Home » The Blog » A bold Christmas failure: the rise and fall of the Big 4’s “Christmas and New Year Gift Ticket Scheme” (1935-38)

A bold Christmas failure: the rise and fall of the Big 4’s “Christmas and New Year Gift Ticket Scheme” (1935-38)

I am always interested in the creativity with which the interwar railways attempted to sell their train services in the face of ever-intensifying competition. One such inventive means was the “Christmas and New Year Gift Ticket Scheme”, launched in 1935. Its history exemplifies the unity with which the main line railways sometimes acted in the 1930s, how ideas originated by one company were extended to the other Big 4, and also the important role the Railway Clearing House had in instigating and coordinating some of the railway industry’s publicity efforts in this period. It is also a good example of how the railways experimented with new initiatives and, even if they failed, as this one did, they were always seeking to learn more about the best ways to sell rail travel.

The poster and greeting card cover from, I think, 1937. Source: Didcot Railway Centre website: https://bit.ly/3emN6st

In 1934 the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) had launched the ‘Railway Ticket Christmas Card’ scheme. If you wanted a friend or relative to visit you for the festivities, you could arrange for a ticket for travel to your local station to be sent to them direct, enclosed in a festive greeting card.

In 1935, the Railway Clearing House’s (RCH) Advertising and Public Relations Committee (APRC) thought this such a capital idea that they extended it to become a nationwide scheme. The prior scheme had been administered centrally at Euston Station – the LMS HQ – with tickets being sent out from there. The national scheme now allowed the ‘gift tickets’ to be arranged through stations, so they were more easily accessible by punters.

The scheme applied to all types of tickets (and so buying a first-class would potentially indicate how generous you were to your friends or relatives) for the outwards journey between any two places on the network between 7 December and 4 January.

The scheme’s launch was accompanied by a publicity campaign, typical of the unified cross-media approach the railway companies employed in publicity and advertising in the period. It consisted of 8,500 double-royal posters, 40,000 leaflets, and 4,000 cards for the tickets that would have the same design as the poster. An advert was to be placed in the Radio Times (but no press other advertising), the four railways were also encouraged to mention the scheme in their usual pamphlets and handbills, and a press release was disseminated via the British Railways Press Bureau. The cost of these activities was borne by all companies, whilst the LMS handled the administrative arrangements.

The campaign materials emphasised the themes of family reunion and festive cheer; the Radio Times advert carried the line ‘We shall be all together this Christmas because we have found a delightful way of uniting the family. We are sending them greeting cards with their Railway Tickets inside.’ It also depicted a family dancing around a Christmas tree. The card enclosing the ticket stated, ‘Come and Join the Family Party’, followed by a poem ‘The old, old wish with something new, We send to you this year; Inside this card you’ll find the way, To Share our Christmas Cheer’

The 1935 advert from the Radio Times. Source: Radio Times online archive: https://bit.ly/3epo7Vo

The results of the scheme in the first years’ efforts were however modest; across the four companies, only 1,275 tickets were sent, earning them £1437.  Because this was greater than the direct costs, and an experimental venture, the scheme was renewed in 1936 with a slightly bolder publicity campaign costing £336. All the same media channels were used, but now 50,000 leaflets and 110,000 four-page handbills were issued.

After this second year of operation, the APRC reviewed the scheme. Its deliberations demonstrate that between the wars the railways paid careful attention to the results of new advertising and publicity ventures, part of a broader process of corporate learning about the best way to sell travel services.  The committee considered that given the first years’ efforts were arranged at short notice it was ‘not possible to obtain a true perspective of its [the scheme’s] value to the companies.’ The results in year two were a bit better: 1,344 tickets were sent earning £1,642, but this was not looked on favourably and it recommended the scheme be ceased given ‘the revenue obtained is not commensurate with the advertising expenditure and does not justify a continuance of the arrangement.’ The direct costs of publicising the scheme were around 20% of receipts, but I am presuming that the APRC’s recommendation took into account other costs such as staff time, postage etc. Either way, the Committee evidently expected a high rate of return.

The story nonetheless did not end there. The APRC’s recommendation was then referred to the RCH’s Joint Superintendents & Accountants’ Committee, who took a different line, ordering that the scheme be repeated in 1937. However, the APRC was not moved on their position that the ‘expenses were out of proportion to the receipts’, and recommended a reduction of the campaign budget to no more than £106 to attempt to increase the return on investment. Much of the proposed reduction came through the elimination of the Radio Times advert and the four-page leaflet, and the production of a simpler handbill.

This proposed budget then ran into trouble; the General Managers’ Committee ordered a reconsideration of the costings, which the APRC then agreed should not exceed £312. The 1937 campaign, therefore, consisted of 4,000 Greeting Cards, 135,000 handbills and 8,000 posters, press releases, an advert in the Radio Times, and mentions in other railway publicity (for as yet unclear reasons, the Great Western Railway in this year took charge, administering the whole scheme and designing a new Christmas Card and poster).

Despite the hopes of the General Managers’ committee, the results in 1937/38 were worse than in previous years, perhaps because of the worsening economic conditions towards the end of the year. Only 1,146 were tickets sent, generating £1,444, and the direct costs of the campaign came to £344, exceeding the planned expenditure established before Christmas. In early-1938, based on what it thought was a low return to publicly spend, the APRC recommended that if the scheme was renewed for the next festive season ‘the arrangements should not be advertised especially but only through the medium of the companies’ usual publicity material’.  As far as I can tell, it never was, and I can find no reference to it around Christmas 1938.

The 1937 advert from the Radio Times. Source: Radio Times online archive: https://bit.ly/3stbgtH

Arguably, the gift ticket scheme failed because of the APRC’s expectation of a high rate of return, despite being a creative attempt to generate traffic. Why people did not take up the tickets in greater numbers is unclear at this point, and I have been unable to find evidence of what the general public thought of the scheme. The ‘gift ticket’ story nonetheless demonstrates some very interesting things; potentially fruitful initiatives begun by one railway company were shared or extended nationwide by the RCH, experimental ways to generate traffic were tried, and the results of publicity schemes and new offerings were watched carefully as part of a general process of corporate learning.  The ‘gift ticket’ initiative is therefore a good example of how Big 4 railways were collaborating in this period to collectively face down intense competition.

Have a very Merry Christmas and New Year

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