelling on their trains, so they don't have to spend any money acquiring new customers. Instead they upsell on the platforms and the trains themselves, banking on your average commuter / someone taking a trip upgrading to first class for a tenner, or eating a delicious meal deal at an extortionate price, or using the Volo screens.

The verb 'volo' means 'I want' - an odd choice for the service maybe. Entertainment on demand, maybe - "I want to watch The Incredibles NOW!"

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