This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
The lifeline connection by sea from mainland Scotland to Orkney and Shetland in the Northern Isles is the stuff of legend. In both fair and foul weather, the ships of Serco NorthLink Ferries play a vital day-to-day role in the lives of the islanders, maintaining the year-round service that is crucial to residents, businesses and the local economy alike.
Serco NorthLink Ferries has operated the Northern Isles services since 2012, providing links between Scrabster in Caithness and Stromness on Orkney. It also runs a service between Aberdeen and Lerwick on Shetland, with frequent calls at Kirkwall on passage. However, the line’s origins can be traced back much further; the Stromness route is the oldest continuous service across the Pentland Firth, dating back to 1856. Today, Serco NorthLink’s three ro-pax and two ro-ro ferries are still affectionately known by the local community as the ‘North Boats’ in a nod to The North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company (known as The North Company) that plied the Stromness route.
At the head of Serco NorthLink is managing director Stuart Garrett. No stranger to shipping, Garrett cut his ferry industry teeth with Sealink (now Stena Line) before moving on to Sea Containers Irish Sea, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and ultimately Serco NorthLink.
The Northern Isles subsidised services were put out to tender in late 2018 and the new eight-year contract, estimated to be worth £370 million (US$456 million), is due to begin in October 2019. Entering into the tendering process, NorthLink was in very good shape following strong business growth. Garrett puts this growth down to several factors, including the consolidation of a competitor’s lift on-lift off service into NorthLink’s own ro-ro offering.
“This lifted average freight deck use to 62%, which, given that the 2012 figure sat at 48%, shows a real improvement,” he explains. “Strong passenger and car growth on the back of our focused marketing of the Northern Isles was definitely buoyed by the strength of the Euro and an evident increase in European visitors. This was helped by the magnificent summer of 2018, which showed Orkney and Shetland in all their glory.
“Operationally, bringing the two ro-ros into the fleet, with all vessels now under Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd ownership, demonstrated clear commitment from the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to the Northern Isles services.”
Growth is set to continue in 2019. “Serco NorthLink is predicting its busiest-ever holiday season fuelled by the popularity of TV crime drama ‘Shetland’, as well as the growing trend of enjoying holidays at home,” says Garrett, adding that bookings on the north boats have so far been “extremely strong” this year.
As a lifeline service, Serco NorthLink faces some unique challenges. “Pricing is set, so there is little opportunity to sell on a dynamic pricing basis,” comments Garrett. “Consequently, our focus is on delivering consistent quality. We focus very much on working with small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as social enterprise suppliers. For example, our menus are chef led and our specials boards offer the best of Island fare.
“Just as important, given the challenge of weather over our route network, is having clear communication, with as much notice as we can of likely weather disruption, and with it a clear recovery plan designed to get us back on timetable.”
Throughout the industry, customer expectations have changed dramatically over the past decade and at Serco NorthLink this is no different. Garrett says there is no doubt that expectations continue to evolve. “There is now a focus on inclusive travel and improving ease of accessibility, for instance, so we’re proud to work closely with Transport Scotland in shaping the Scottish Government’s 10-year framework through the Accessible Travel Steering Group,” he says. “We offer a photographic walk-through of facilities on our website. A first for ferries was the fit out of dedicated ‘Changing Places’ bespoke accessibility toilet and changing facilities. This opened up surface travel for individuals and families who, while they may previously have had access to a designated facility, now have a first-in-class provision.”
Serco NorthLink is also upgrading onboard venues and product offerings in line with guest expectations. “Our premium Magnus Lounge offering has been very well received, as has our all year-round bed-and-breakfast service on Hamnavoe, where passengers arriving at Stromness in the evening can book to spend the night onboard before crossing the Pentland Firth on the morning sailing to Scrabster,” says Garrett. “We’ll continue to look to evolve, for instance we’ve just finished working with Island Marine on the fit out of a further two Pod lounges on both Hjaltland and Hrossey bringing the total Pods seating to 106 units on both vessels. Since their introduction in 2013 we have over 60,000 sales.”
More than just a business, Serco NorthLink Ferries is very much a member of the local community, serving key sectors within the Northern Isles economies. “Simply put, we should always recognise that our Northern Isles and North East Scotland communities are the reason we are here,” comments Garrett. “We operate a very effective twice-yearly sponsorship programme which supports the good work done in our operating area by a myriad of volunteers, organisers, youth group leaders, coaches, team leaders, teachers, parents and, of course, from our key sectors of the business community and the agriculture sector.
“Our support, which is generally given in respect of travel or onsite presence, is key to allowing regular interaction with likeminded sports, arts and interest groups on the Scottish mainland and further afield. We recently published our third Community Engagement Yearbook, capturing a review of the year on a month-by-month basis. The publication is a great little book, but more importantly, it captures the spirit of enthusiasm, camaraderie and community that exists throughout the North East and Northern Isles region that we are privileged to serve.”
This same spirit of enthusiasm is also very evident among Serco NorthLink’s onshore and onboard staff. This year, Serco NorthLink became the first ferry operator to receive Gold accreditation in the Investors in People scheme. Other accolades include Silver for the Investors in People – Young People, and Investors in People – Health & Wellbeing – both a real reflection of all the effort from everyone in the business.
Garrett is immensely proud of this achievement and gives credit to all at Serco NorthLink Ferries. “Our service is more than just a way of getting from A to B in safety and comfort; we provide a unique experience and our staff are central to that,” he says. “I’m very proud of the positive steps we’ve taken to further improve working life at Serco NorthLink Ferries as this translates directly into an even better service for our customers.”
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