Held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021, the global COP26 conference was the stage for big decisions on the climate and also the scene of dramatic protests. But behind the scenes a very different drama played out as two cruise ships were drafted in to house essential workers to keep the show rolling, with Inchcape Shipping Services as the main support act.
Around 25,000 delegates from over 190 countries descended on Glasgow for the massive UN climate conference, which left hotel capacity sold out in the Scottish city and no room for thousands of security, staging and audio-visual personnel vital to the running of the two-week event.
Vessel charter sourcing and logistics specialist L&K, which earlier this year forged a port agency partnership with Inchcape, was called upon by conference organisers to lead vessel charters to provide auxiliary accommodation for the workforce.
Two ro-ro cruise ferries, Silja Europa and Tallink Romantika owned by Estonia-based Tallink Grupp that normally operate on Baltic Sea routes, were chartered to serve as floating hotels with cabin capacity and catering for a total of more than 2,000 personnel.
L&K both acted as broker for the charters and coordinated all logistical services for the port stays through its on-site management team working hand-in-glove with Inchcape.
But that was not the end of the story. Far from it, as the combined team of L&K and Inchcape had to navigate a series of daunting logistical challenges both in the run-up to and during the event that put their troubleshooting skills to the test and required them to resolve multiple issues on the fly.
Time pressure, port revamps, transport issues, gangway trouble, a Covid-19 outbreak, a laundry conundrum, cultural and catering issues, security concerns and the volatile Scottish weather converged to create a perfect storm for the 20-strong team.
“This was the first cruise charter project under our partnership with L&K and was probably the biggest ticket of the year to make our debut,” said Grant Holmes, global sector head for the cruise industry at Inchape. “It also proved to be a great acid test of the relationship as Inchcape had to show its mettle under a challenging environment to support L& K that led the charter.
"If any one part of the port operations had failed, it could have ended in disaster. But, against all odds, both sides pulled together to find creative solutions to the myriad challenges and made it happen.”
Inchcape provided port agency services that included arranging technical and administrative clearances for the vessels to arrive at port, dealing with port authorities, handling customs and immigration issues, and ensuring quality, health, safety, security and environment (QHSSE) standards were met both for the ships and those onboard.
The company also helped to coordinate essential services for the ship such as provisions, water supply, waste disposal – a big environmental issue given this was a climate conference – and safe transport around the port, while keeping track of vendor costs for disbursement accounts.
L&K had enlisted Inchcape to screen and recommend possible ports in and around Glasgow while it drew up an inventory of potential vessels to recommend for charter, initially contracting the Europa about six weeks ahead of the event.
But L&K was left waiting for a decision by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on how many ships would be required right up until the last minute, mainly because hotels in Glasgow that had been requisitioned for Covid-19 quarantine cases suddenly became available for conference delegates.
This gave the company only two weeks to secure the second vessel, Romantika, which was diverted to Glasgow from its route from Morocco to Estonia once the charter contract was signed. This required Inchcape to turn around regulatory clearances for the ship and outfit the port in days.
“This put pressure on all of us, including the government suppliers who had chartered the ship, Inchcape and L&K, to gain clearances, get the crew flown in, procure provisions locally, get gangways in place and organise port facilities,” said Joyce Landry, chief executive at L&K.
The vessels, one chartered by a security firm and the other by an events company, were each docked at ports 15 miles apart, with Romantika tied up at King George V (KGV) dock in Glasgow and Silja Europa at Inchgreen port in Greenock, which posed another logistical headache.
KGV is a commercial port that is mainly equipped for handling cargo, not cruise passengers, while Inchgreen is a now-derelict cargo port, which meant both had to be rapidly repurposed by Inchcape. This involved clearing waste, setting up marquees as makeshift passenger terminals for security purposes, installing gangways, arranging shuttle transport and organising parking facilities.
“The fundamental challenge was that the Inchcape-L&K team had to invent these facilities as an overlay in a very short time frame,” said Holmes.
Then the plate-spinning started. Firstly, there was no laundry service onboard the ships, so this had to be outsourced locally, resulting in regular truck arrivals to load laundry by crane on and off the vessels.
Then it was found the basic gangways firstly had to be adapted for passengers carrying luggage, for which Inchcape called on the services of a local carpenter to install boarding. Subsequently, they had to be made safe with nailed-on doormats after mud and rain turned them into dangerous slippery chutes.
Inchcape enlisted security personnel for Romantika and there was an urgent lockdown when it was learned Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior would be docking near the vessel, prompting fears the ship would be boarded by protesters, though this ultimately proved unfounded, said Landry.
There were also public health issues as all passengers and crew were required to wear face masks and had to be tested daily for Covid-19 before workers could be despatched to the conference, but several positive cases onboard meant these had to be whisked away in Covid taxis for quarantine.
In addition, there was a multi-ethnic mix of nationalities onboard – all UK residents but originating from countries like India, Pakistan, Burma, Fiji, Nigeria and Samoa – that “made for a cultural integration challenge”, said L&K team member Kelly Battles. “Responding to everyone’s needs kept us on our toes.”
As a result, L&K was suddenly confronted with the requirement for halal catering for around 80 per cent of the passengers – a much higher proportion than first thought – but Inchcape was able to procure the necessary food deliveries from local caterers within 48 hours.
L&K’s proactive hands-on approach and expertise in troubleshooting logistical challenges have subsequently drawn the praise of both charterers who said that “they couldn’t have done it without us”, according to Landry.
The dramas onboard were compounded by the weather as high winds and rain battered the ships, which resulted in damage to Romantika’s gangway and the more exposed Silja Europa almost being ripped from its moorings one night when Inchcape again came to the rescue by procuring tugboats to push the vessel against the dock.
“It would have been nice to have an easier charter to start our partnership,” admitted Holmes.“But it really stress-tested our ability to work under pressure when the stakes are high and demonstrated our common corporate culture with a can-do, solution-oriented attitude. The intrinsic trust we have developed at corporate level has now been transmitted on the ground.
“Pulling off this highly complex project together has fortified our relationship and we are so pleased to partner with L&K, leaders in global ship charters. As global leaders in port services, our combined experience offers an unbeatable package to our clients.”