Mark Collins from BC Ferries explains some of the ins and outs of the ferry industry
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
When it comes to innovation, the ferry industry has an interesting story to tell. To an outsider, it is not known for pushing the agenda when it comes to onboard passenger experiences or below deck advancements. However, delve a little a deeper and it’s surprising how much time and detail goes in to elevating the overall passenger experience.
“The phrase we kick around internally is the low friction experience,” explains Mark Collins, president and CEO of BC Ferries. “We want our ferry service to be frictionless – an easy to use and convenient experience for people. For example, check-in is a heavily scrutinised part of our business – can it be automated? We could do away with the kiosk altogether. There’s now technology that enables passengers’ phones to connect to our systems when they enter the terminal. We send a message when they arrive and they proceed to their berth. The technology is there, and we want to build that into our own onboard experience.”
For Collins, who runs a fleet of 35 vessels operating in and around the waters of British Columbia, it is no easy task. The company is, however, investing heavily in its technology. For the past five years that’s taken the form of back-end IT – now BC Ferries is ready to roll out a new website and reservations system that will be launching in the coming months offering variable fares for the first time.
“We’re a little bit behind European operators,” Collins admits. “They won’t find it particularly innovative, but to us it’s new. And it’s new to our travelling public, too.”
Regardless of how new the technology is, the crucial thing will be how BC Ferries uses it for the company’s bottom line. According to Collins, it’s all going to be around building customer profiles with the aim of communicating with them on an almost individual level based on past bookings and information they’ve chosen to share. That could be anything from offers based on a certain sailing, to the availability of vegetarian meals.
BC Ferries is clearly on an innovation drive right now – and it doesn’t stop there.v
“We want to make our ships as accessible as we can, to passengers of every level of mobility,” Collins explains. “We have elevators on our ships but they’re cranky and, when they’re not working, reflect really poorly in overall customer scores. So we’re looking at different solutions. It could be ramps – although that has traditionally not happened because of down-flooding and fire zones. Forty years ago we had escalators on our ships – perhaps moving sidewalks could be a better option now. We don’t have all the answers but we’re putting that query out to the ship design community and the mobility industry. There’s a lot of clever people out there and we want to talk to every one of them.”
Customer service is largely dependent on specific markets and working around what people from these regions hold dear. For Singaporean operator Majestic Fast Ferry, this means trying to create an experience which is as luxurious as possible on the back of a long timeline of legacy operators.
“We focus a lot on passenger comfort with our calf leather seats, which come all the way from Norway,” says Max Tan, managing director of Majestic Fast Ferry. “It not only gives a more premium feel, but the seats are comfortable for passengers on those longer journeys. We also believe that natural lighting and all-round visibility is important. It creates space and makes the whole ferry more illuminated. Passengers will not feel as claustrophobic as they do on a traditional ferry. We have LED mood lighting during the arrival and departure of each trip.”
Tan adds: “These investments carry a high price and the return on that investment is slow. However, in the long run we believe it is necessary. Passenger requirements have changed and they are more savvy than before.”
Tan isn’t the only ferry executive to have noticed that passenger requirements have changed – it’s something that is evident right across the industry. While passengers in Singapore are looking for luxury accoutrements, customers in the Pacific North West want more environmentally friendly initiatives.
“Our short to medium term plan is for more use of natural gas,” says Collins. “While that is still a fossil fuel, it marks an important step in the right direction. Natural gas is also abundant in British Columbia and costs half the price of diesel, so it’s an important business decision, too.”
However, for BC Ferries, natural gas is only the beginning.
“We are putting the building blocks in place to have an all-electric fleet,” reveals Collins. “The two ships we are building now are hybrid electric. They will run on batteries 30-40% of the time. However, they’re designed so that once the technology shoreside becomes better, we can upgrade them.”
BC is now in discussions with the local hydro-electric utility company to work out how to get more power on the waterfront
Environmental concerns also play a significant role for MBNA Thames Clippers – a ferry operator that has a long history on London’s River Thames.
“MBNA Thames Clippers takes its guardianship of the River Thames very seriously,” says Sean Collins, CEO of MBNA Thames Clippers, which has a fleet of 17 boats. “Our fleet is the most modern and fuel efficient on the River Thames. Efforts to continuously reduce our impact on the environment include – but are not limited to – retrofitting existing boats to reduce emissions, investing in the most fuel-efficient boat and engine design in our newest vessels, and spearheading research into engines and vessels that can safely and reliably accommodate alternative power and fuel resources.”
It seems that wherever companies are based they are having their corporate responsibilities being kept in check by a customer base that is more attuned to environmental issues than ever before. Ferry operators know that what is good for the planet is good for business. And, there’s no better strategy than that.
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