This article was first published in Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Janette Bell may be fairly new to the position of CEO at P&O Ferries, but during her six years with the UK-based company she has gained a keen sense of its heritage, challenges and potential.
“This is one of the most exciting times of my career and a fascinating part of P&O Ferries’ history,” says Bell, who took the helm when Helen Deeble stepped down in December 2017. “It’s fairly well documented that we placed the order for the Spirit-class ships just before the financial crash happened, but we were able to bring those ferries into the business and trade through the recession which severely hit our freight business. We’ve been able to stabilise and grow the business, which gives us the confidence to look forward and see the opportunities out there. Now we’re looking to invest in growth for the future.”
Today, the 2018 refit programme is high on Bell’s agenda. “We’ve got exciting plans for our North Sea vessels,” she says. “Last year we refurbished the two ships on the Zeebrugge route and this year we have some great plans for the Europoort overnight ships. We’ll be upgrading our club class cabins and adding more, because we see increasing demand from our customers for more of a premium touch on the overnight crossings.”
Equal focus is given to marketing the combined heft of P&O Ferries and the P&O Ferrymasters logistics arm. “We’re lucky to have both the Ferries and the Ferrymasters division within the company,” says Bell. “We’re proud to have some incredible assets within our portfolio that are the envy of many others. We sit within the Dubai World investment group which has even more enviable assets, and in the past 18 months, we’ve been piecing together what the supply chain looks like from both a consumer and freight customer perspective. We invested in the Oradea terminal so Ferrymasters has its own inland terminal in Romania. That’s now linked by company trains to the Zeebrugge terminal, which is a ferry asset. We’re also the most connected ferry operator to the UK offering routes from Teesport, Humber and Tilbury. It takes time to string all those assets together, but you’ll see more of that in 2018.”
For passenger and freight services alike, Bell knows that long-term success is built on taking the time to deliver what customers want. “Thoroughly understanding your customers’ needs and building tailored propositions for them might make you slower to bring offerings to market, but it delivers solutions that customers value and that allow you to build long-term relationships,” she says. “If you look at the length of the relationships that both P&O Ferries and Ferrymasters have with their customers, they are eye-wateringly good.”
When it comes to ferry customers, Bell has a clear set of priorities. “The most important thing to somebody using a ferry – both tourists and freight customers – is the punctuality and reliability of the service,” she says. “Making sure we’re reliable and on time is always a top priority. In addition, getting off the ferry quickly is important for everyone. Freight customers often have a tight delivery schedule, while passengers want advance warning of any delays or adverse traffic conditions.”
The company has invested to make sure both these needs are met. It’s introduced a fast-track freight lane so time-pressured delivery drivers can disembark quickly. And 18 months ago, it created a consumer communications team to keep customers informed about any issues while freeing operations staff to get things back on track. “In the social media age, our customers want minute-by-minute updates on what’s going on,” observes Bell. “We provide updates on Twitter in multiple languages and it’s worked really well. These innovations might not be rocket science, but they get down to what really matters for the customers.”
Food and beverage is also priority key focus. “We’re seeing the same consumer trends onboard as we do land-side,” says Bell. “People want to have a relaxing drink or a good meal and they expect great quality and value for money, whether there are 250 or 2,000 people onboard. We’ve invested in our brasserie menus and spent time on the overnight crossings. Our continental, inbound customers want British food, so we’ve reintroduced our famous carvery. But our UK customers tend to want to get into the spirit of their holiday with a much more continental offering. We’ve completely refurbished the food courts on our Larne-Cairnryan routes and brought them right into the 21st century, and we’ve had some great feedback from our customers.”
Thanks to her marketing background, Bell understands that the P&O brand is what binds together the various elements – from reliable services to an excellent onboard retail offering. That brand identity includes a commitment to sustainability and fuel efficiency, with a refreshed corporate social responsibility agenda and metrics to be shared in 2018.
Wellbeing is also central to the company’s philosophy, and Bell says that engaging with staff on this has thrown up some surprising innovations. “With crews living onboard, you have a different relationship with your employees than in organisations where they go home and feed themselves in the evening,” she explains. “We have social committees on the ships and we’ve invested in more gym equipment on the Pride of Burgundy. The onboard team on this ship even created personalised plates marked with portion sizes to make sure that they don’t put too large a portion on the plate. That ability to engage people on what can be quite a touchy subject both surprised and delighted us.”
Ultimately, whether the discussion is about schedules, services, facilities or social responsibility, people are at the centre of the P&O brand. “What delights our customers, the part of the customer experience that determines what the brand is all about, is our people,” says Bell. “The P&O brand is a living entity. Consumers today are very different from what they were 30 years ago, and in 30 years’ time they’ll be different from today. It’s important to be forward looking, to evolve and make sure the brand remains fresh and relevant for the market and the times it’s operating in. That’s been our focus over the past 10 years and it’s something we are all working on as a team.”
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