Founded in 1988, Malta’s Virtu Ferries has a history that is inextricably linked with that of the country’s modern maritime developments.
Located in the central Mediterranean, the island has long held important trade relationships with mainland Europe through its links with Sicily. Like Malta, Virtu has put Europe at the centre of its strategy – introducing a high-speed ferry operation into the mix which has revolutionised the sector. It is now the centrepiece to a vast empire which stretches well beyond the key route, explains Francis Portelli.
“The journey between Malta and Sicily used to take something like 10-12 hours by sea,” he says. “We have taken that down to about one-and-a-half hours with our high-speed service, which has changed things quite a lot.”
The change has in fact been dramatic, although not surprising, given how radically the crossing time between the two countries has been reduced. Now Virtu’s competition is no longer with the legacy ferry operators – it’s with the airlines.
The route also serves a thriving vehicle market and high-end cargo business, as well as foot passengers, who use the service for both commuting and tourism. “When we started this route there were only 4,000 vehicles a year making the crossing,” says Portelli. “Last year (2013) was a record year for Virtu and it saw us take almost 50,000 vehicles across the water. Our foot passenger business is also very interesting; we offer a range of tickets – including day returns – which has created lots of opportunities.”
The opportunities that Portelli refers to include supplying transport to a commuter population as well as nurturing a whole new side of his business through tourism, which, given the economic malaise of recent times, is welcome news to holidaymakers crying out for cheaper alternatives.
“Our Malta to Sicily route is the bedrock of our business but we now have ships running services between Venice and six Adriatic ports in both Croatia and Slovenia, as well as a vessel on charter between Morocco and Spain,” he says. “The day returns suit the current economic climate. Guests who travel from Croatia, which is traditionally a three-star destination, don’t have to pay the exorbitant hotel prices in Venice but can still have the option to see some of the city.”
The tourism market is an area Virtu has played extremely well. Given the fact that commercially viable high-speed ferry routes are so difficult to come by, the day returns have been the catalyst for an entirely new dimension to the company’s portfolio. The firm now sells hotel transfers and shore excursions, and has links on its website to car hire companies, hotels, camping sites and tourism information. In short, the crippling economic downturn that had such a disastrous effect on the southern Mediterranean has opened up an entirely new – and extremely successful – side of the operator’s business.
Something else that has caught Portelli’s attention is the recent announcement that the Malta Government is looking for a ferry operator to take control of the route between the country’s two main islands. The CEO is cautiously optimistic, but reveals that it is his intention to announce Virtu’s interest in the endeavour – if the Government’s plans were to go ahead.
“We have been looking at that particular route for a long time,” he admits. “In the past, some high-speed ferry routes we’ve introduced were not as successful as we had anticipated. We have traditionally been an unsubsidised operator and there are definite advantages to that. But we are always looking at expansion and there are a couple of options available right now.”
Given Malta’s central Mediterranean location, it is no wonder that it was close to the economic troubles. However, less well known is the part it has played in events to the south – most recently the Arab Spring and consequent events across North Africa. In 2011 the company ran evacuations out of Libya on behalf of the Governments of Malta and the United States, the International Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.
The missions form part of a rich heritage of humanitarian aid to which the company can also add the 1989 Lebanon Civil War, for which Virtu was the only ferry company operating out of the Christian enclave in Beirut. The firm gave safe passage to thousands fleeing the country for Cyprus. This was repeated in the 2006 Lebanon War when the Australian government chartered a vessel to get people out of the country’s capital.
“Malta has a very interesting geographic location,” says Portelli. “To the north is mainland Europe and to the south is Africa. The recent troubles have meant that we played a key role in evacuation services in countries like Libya. It is something we are incredibly proud of and for which Malta itself was widely, and rightfully, praised by the world’s media.”
It is easy to attribute the success of Virtu solely to the man who sits at the helm. And while such conclusions would not be taking everything into consideration, given Portelli’s credentials, they are certainly not totally wide of the mark.
In 2013 he was given the honour of chairing Interferry while the conference was held in Malta. It’s a body of which he speaks highly and its values clearly resonate through his own company.
“Interferry is beneficial to any owner or operator,” he remarks. “I would always recommend joining. There is a wealth of knowledge that comes out from the members – especially at the yearly conferences, which are of a very high standard. You meet with small and large operators worldwide, with whom you can share opinions and exchange views. It’s a must for any company because of those advantages.”
As the company looks forward it is interesting to note the different avenues available. Could stability in North Africa open up business opportunities? Or will the lucrative tourist market provide a better avenue for return on investment? With the firm at the centre of a thriving shipbuilding industry, one thing looks certain: the future of both Malta and Virtu Ferries is very bright indeed.
This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2014 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read other articles, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.
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