How P&O Ferries is transforming for a new era of operations

Peter Hebblethwatie reveals plans to revitalise the business in advance of arrival of Pioneer and Liberté

How P&O Ferries is transforming for a new era of operations
P&O Ferries’ Pioneer will serve on the busy route between Dover and Calais

By Jon Ingleton |

With the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis changing the way people think about how they want to travel, many are exploring ferries as an option that they might not have considered before. Peter Hebblethwaite, CEO of P&O Ferries, sees the current climate as a unique opportunity for the industry to make headway with a wider passenger demographic.

“For the first time in probably 30 years, we are in a sweet spot of some major macroeconomic dynamics for ferry travel,” says Hebblethwaite. “People are re-evaluating their lives and the pace at which they live every day. Being in the moment is more important than speed. Being trapped in a plane or a train therefore becomes much less attractive than enjoying the view on an open deck of a ferry before wandering off for some duty-free shopping, a great meal and a show before a good night’s sleep.”

To capitalise on this moment of opportunity, P&O Ferries is focused on making its business as competitive as possible and driving significant growth on its more profitable routes.

“Our vision started with our Hull-Europort route,” says Hebblethwaite. “We’ve taken out layers of discounting to remove the historically lowest prices so we can still offer really good value but with a higher average rate. As a result, it’s now our most profitable route. There’s still so much potential for further growth too – our day-by-day comparisons with 2022 are consistently showing better performances. It’s really rewarding that we now have the evidence to support our vision and motivate us to continue this journey.”

P&O Ferries is also investing in a new digital solution to improve the customer experience.

“Our routes are a gateway to a world of adventure and we need to be a one-stop-shop to give our passengers access to a complete vacation experience within a few clicks,” says Hebblethwaite. “We’re working hard on building a better digital solution which will be launching in 2023. And it’s not just on the front end, we’ve completely restructured our internal IT department and are starting to really leverage our parent company DP World’s considerable resources in this area.”

According to Hebblethwaite, providing the best customer experience for customers is a top priority throughout the business.

“We’ve become a passionately ‘customer-first’ business and so we’ve maintained that focus for both our freight drivers and tourists,” he says. “There are still more improvements for us to pursue and our plans will continue to evolve to keep pace with customer demand. We have an opportunity to develop a spa-type concept on longer routes, while on a shorter route we may just look to tweak the food options, upgrade the club experience or enhance the drivers’ facilities. These decisions are driven by our customers and informed by our intimate knowledge of their needs.”

To help meet customer expectations, P&O Ferries is carrying out refurbishments on its fleet according to a schedule that has been carefully planned to minimise disruption.

“All of our current upgrade plans can be completed via a rolling programme while the ships are in service or in routine dry docks, so we don’t need plan any additional time out of the water,” explains Hebblethwaite. “The two biggest interior projects are the refurbishment of our inside cabins and the introduction of a spa, both of which will happen through this year and next. We’ve already renewed the premium cabins and most of the outside cabins. The most noticeable change will be to the back wall, which we’re livening up with giant images, such as a picture of the Humber Bridge onboard Pride of Hull. We’re about two-thirds of the way through the cabin refurbishment programme now.”

The updates will ensure the existing fleet complements P&O Ferries’ two new vessels, Pioneer and Liberté, which will serve the route between Dover, UK, and Calais, France. The performance of the new vessels on what is the busiest trade route in Europe – and P&O Ferries’ most important service – will be crucial in helping the operator to achieve its overall business goals.

“Our new ships represent the biggest investment in the history of the company and it feels like they are the embodiment of our ambitions,” says Hebblethwaite. “The new ships will feature much higher quality public spaces. I believe their introduction at the end of April and beginning of May will be a significant step forward for our Dover-Calais service.

“Once onboard, we have to give our passengers everything that they need, so they can take time to enjoy the ship and relax before they head off for what could be a relatively long drive on the other side. Pioneer and Liberté will deliver all of this, and our crew will deliver an unparalleled standard of service. The interior facilities are first class, and I think the outdoor spaces will be really well received. We have laboured over every detail to build two extraordinary ships that will be treasured by both us and our customers for many years to come.”

P&O Ferries is currently the largest of the three operators sailing on the Dover-Calais route, a position Hebblethwaite attributes to the efficiency of its service.

“We are currently carrying about 47 per cent of the available freight volumes and about 50 per cent of the available tourist business,” says Hebblethwaite. “The key to success on the Dover-Calais route is being incredibly efficient. That means we need to provide an impressive port experience and then board passengers and freight as smoothly and efficiently as humanly possible – which we can do better than anyone because our ships are double-ended. We don’t have to turn them around, and so we can load them much more efficiently. This turnaround speed gives us an opportunity to sail slightly slower and cut 40 per cent of our running costs, as well as a corresponding volume of carbon dioxide emissions.”

Hebblethwaite is clear that P&O Ferries must make difficult decisions as it continues to pursue efficiency, which he puts down to historical issues within the business.

“We are a business that needs to remove inefficiencies and loss-making dynamics that we have not dealt with in the past, and some of that involves closing or flexing routes,” he says. “But all of it is designed to make P&O Ferries the most efficient and competitive operator in the market and on the back of that we will achieve our vision for growth. We’re competitive on price and I think we offer a better service. And an increasingly more sustainable service too. We took 85,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions out of the Channel last year and we have plans to do much more.”

With a range of opportunities and challenges, it’s clear that P&O Ferries is undergoing a period of transformation. The company is looking to come out as a stronger, more sustainable business that will last into the future.

“We are a very different P&O Ferries today and we are becoming the best version of ourselves,” says Hebblethwaite. “I like to think of us becoming an increasingly sophisticated, more dynamic business.”

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2023 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.

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