This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed
For the past 52 years, Condor Ferries has operated between Guernsey, Jersey, Poole, Portsmouth, Cherbourg and St Malo, in the Channel Islands, UK and France, respectively. Each year, the line carries more than one million passengers, 200,000 passenger vehicles and 100,000 freight vehicles. The company has introduced many vessels over that period, including both conventional ships and high-speed craft. Currently, it operates a mix of four conventional and high-speed craft, and a freight-only vessel, Condor Goodwill.
Following an appraisal of its existing fleet, Condor opted to buy a 102m, high-speed trimaran (three hulls) from shipbuilder Austal. Originally intended for another customer, the newbuild was purchased for £34 million and Condor invested further to ‘Condorise’ the ferry to meet operational requirements.
Condor certainly had its fair share of headaches following the launch of the ferry, named Condor Liberation, in March 2015. The ferry has been dogged by cancellations and passenger protests, and was briefly detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency this March. However, new CEO Paul Luxon says positives have come out of these negatives.
“It wasn’t the smoothest introduction into service,” acknowledges Luxon, citing a jetty collision and a series of other incidents involving mechanical problems and issues with the vessel’s ride motion.
These issues caused considerable service disruption. However, at the end of 2015 and into 2016, Condor made significant efforts to prioritise reliability and establish an elevated asset health performance programme to combat difficulties. “We now apply a much higher and more stringent advance diagnostic inspection of the engineering and maintenance of the vessel and other vessels in the fleet to try and make sure we can mitigate any potential issues,” explains Luxon.
This advanced diagnostic approach includes both oil use and vibration. “We’re trying to make sure we predict where any potential problems are emerging and then deal with them in advance, using the overnight alongside period when work can be done to mitigate any disruption of the sort we saw last year,” says Luxon.
Condor Liberation also features new technology and a very different and dynamic hull structure. “It’s fair to say that it took Condor time to bed her into service,” concedes Luxon. “The Channel crossing is a lively one with very strong tidal streams and weather conditions. Clearly we’re working our vessels very hard.”
Luxon believes that the remedial measures taken so far should allow the company to be ahead of the game in terms of reliability and punctuality. He stresses that the ferry is of the very highest quality and the company’s masters are enjoying the service she delivers now that they have gained experience on how to operate her in the sea and weather conditions.
Condor has also made significant investment in additional resources and appointed a customer service experience director. Similarly, it has boosted its communications strategy so it is able to engage with, and receive feedback from, those using the service, and build on the hard work of its 520 employees.
“Condor is looking to build that culture that we’re not just a ferry company, but we’re there to offer a quality service experience, from booking through to disembarking, for both tourists and islanders who use it as a lifeline,” says Luxon, adding that in an industry where customers can choose their options, his aim is to ensure they opt for Condor. “All of us understand the importance of interacting with our customers.”
Other challenges include new regulations in areas such as environment, emissions and governmental policies, as well as fuel costs and border security. Luxon says: “We are very vigilant in terms of watching those developments.”
As the Channel Islands have a finite landmass and population level, visitors from the UK and France are very important. While the UK’s vote to leave the European Union may have created a level of uncertainty, Condor’s marketing team immediately set out to determine whether pound-sterling holiday options could prove attractive for UK visitors, or euro-sterling holiday options for French tourists. “In all challenges there are also opportunities,” predicts Luxon.
Condor is conscious of the importance of all these issues and has started a comprehensive service review, which will be presented to the Channel Islands’ authorities to show how ferry services might look going forward. This will include consideration of the relative merits of conventional ferries as opposed to high-speed craft. To be complete this autumn, the review will inform future schedules and also investment in tonnage, which needs to be replaced in the next few years.
To ensure it can comply with changing regulations that impact ferry operators, Condor has been working closely with island authorities in Jersey and Guernsey to improve its operating plan.
“They are very keen that we deliver a solid and reliable ferry service both for tourism, the lifeline and for freight,” comments Luxon, explaining that the authorities have been testing the service. “We look to ensure our business model works well around those regulation evolutions and the authorities are being very supportive and very challenging to guarantee we’re making progress.”
Success for companies is based on a number of things, according to Luxon. Having a service that people want is one of them, closely followed by a strong business plan and capital backing. “We have all those pieces in place and I am comfortable that we have the right ingredients,” he says.
Luxon, who joined Condor on 1 May 2016, has spent his first few months moving between the different ports that Condor serves and travelling onboard the four vessels to meet customers and colleagues. He notes that he has enjoyed immersing himself in a very long-standing company and “operating in a sector which is obviously very challenging but also very enjoyable.”
As a Channel Islander himself, Luxon is very aware of the important and responsible role Condor plays in providing a sea ferry service for islanders. He plans to draw on his past experience in logistics and freight. “As a resident of the islands, I use both sea and air as my lifeline connections,” he says. “I empathise and understand why we need to make the Channel Islands ferry service work well. While the company had service problems last year, the flip side is that we’ve raised the bar on service levels.”
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