WHILE consumer spending has been under pressure amid sluggish growth in wages a travel trade veteran has made a successful move into business with a fresh twist on the sightseeing tour.


Alison Simpson.

What is your business called?

Red Bus Bistro.

Where is it based?

Edinburgh and Glasgow.

What does it produce?

Red Bus Bistro is a tour bus company, giving sightseeing tours of Edinburgh and Glasgow aboard vintage refurbished 66 Route Masters serving afternoon tea and gin cocktails.

To whom does it sell?

We target international, national and local visitors looking for different ways to experience Scotland’s cities.

A core focus for us is also autism friendly tours. My son, Bradley, was diagnosed with autism and has particular needs, so I wanted to create an experience which was suitable for people with similar conditions. These tours are not about making money for us, it is about giving back to a cause that is close to us and we donate half of the proceeds to the National Autistic Society.

What is its turnover?

In our first year of operation we had a turnover of £245,000 which exceeded our target. We are aiming to increase this after adding a second bus.

How many employees?

15 after taking on two new full-time workers for the office, and three new waiting staff members recently.

When was it formed?

We opened for business on the 1st of October 2016.

Why did you take the plunge?

I have wanted to start my own business for the last twenty years. I had initially looked at a static location but felt there was too much competition and I wanted to do something completely different.

Funding from the Scottish Microfinance Fund helped me to convert the 1966 Routemaster bus I had sourced into tearooms and the rest is history so they say!

Our first bus was sourced and refurbished in England, but with additional expenses it proved a costly exercise so we decided to convert the second bus using businesses in our area.

The second bus was sourced near London then transported up to Scotland. My husband teamed up with a local joiner and our mechanic to undertake the second refurbishment. We used part of our loan from the fund to source local companies to supply fabric and recover seats on the bus, plus the interior design. It was a huge task, but the team really pulled together, and the end result was worth it.We’ll definitely take this approach when it comes to launching a third bus!

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

Having worked with airlines as a cabin crew member for many years and visited countries all over the world I was exposed to a lot of different cultures. I was inspired to set up a moving restaurant after seeing one in the Cayman Islands and thought the concept could be transferred to the UK.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

The Scottish Microfinance Fund was recommended to us via Business Gateway. The SMF advisor who came out to see us was excellent; he took the time to get to know us and the business personally.

What was your worst moment?

There have been a few setbacks throughout the journey, but that’s only natural. Not achieving our operator’s license for one year was incredibly difficult. The process usually takes up to nine weeks, but we waited a year, and had to ensure all our staff were being paid. The Traffic Commission need to be sure who they are giving a license to, and as we were so new to the industry with a completely different concept, it was harder to secure.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Watching our ideas come to life is incredibly rewarding and seeing the people who come on to the bus leave with smiles on their faces gives the team a real boost.

What do you least enjoy?

Office administration is a pet peeve of many business owners I’m sure, but something that must be done! I much prefer being on the bus and meeting and greeting the public.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

We have exciting plans to renovate a third bus for use across Edinburgh and Glasgow in time for summer this year, but we’ll also be using it for static events right across the central belt.

What are your top priorities?

To ensure our standards are kept at a consistently high level, and to keep raising the bar while generating a healthy profit.

Keeping my staff motivated. Without the team, the smooth running of the company would grind to a halt.

Keeping our vehicles safe and well maintained. This is essential in our line of work.

Ensuring my little boy still has quality time with me. Striking the right work/life balance can be difficult but spending time with my son is one of the most important things

Sticking to targets and milestones agreed in our business plan. The Microfinance Fund helped us identify and prioritise what’s important, which has helped give the business focus and a clear strategy.

What could the Scottish government do that would help?

The Scottish government could help by providing a few more opportunities to get SMEs into the tourist market, or by helping businesses gain access to hoteliers through national tourism bodies such as VisitScotland.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

Never to give up and to dig deep when you incur setbacks. These are an inevitable part of starting a business and life as an entrepreneur, so you always need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

How do you relax?

I really enjoy cooking, it completely chills me out.