Better than the competition

MBNA Thames Clippers’ Sean Collins is a third-generation waterman, but the first to build a sustainable ferry business on the Thames that’s appreciated by passengers and investors alike. Jon Ingleton reports

Better than the competition

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Sean Collins, CEO of MBNA Thames Clippers, is confident that his ferries provide the most convenient, cost-efficient and enjoyable form of transport for the millions of commuters and tourists travelling across London every day. Collins attributes this to the company’s focus on customer service. “We deliver an experience that stands out from the London transport alternatives – we don’t have any pushing and shoving, or the service reliability issues of some of the other available transport options,” Collins says. “Our prices are competitive at £2-3 (US$2.50-3.50) per trip for annual season ticket holders who are much happier travelling to work on the river – we offer a business class service at an economy price. Our regular commuters know who sits where, pick up their regular order from the onboard barista and like the routine. Compare that scenario with the stereotypical scrum depicted as London at rush hour!”

MBNA Thames Clippers’ primary clients are Londoners, commuters and tourists, and the company is also seeing an increase in the grey pound. “Our eclectic demographic might be travelling the river for different reasons but the quality of service is appreciated equally by everyone,” comments Collins. “Even if a customer is just checking rates before going to talk to a competitor, we’ll still make sure they leave with a positive experience. Twitter and Facebook make it easy to engage with customers and share timetable changes and special offers, or report the occasional late arrival.”

Continually enhancing and improving the performance of frontline staff is a key priority.

“We monitor how we perform on a regular basis. Mystery shoppers evaluate the full experience, from ticket purchase, to the information customers receive before boarding, the boarding process, the crew’s welcome, and elements of the onboard experience like the seating, food and beverage offering, cleanliness and the staff’s goodbye,” comments Collins, adding that the company also continually monitors the customer feedback process.

Feedback from mystery shoppers has already helped MBNA Thames Clippers to improve operations.

“We were getting 85-90% overall ratings because the food and beverage ratings were letting us down,” Collins explains. “The food and beverage operation has recently been brought in house. Training our own baristas and managing food and beverage delivery ourselves gives us the quality guarantee that we wanted. Our ratings increased by 5% in this area as a result.”

When it comes to the ferries themselves, Collins believes it’s the little things that make a big impact.

“Customers’ response to the ferries is generally ‘wow’, but we always ask them what they want and they keep coming up with new ideas, so we’ve recently trialled an improved wifi service and developed an app with Masabi,” he comments. “Commuters on a 30-minute journey may not be as meticulous about the seat, carpet or other small details, but their collective impression is of great importance – give extra details and the luxuries will provide a ten-fold return. Open views are our biggest asset, so when we were designing the River Runner 200 Mark 2 we centralised the amenities to give everyone equal access and keep the views. I’m passionate about creating something that will improve people’s daily lives, but we’ve still got lots of refining and reconfiguring to do.”

Working with One2Three to design the next generation of MBNA Thames Clippers vessels, the company has contracted Wight Shipyard to build two 170-passenger ferries – the largest fast passenger ferry order at a UK shipyard in more than 25 years. When they debut in summer 2017, the vessels will increase fleet capacity by 14%.

“There’s huge excitement across the business that we’re taking this to another level,” enthuses Collins. “We put a great focus on the aesthetics of the vessels when designing them. We want them to look like a contemporary craft navigating through the increasingly contemporary waterscape of the Thames.”

Safety is also at the forefront of Collins’s mind when it comes to delivering a reliable service.

“Safety is the highest priority for any business, so safety targets should be in every ferry company’s charter,” he says. “Through-life training has become a big deal for us and we have to spread the word and adopt an airline approach to training. Management have a responsibility to ensure consistency – from pier heights, to training plans, bollard positions and wheelhouse layout – because when you introduce inconsistencies, you compromise safety.”

Certainly, MBNA Thames Clippers’ business strategy is working.

“We changed our subsidy models with Transport for London (TfL) in 2016 and we’ve now built our popular routes into a standalone profit-making position,” says Collins. “We sacrificed these subsidies in exchange for a long-term licence which gives us the security we need to invest for the long term. Our 2016 ticketing improvements – we adopted contactless payments and integrated with the Oyster Card which is used across the TfL system – perhaps yielded the best response to any initiative we’ve implemented to date.”

Now that MBNA Thames Clippers has become a highly profitable business in London, Collins has other goals in his sights: “I wouldn’t rule out expanding our business into into new cities in the future.”

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