This blog post is by Dave (DH) about the history of Save East Coast Rewards and his views on what the future should bring.
Save East Coast Rewards - the early days
Save East Coast Rewards came about shortly after East Coast sent out an email saying that East Coast Rewards was closing and was going to be replaced by Nectar once Virgin Trains East Coast started operating the franchise on 1st March 2015. A colleague of mine at the time, Dan, also felt the same about the removal of East Coast Rewards and after looking on social media and seeing how frustrated many people were we decided it was worth campaigning for. We knew it would be an uphill battle, although at the time we hadn't realised that the Stagecoach/Virgin bid team had actually specified Nectar as part of their bid.
Dan was very important in the early days. I'd never have had the confidence to set up the campaign on my own and he talked to the press and also did most of the communication with VTEC management. I was generally quite anxious and avoided meeting unfamiliar people when possible, I definitely couldn't have managed speaking to the press.
The plan was to initially run the campaign in the short term up until VTEC took over and then it was decided to carry on a bit longer to give people advice on using up their points. We had a few people to submit banners for us to use on Twitter, most memorable ones were the ones that compared the benefits of EC Rewards (free ticket) to the benefits of Nectar (free sandwich).
After VTEC starting operations in March Dan moved overseas and so stopped contributing, but we have had various other people contributing since then. This allowed us a presence on Facebook (which I'd been avoiding), a new design for the website (which previously had just been using a basic default template), a petition and during 2015 we also had some other people helping out on the Twitter feed helping people with questions on how to use points. There was even a spin-off campaign called 'No to Nectar' which was designed to highlight the other areas where Nectar performed poorly. After the EC Rewards scheme closed completely (after all points and free tickets were used up) there wasn't much to do. There's currently two of us, me (DH) and MW does the Facebook page and also was responsible for the current branding and probably will also play a significant role in the rebrand. As we're both London based we both try to attend the meetings with VTEC (now LNER) management. Occasionally, some of the others that helped out in the past will take over Twitter for a few days if I'm taking a break.
We started meeting VTEC people, at the beginning that was something I didn't have the confidence to do but as East Coast Rewards and the ECML in general was something I cared about it helped me build my self confidence and I met senior people at VTEC, something that I thought I'd not be able to do. So on a personal level this campaign has helped both with increasing self confidence and reducing anxiety in meeting new people.
I was invited to the Azuma launch event in 2016 which showed we had a good working relationship with VTEC at the time, most people who supported the campaign seemed generally happy with VTEC except for the loyalty scheme. This carried on until 2017...
The decline of VTEC
2017 was when the cracks started to show in VTEC. They had franchise commitments to meet and as far as we know they met them, but as they overestimated the amount they could pay the government this meant that they were losing a significant amount of money. It became apparent that the changes to the catering rosters were more about cost cutting (fewer staff were needed) than improving service. I can't remember who first came up with the term 'catering lottery' but it summed up what many of us felt about the service at the time, you could not depend on getting the advertised catering on-board. This applied to the first class complimentary offering and the standard class trolley service. Things started improving at the end of last year when more staff were reintroduced, but there's still times when the advertised catering isn't offered.
The new web booking engine and other associated developments (Travel Buddy app and ticket machines) also was proven to be a source of disappointment. In many ways that was more frustrating to me as I've worked on some high-profile eCommerce projects in the past and believed I could have made a difference here. Here was an example where communication started strong where I was offering feedback during the beta stage and was getting a response. All started to go quiet when I started asking about missing features in the new booking engine that were present in the old one. In the end it was just frustration that made me highlight the issues publicly as they didn't appear to be paying attention privately.
I was then contacted by frustrated train crew who were getting annoyed by increasing numbers of maintenance issues on the trains particularly accessible toilets and due to the belief VTEC was not listening it was decided to send a Tweet out each morning with known service defects. Other signs that VTEC weren't listening was the cancellation of the meet the manager events, called 'Airtime', towards the end of 2017 even though they originally had events scheduled well into 2018.
It does seem that a lot of this was caused by the difficulties VTEC were experiencing with the franchise. They became less open with the public the more the issues were becoming apparent.
LNER - A new beginning?
When it was announced that VTEC would be re-nationalised and branded LNER it gave us hope that things would change, after all the main issue with VTEC towards the end was due to the excessive payments they were due to pay the DfT which meant that cutbacks needed to be made in certain areas while they needed to be careful to still meet their franchise obligations. Hopefully the government will allow LNER to spend what is required to get the basics back on track as well as looking forward to the future ensuring that the Class 800 (Azuma) launch will be a success and the online platforms can be improved to meet their potential.
Although the vast majority of the management team have remained the same we've agreed to put any differences aside that developed in the final year of VTEC and treat this as a new beginning. There's already been some meetings with departments that include customer experience and marketing (this includes the loyalty scheme). In the end it would be better to work with LNER than against them and hopefully also gain a better understanding of their business challenges which drive the decisions that they make.
It's still early days and so to most of the public (and indeed the frontline staff I've spoken to) nothing significant has changed. LNER were also unfortunate enough that the name change coincided with the heatwave we've had this summer which has provided additional issues which would have still occurred with VTEC but people were blaming LNER for.