Brittany Ferries: building on four decades of success

Christophe Mathieu explains to Justin Merrigan how Brittany Ferries is building on its successes with a five-year fleet-renewal and modernisation programme

Brittany Ferries: building on four decades of success

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.

It has been a year of milestones for French luxury ferry operator Brittany Ferries, with anniversaries, a new route and new ship orders being added to an already impressive record of traffic growth and service excellence.

From humble beginnings in 1973 when it began operating between the Breton port of Roscoff on the north-west tip of France and Plymouth in the far south-west of England, the fledgling Brittany Ferries quickly grew into an operation connecting four countries. In 2018, the company celebrated 40 years of providing passenger ferry services between the UK and Spain, as well as between France and Ireland. 

Christophe Mathieu, CEO of Brittany Ferries, says the summer services to Spain remain among the company’s most popular crossings. 

“We were only five years old when we opened the Plymouth to Santander route in 1978, but Spain was an obvious destination because we saw clear potential in the UK holiday market,” he says. “Now we are celebrating 40 years of continuous operations. Passengers know that not going to Spain via a plane means they have freedom to explore and they can take everything they need in their own car, motorhome or bike. Plus, they start their holiday with a fantastic voyage by sea.”

Demand has soared in the past decade, partly because Brittany Ferries added regular services from Portsmouth to Spain in 2009 with a journey time of just 24 hours. “In 2011 we focused on Bilbao as a new destination, then opened a freight-only service linking Bilbao and Poole in Dorset, UK in 2016,” Mathieu explains. “In total, over four decades, Brittany Ferries has made more than 4,000 calls from the UK to Spain, carrying more than 5.5 million passengers. More than 1.5 million cars, motorhomes and bikes and millions of tonnes of produce have also made the journey across the Bay of Biscay between the two countries.” 

Brittany Ferries expects the Spanish market to continue growing, not least because the company launched its first-ever Ireland-Spain passenger ferry service in April 2018. The service, which will be operated by a Visentini-built ro-pax vessel named Connemara, will not just benefit passengers. 

“The Cork-Santander route is also a new opportunity for hauliers,” he explains. “That’s important as we still have no clarity on customs checks and other red tape in UK ports post-Brexit. For operators in Ireland and Spain this makes the UK land bridge a more uncertain long-term prospect. But in terms of passengers, it’s early days.”

Mathieu was in Spain when Connemara arrived after her first crossing from Cork in Ireland to Santander on 10 May. “Those who made the journey certainly enjoyed the unique experience of crossing directly from Ireland to Spain,” he says. “Connemara offers a no-frills economy crossing rather than a full cruise ferry experience, but that does not mean the journey shouldn’t be relaxing and enjoyable.” 

Never a business to rest on its laurels, Brittany Ferries currently has three new ships under construction. Honfleur, the company’s first LNG-powered vessel, will be delivered by German shipbuilder Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellshaft in 2019 before beginning services between Portsmouth and Caen, France. She will be followed by Galicia and Salamanca, which are being built by China’s AVIC Shipyard as part of a series of next-generation E-Flexer ferries that will be loaned to Brittany Ferries on a long-term charter from Swedish company Stena RoRo. The first vessel will be gas-ready and promises to offer a combination of luxury and Spanish style when she arrives in time for the 2021 holiday season. The second vessel will enter service in 2022. 

Galicia and Salamanca represent the next step in Brittany Ferries’ long-term investment strategy and will take service levels a step further. 

“They will be well-appointed as you would expect from Brittany Ferries,” says Mathieu. “But they will also be information-hubs for travellers. The ships themselves will help reveal more of the fabulous destinations we serve in northern Spain. In doing so, we hope to generate more repeat business in the seasons that follow.”

Operating on longer routes on the western English Channel means that Brittany Ferries faces a range of unique challenges. When asked about these however, Mathieu says he prefers to look at wider environmental challenges facing the entire shipping sector, not just his company. 

“We know we have to improve our performance, look to new solutions that limit our environmental footprint, find alternatives to diesel fuel, cut emissions and focus on sustainable materials and recycling onboard,” he admits. “We are looking very carefully at all these things. However, actions speak louder than words and I think Honfleur is an important step. She will be the first ferry that regularly operates on the Channel to be powered by LNG and I’m very proud that Brittany Ferries is taking this lead.”

Testament to Brittany Ferries’ forward-thinking approach, the company took the title of ‘Best Ferry Operator’ at the Telegraph Travel Awards and was named ‘Best Small Holiday Company to Western Europe’ at the British Travel Awards in December 2017. When pressed about the factors leading to these awards, Mathieu is characteristically humble.

“I feel a little uncomfortable answering on behalf of the many thousands of customers who kindly voted for us, but I hope many would say that it’s the sail-and-stay side of our business that attaches them to our company,” he comments. “We have such a rich portfolio of holiday cottages, hotels and campsites, and we’re able to offer expertise to help customers choose the right destination for them and to tailor holiday products to their specific needs. Our passion is revealing our destinations to customers and potential customers, and that is what sets us apart from the competition. We will never be complacent though. There is always room for improvements.”

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By Guest
31 January 2019

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