RIP Nakedbus

‘Do you have to be naked to get those $1 seats?’: a former employee remembers Nakedbus

Low-cost bus company Nakedbus shut down this July to the disappointment of students, non-drivers and people who needed to travel for cheap all over New Zealand. Former customer service representative for Nakedbus, Vanessa Ellingham, remembers her time at the company.

“Naked Girls, Vanessa speaking.”

It was November 2009. The Black Eyed Peas had descended into their auto-tune phase, teapot cocktails were half-price at Cassette Nine, and I was just finishing up my first year as a uni student in Auckland .

It was also my first year working at Nakedbus. Founded in 2006, the low-cost bus company shut down this July to the disappointment of students, non-drivers and people who needed to travel for cheap all over New Zealand.

I’d interviewed to be a customer services representative (CSR) at Nakedbus about an hour after I said goodbye to my mum, who had driven me up from Wellington to begin uni the following week. I was 18 and it was a big day.

So I wasn’t terribly surprised when I didn’t get the job at first. But then a couple of weeks into semester one, right when I was about to start digging into that low-interest overdraft the banks offer new students, Nakedbus emailed to say they could offer me a job after all. And it’s lucky they did.

By the end of semester two, when I was giddily replacing “bus” with “girls” on my last shift of the year in an attempt to win five bucks from my mate Tim, four or five of my fellow CSRs had already quit. But I would continue working at Nakedbus until the week I graduated, almost three years later.

Those first two semesters were a whirlwind of memorising bus route codes, spooning double-quantities of Milo powder into my mug on the company dime, and getting invited to team drinks at various spots along Ponsonby Road but not knowing what to say to anyone. It was my job to open the office on Friday mornings, and for the first semester, those Friday mornings were marked by me setting off the building’s alarm because I was too shy to tell anyone I didn’t know how to deactivate it. I learned to brace myself for the noise, fling the door open, cover my ears and run straight for the phone, where I could call the alarm company and give them our password.

I soon learned that many of the buses were not, in fact, buses. In some regions, Nakedbus contracted shuttle buses, or sometimes even trains. Minivans ferried people back and forth around the Coromandel, for example, and many of them only had small Nakedbus signs in their windows. A lot of people missed their trips because they were looking out for, unsurprisingly, a bus.

And the confusion didn’t end there. I would regularly answer calls from potential customers asking, somewhat sheepishly: ‘Do you have to be naked to get those $1 seats?’ It’s safe to say Nakedbus’s popularity was built on the back of this widespread rumour. Soon enough my giggled response was replaced with indoctrination. “So why is it called Nakedbus?”, they’d ask. I’d sigh into the phone and recite my line: “Because we’re stripping the cost of travel.”

Startup culture

For my first year-and-a-half at Nakedbus, the whole team was squished into a single office in a drab commercial building on Richmond Road. We weren’t allowed to give out the address, in case a customer complaint ever got personal.

Our CEO and founder kept a book on his desk for inspiration: it was about the success of European budget airline Ryanair. He’d modelled Nakedbus on the airline’s combination of cheap tickets and no-frills service, to great effect. Once, a customer asked me for a refund for a trip she could no longer take because someone in her family had died and my supervisor told me I’d have to ask for a death certificate as proof (to be clear, I don’t think this was Nakedbus policy – just the result of an overzealous yo-pro trying to prove their worth).

I was right at the epicentre of an innovative, disruptive Kiwi can-do start-up and I had absolutely no idea. I was too busy trying to make sure I wouldn’t get locked in the toilets again.

Nakedbus in Rotorua (Photo: Euan Cameron)

My time at Nakedbus did help me develop some useful life skills though. I got to practice explaining something over and over again to different kinds of people and figuring out the most convincing way of saying something. Over time, my explanations for why a customer couldn’t have a refund transitioned from deeply embarrassed to apologetic to bored to aggressive to comfortably righteous.

Having read a myriad of complaints– from the blunt ‘bus didn’t come, refund me’ with nary a ‘hi’ or ‘regards’, to six-page rants that oscillated between mildly miffed and cata-freaking-tonic – I became an expert in the written complaint. Hell hath no calm, assertive fury like an experienced CSR writing an email complaint of her own.

I also had to get used to talking on the phone in front of other people. At the beginning of my second year, I received instructions directly from the CEO to get tough on a customer who’d been mucking us around on a left luggage pick-up. After drafting what I wanted to say, and re-reading it 27 times to make sure my arguments were airtight, I psyched myself up and picked up the phone, while the open-plan office grew quiet and listened. I said my piece and then the customer did the thing I believed he’d never do: he relented. When I hung up the phone, the whole team cheered. That day, I loved my job.

But most days I didn’t. And it really wasn’t cool to work at Nakedbus. Whenever my classmates heard I worked there, they’d be compelled to tell me their personal Nakedbus horror story. I wanted to be on their side, but I was also finding it harder and harder not to spout the company line about having “failed to be at the bus stop at least 5 minutes before departure”.

Many customers were furious that calling Nakedbus cost $1.99 per minute. Some would call and begin by ranting about the cost, which would only make the call take longer. My friend’s mum once called up to find out where her bus was. But when she heard it was me on the other end of the line, she hung up and called me back on my mobile to save herself the fee.

All hail the bus driver

But you know who was always keen for a chat? The bus drivers. They would often call up and describe the scenery on the drive down from Whangarei, or the traffic backed up at the Paremata Roundabout that often made them late arriving into Wellington.

Sometimes I couldn’t tell if they were calling with any work-related information, or just to say ‘hi’. One driver would call and tell me about the passengers he’d met that day, usually the ones sitting in the front seats reserved for the elderly and carsick. “Sing out, Mary,” he’d say, and then I’d hear some elderly peep in the distance.

I don’t live in New Zealand anymore, so when I think of my time at Nakedbus I hold a real nostalgia for my yarns with the drivers, plus a few of the customers (the ones who didn’t realise they were paying to talk to me). I miss tracing the lines of our landscape on my computer screen as the GPS updated, picturing places I’d rather be as the buses chugged along, perennially 30 minutes late.

Hearing where people were going and why created a kind of intimacy, like when a very distressed woman called to say she’d been so excited to see her daughter come home from her first semester at uni that they’d forgotten to grab her suitcase off the bus. I told her I’d be reuniting with my own mum a few days later, so I knew how she felt and I’d figure out what to do. She cried; I tried not to.

In February 2011, the Christchurch Earthquake forced Nakedbus to cancel many of its services over the following days and weeks. As my teammates and I made our way through spreadsheets with hundreds of names on them, calling each one to let them know about the cancellations, I felt sick every time someone didn’t pick up. Where was that person? Were they alright? Sometimes when they did pick up it quickly became clear the call was unnecessary. I’d tell them the bus was cancelled and they’d say, “no shit!” The South Island had never felt so far away.

Sometimes when I’m back visiting New Zealand, my partner and I will take a trip somewhere scenic. I’ll find myself trying to remember which type of vehicle Nakedbus used in that region, what its route code might’ve been, and which drivers worked there. There are still parts of the country I haven’t seen, but the bus drivers’ descriptions have ensured that I’ll one day go there. But I know it’ll lack the thrill of waiting to see whether anyone shows up for the trip naked.


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