An account of the origins and early days of the UK Bus Awards project since 1995
It was in the middle of 1995 that Peter Huntley and Chris Cheek, working to develop transport consultancy business The TAS Partnership, had an idea to put together an organisation that would recognise excellence and real achievement in the bus industry.
The idea was to build on the work of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities in launching the Bus Good Practice Awards in 1991 – a growingly successful scheme which the AMA staff had neither the time nor the resources to develop.
It was a time when change was in the air. The major groups were expanding, and all participants were coming to terms with the need to work together to achieve desired outcomes – so giving birth to the first Quality Partnerships. Operators were increasing investment and recognising the need to put the customer first.
Chris Cheek, UKBA Director, explains. “We felt that there was a positive story there about the efforts of bus companies and local authorities to improve bus service provision in the UK. The story wasn’t being told.”
During the autumn of 1995, TAS circulated a document to interested parties in the industry, and convened a meeting of interested parties in London that December. It was attended by representatives of CPT, local government, bus operators and potential sponsors and was chaired by Barry Moore, recently retired as MD of Ipswich Buses.
Names round the table included Trevor Smallwood of FirstBus, Peter Hendy of CentreWest, Ian Morgan from Trentbarton, Stuart Jones from Bus and Coach Buyer, Phil Swann from the AMA, Stephen Joseph from Transport 2000, David Watson from CPT and Caroline Cahm from what is now Bus Users UK.
“The meeting showed that there was supported for developing the idea, and so the scheme was born,” says Chris. A management committee was assembled under the chairmanship of Barry Moore, including representatives from local government, Transport 2000, bus operators themselves, the trade press and CPT.
The newly formed committee set objectives for a Scheme that reflected the needs of the industry: to provide positive coverage of bus transport in the media; incentivise bus companies, local authorities and industry suppliers to adopt best practice; and provide a forum in which best practice would receive wider coverage within the industry. And so the Bus Industry Awards was launched, seeking nominations in five award categories, attracting over 60 nominations from around the country.
The first presentation ceremony was held in November 1996 before an audience of 200 at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall in the City of London. Things took off from there.
The number of categories was expanded in 1997, and the first ever short-list announcement took place, held at the NEC in Birmingham during the bus industry’s annual exhibition that October, with live coverage on BBC Radio. The ceremony itself moved to the prestigious Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, and was attended by junior transport minister Glenda Jackson … and the audience doubled.
With the assistance of PR and Event Manager Mitch de Faria, who worked tirelessly for the project until the middle of 2005, the events quickly achieved the quality for which the scheme’s events became renowned. At the same time, the scheme achieved excellent results in terms of media coverage, particularly in the local and regional press and on local radio and regional television.
A professional production company was engaged for the first time in 1999, in the form of Gemini Productions and Noel Fletcher, and he has continued to work with the Awards ever since.
Three years on and the scheme reached its 10th birthday: the identity of the project needed a refresh, and it was relaunched that year as the UK Bus Awards. After 10 years of sterling service, chairman Barry Moore stepped down, and was replaced by John Owen. He brought many years’ experience including a year as CPT President in the early 1990s to the job. Ian Smith took over as Executive Director. John Carr, who had represented the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport on the Management Committee for several years, joined the board and became vice-chairman and convenor of judges, a post he held until other commitments forced him to relinquish it early in 2008.
And so to the triumphs of 2007 – a record audience of over 830 at Old Billingsgate in the City of London, over 170 entries and 19 award categories – an expansion which enabled the scheme to shift the focus increasingly onto front-line staff as well as the planners, marketeers and decision-makers. Live peak time TV on BBC-1’s The One Show topped a triumphant day in the City of London.
Could it get better still? Spectacular? Certainly: the move to Battersea Evolution in 2008 saw the most spectacular ceremony yet, with another audience topping the 750 mark.
Then the recession struck, reducing sponsorship income as the world economy contracted, but the UK Bus Awards managed to ride things out: in 2009, the number of nominations broke the 200 barrier for the first time, and a sell-out audience back at the London Hilton saw what many thought to be the best Presentation Ceremony yet. A superb conference in Cambridge won plaudits from all concerned, too.
The 2010 competition also saw entries top the 200 mark for the second time in a row – whilst there was another great conference at Warwick University. A sell-out audience at the London Hilton welcomed new coalition transport minister Norman Baker as keynote speaker and witnessed Richard Brown from Eurostar present the winners’ trophies in our 22 categories.
In the Olympic Year of 2012, the Awards Ceremony was able to mark the huge achievements of the transport arrangements for the Games, whilst 2013 saw further regime change as Chairman John Owen stepped down (though remaining as Convenor of Judges) and was replaced by another former CPT President, Tony Depledge. Entries once again achieved a record, as more than 400 members of the public nominated their favourites in the Top National Bus Driver competition.
And so to the 20th anniversary year: another fresh venue, as the organisers sought more space and improved economics, which was found at The Ballroom, a pop-up venue on London’s South Bank. A spectacular space with enhanced production facilities, the 630-strong audience was treated to a true celebration of excellence in a whole range of activities vital to the industry prosperity and to its future.
The 2016 ceremony also saw outgoing Chairman Tony Depledge hand over the batten to Mark Yexley, another former CPT President. The next change of venue was the following year when the presentation ceremony to the art decor grandeur of Troxy, a 1930s former cinema in London’s East End which brought a new dimension to the annual gathering. An audience of over 700 enjoyed the music and sounds of the mighty Wurlitzer organ, which played the walk up music live for the first time.
The Awards have always developed to reflect the way in which the industry and society is moving, so 2018 saw another innovation when the Finalists were announced online for the first time rather than at a physical event. It was well received by the industry and shows the increasing importance of social media. The categories are always developing too. There was a new-style entry form for the new Cultural Change category and a Diversity category was added for 2020, which was to have been the 25th year, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. After discussion with industry stakeholders and friends it was decided not to run a competition in 2020.
We did, however, launch a new website with online entry process and with a new logo. We’re now looking forward to the start of the 25th competition and its presentation ceremony in November 2021.
The last 25 years have seen a progressive evolution of the event – categories changed and updated as priorities have shifted; more opportunities provided to recognise the people which make the industry tick; the media and PR campaign updated and refocused to cope with the revolution in communications as first the Internet and then social media came into play.
The UK Bus Awards are about excellence in all aspects of planning, promoting and operating bus services – but most of all, they are about winning hearts and minds: getting customers, staff and stakeholders to sign up to a vision of successful, sustainable and high-quality bus networks all round the country. That vision was behind the decision to launch the awards in 1995, and today’s organisers believe that it remains intact – and just as important – 25 years later.