P&O Ferries provides daily short crossings between Dover, England and Calais, France
Like all ferry operators, P&O Ferries has been severely bruised by the loss of important tourism revenue during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has continued to maintain an essential trade service over the past year.
“I think we’ve done pretty well over the past 12 months – we’re going to survive through a crisis that is forcing many companies out of business,” says Peter Hebblethwaite, managing director of ro-pax ferry services at P&O Ferries. “In addition to having a responsibility to our shareholders, we also have a responsibility to the country to keep goods moving across borders. And we take that responsibility incredibly seriously.”
To ensure its survival, the company has had to make several difficult decisions, the most challenging of which was cutting jobs. “We’ve endured some really tricky moments and had to make some tough and sad decisions, but only the fittest survive and we had to get fitter,” he explains. “My priority is still to grow our business through our people and our customers, and we must be competitive. We’re now a much more efficient business and that will benefit us in the future. It’s been very rewarding to have fulfilled our responsibility as a carrier of essential goods for the country. We’re also proud to have looked after our customers on multiple levels.”
P&O Ferries also postponed plans to relaunch an entirely new customer proposition on the North Sea routes. “Those plans were temporarily put to one side, but we’ve refined them over the past year and we’re now aiming to apply them for all of our routes,” says Hebblethwaite. “In 2021, we will focus on rebuilding so we can get back on track – we’re ready to really thrive in a very different world. There are exciting times ahead – we have a new exciting people and customer agenda, and two new ships joining the fleet that will transform our carbon footprint. And, as we hit important vaccination milestones, we will start to see a reduction in travel restrictions to kick-start our tourism business, perhaps towards the back end of the summer.”
Once travel restrictions ease, Hebblethwaite believes that many people will have a “genuine need” to get away from home and travel. However, the idea of spending hours tightly packed in an aeroplane with other passengers will likely be far less palatable than a relaxing ferry crossing with a compelling onboard experience and a fresh sea breeze.
“Ferry travel has a strong play in a post-Covid world as we are all reflecting on how we live our lives and how we look after our mental and physical well-being,” explains Hebblethwaite. “I suspect that people will prefer to take life a bit slower and enjoy a travel experience with more fresh air and a better view. Ferries are perfectly suited to that view of the world.”
To become popular with everyone, however, ferries must offer far more than just a way to get from A to B. “People are more conscious about their finances now and will want better value for money in future,” says Hebblethwaite. “We know that long-haul travel will take a hit, so this is a golden opportunity to prove to people that ferries provide access to incredible adventures closer to home and that the journey itself is also a fundamental part of the adventure.
“Travelling on our ships is already inspiring but while we have greater access to an audience that has traditionally travelled further afield, we must seize the opportunity to improve the whole end-to-end journey and showcase what we can offer closer to home. We need to make it easier and more enjoyable than ever to book and travel on ferries.”
Hebblethwaite adds that P&O Ferries must create more reasons for people to travel too, particularly on its shorter routes. “Day trips and weekend breaks will be more popular and so we’ve got to respond with competitive options for shorter trips – both onboard and at the destination.”
One draw for many UK-based passengers is that the completion of Brexit means they will now be able to reap the benefits of duty-free shopping during their ferry journey. “Duty-free shopping was a huge part of the industry 20 years ago and is set to be so again,” says Hebblethwaite. “The prices are a great motivator for getting on a ferry and we’re delighted to have partnered with retailer World Duty Free. Our shops now have an amazing range of products and the ludicrously cheap prices will drive onboard sales and make our passengers very happy.”
Another advantage of ferry travel is that passengers have plenty of time to enjoy a drink, a sit-down meal or entertainment, particularly on longer sailings.
“You can easily spend four or five hours going out for dinner and a drink onshore, so we’re working on some ideas to help us offer a similar experience on our vessels,” says Hebblethwaite. “For example, sailing roundtrip from Dover to Calais takes four hours and we can easily provide a nice dinner and a wine tasting in the Club Lounge on the way out, followed by onboard entertainment and duty-free shopping on the way back home.
“We’ll be implementing new food ranges and entertainment packages (including aerial acrobats), as well as upgrading our gaming proposition and digital journey. Plus, we’re upgrading all the cabins and adding new onboard facilities such as hairdressers, nail bars, bigger retail spaces and maybe even a golf range. We’re applying all of these customer principles to freight drivers too.”
Throughout the pandemic, Hebblethwaite has worked hard to protect the finances P&O Ferries needs to implement these changes and reposition the business for future growth. “We never gave up on the fact that we were going to come out of this crisis and, when we do, we will still have a responsibility to significantly enhance the customer experience,” he explains. “Some of this investment has continued over the past year and some is currently underway – such as the new gaming area onboard Pride of Hull and the new food court on Spirit of Britain – but there’s much still to do. We’ll work on this in line with the return of our passenger business.”
For now, P&O Ferries is focused on preparing to welcome passengers back when restrictions lift. ”To encourage passengers back we must have taken all of the barriers to ferry travel away,” says Hebblethwaite. “The value equation that existed pre-Covid has changed, now price, plus quality, plus flexibility, plus safety equals value. We have the safety protocols in place, but we need to ensure that we have the systems capability to offer full flexibility before passengers start to come back.”
“We’ve never cut corners when it comes to the health and safety of our passengers and crew, and that hasn’t changed throughout the pandemic. We’re very proud of our record and we work fiercely hard to protect it so that our customers can be 100 per cent certain that P&O Ferries ships are safe. We’re looking forward to the day the world is ready to embrace tourists travelling across borders again.”
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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