Creating magical moments on the North Sea

North Sea ferry travel is changing and soon the journey will be more remarkable than the destination. Jon Ingleton had lunch with P&O Ferries’ Peter Hebblethwaite to find out how

Creating magical moments on the North Sea
Ferries like Pride of Rotterdam are popular with passengers due to their high-quality interiors and excellent customer service

A ready smile and amenable demeanour are the hallmarks of good service, setting the tone for a positive onboard experience. But these attributes are only commonplace in a happy workforce. Peter Hebblethwaite, who is responsible for North Sea routes at P&O Ferries, is well aware of the value of a motivated crew. “My biggest priority is to work alongside our team to make sure that they have everything they need to be able to consistently deliver the brand of service that our customers expect from P&O Ferries,” he says.

Good ferry businesses must have the perfect combination of product and service quality – the strength of the blend will vary by company. Hebblethwaite’s assessment is clear: “If you get the service piece wrong, that can completely undermine a fantastic quality product. Service is absolutely essential, therefore the people executing that service are exceedingly important.”

Hebblethwaite is resolute in his commitment to spending more time on the ships than might be expected of him. “In 2020 I’m aiming to spend four to six days a month on the ships, talking to crew and listening to their experiences. I’ll be in and around the ports too, talking to the land-based teams as they are, after all, responsible for delivering the first impression of P&O Ferries.” This isn’t a whimsical idea; he has a keen sense of responsibility and is genuinely motivated to revolutionise the European ferry experience.

Hebblethwaite’s review of the P&O Ferries experience incorporates an insightful dissection of the passenger journey. “There are key moments in hospitality that define consumer opinion, good and bad: when you first arrive at the port, when you are greeted at the ticket desk, the walk through security, the welcome onboard, when you open your cabin door, when you first enter the bathroom, when you walk into a bar or order food in the restaurant. These one- or two-second moments are either magical or miserable but they are always the most memorable and so we have to get them right, every time.”

Hebblethwaite has a fastidious obsession with detail – the quality and condition of the hardware and the gentle finesse of the service delivery. “Yes, because that’s what hospitality is. Of course, you need good food and an agreeable environment but where it all comes together to deliver a memorable experience is in the personal interactions that you have in a moment,” he explains. “If those key moments are with people who are unhappy, demotivated or they haven’t been trained properly, they can undermine absolutely everything. Or they can absolutely transform a customer’s experience, almost regardless of the quality of the product.”

Maintaining existing facilities is not enough for Hebblethwaite; plans are afoot to wow guests with even greater variety and higher standards. “I’ve got a slightly different view of how we should approach our business. I see it as a ferry business with cruise line standards, so I’m trying to create an environment where the experience is so compelling that I want to do it as a stand-alone thing.”

Every element of the onboard offering will get a makeover to ensure a comfortable comparison with a cruise experience. And future P&O Ferries passengers will enjoy ‘wow’ moments from the company’s revitalisation programme and from its new concepts. “We’re going to be adding facilities that only cruise guests currently enjoy. One of the most enticing is the introduction of a spa on the Pride of York,” Hebblethwaite says. “Perhaps the single biggest change is how we are fundamentally reinventing our onboard entertainment.”

No shoreside or onboard area will go untouched in his master plan. “We won’t stop; this is a continuous journey to raise standards across the entire ferry experience,” he explains.

Hebblethwaite is clear about how he hopes this new cruise approach will change passenger perceptions about ferry travel. “I might have to go to Amsterdam, but I want the ferry experience to be so compelling that I’m going to choose to go even when I don’t have to, just because the ships are so amazing. I think the heart of one of our challenges is that we are a means to an end, but we should be the end as well as the means.”

This outcome has countless positive consequences. “Customers become loyal advocates because they feel an affinity to a brand from a genuine experience, and that becomes part of their way of thinking and influences what they plan in the future,” he says.

And Hebblethwaite’s similarly clear about how he forecasts the impact on business performance. “It will be transformational for our company if we can move from people wanting to use our service once or twice a year for travel purposes, to building up a customer base that is sailing with us four or five times a year with some or all of those trips taken just because they want to enjoy what the ships have to offer.”

Do all of these initiatives come at a cost to the passenger? “My goal is to keep prices affordable as this is an important factor in retaining customers,” he says. “It’s really important to recognise the importance of value to people and that actually there is a balance to be had between brand and quality and price.”

“I am really proud of where we are at the moment, but I do think we have incredible scope to do even better for our team and our customers. Our corporate approach is to transcend the traditional ferry experience so that it sits comfortably alongside the very best experience that hotels or cruise ships can offer. For P&O Ferries on the North Sea, it’s a new look and feel for a new decade,” says Hebblethwaite.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

Share this story

Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
02 June 2020

Theme picker