Rising to expectations for a first-class ferry experience

Four ferry operators discuss how they’re continuing to deliver an excellent customer experience

Rising to expectations for a first-class ferry experience
Passengers have become more sensitive to prices in their onboard purchases after recent inflation, says Brittany Ferries’ Joëlle Croc

By Simon Johnson |

After the unprecedented disruption of the last few years, ferry operators could be forgiven for wanting a chance to take a breath. But customers have an unerring habit of demanding excellence; perhaps even more so as inflationary pressures lead them to scrutinise the value they are getting for every form of expenditure. The companies that succeed will be those that best meet customer expectations and deliver satisfaction at every step. Here, four ferry line executives explain what they consider to be crucial to the customer experience, how needs may have changed, and the challenges they need to overcome to realise their visions. 

What are the most important considerations in building a first-class customer experience? 

Peter Ståhlberg, Managing Director, Wasaline: For customers, coming onboard the ship is like opening a new book – you have to tell them a good story. I come from the world of cruise and tried to bring some of the ideas from there to our ship’s design, including the importance of a good entrance. You can win or lose the customer in the first few seconds. So, in our main halls, we have a lot of local pictures of our destinations and large windows offering views out to sea. They really help to sell the experience of being onboard the ship, telling the story we want to tell right from the start. 

Steve Newbery, Director, Onboard Services, DFDS: Expectations vary depending on the route – for our longer cruise routes it’s about the destination and a slower, more considerate, onboard offer. For short-sea routes it’s all about providing what passengers need in preparation for their holiday – perhaps good food, shopping for forgotten essentials, a little entertainment and good rest.  

Joëlle Croc Director, Customer Experience, Products & Onboard sales, Brittany Ferries: It’s about knowing our customers and their expectations. An intimate knowledge of our customers and of our brand links directly to being able to deliver a quality of experience that meets our brief. With that in mind, we design all aspects of the ship to respond to the customer’s needs, from the comfort of the cabins to the type of restaurant and the shopping experience. That enables us to cover what they want and manage their satisfaction, encouraging them to come back in the future. 

Matteo Della Valle, Director, Passenger Sales & Marketing, GNV: Italians love to take their pets on vacation and so good animal facilities are a big priority. We’ve increased the number of cabins dedicated to animals and created spaces on our vessels specifically for pets and their owners, allowing for a good experience for both them and those who don’t want to meet a pet onboard. And of course, we all expect a good wi-fi service wherever we go, and it can be challenging to deliver at sea sometimes! We are investing in delivering an excellent service that matches what customers will have at home to ensure their connectivity needs are met. 

How have customer expectations changed over the last few years? 

JC: In very recent months, the context of growing inflation in the countries we serve has affected the sensitivity of customers to prices. They need to know exactly what is onboard, what its price is, and if they can afford it or not. In terms of design, there’s therefore perhaps a need to think about how should display offers in restaurants, bars and shops to make sure that they’re immediately visible and can capture customers’ attention with good value for money.  

SN: I agree that value for money is a significant need at the moment. People are willing to buy things onboard, especially food, but it has to represent good value for money. Just because you’ve got a captive audience doesn’t mean you can have poor food and a high price. If we can make sure that we provide value, passengers won’t be buying food before getting onboard, they’ll be using our restaurants. 

PS: Cleanliness has been a key concern ever since the pandemic. Passengers expect everything to be spotless and well organised, and they’re interested in how we handle the food and handle waste. It’s very important that a crew know a little bit about what we’re doing in those areas if asked. Passengers also now like the ship to feel very spacious, so that they don’t feel like they’ve been crowded into an area like a restaurant. 

What is the greatest challenge that you face in envisioning and building your customer experience vision?  

MDV: You have to get any changes right the first time, because the investment has to continuing paying off for ten to fifteen years. You can build flexibility into some interior spaces so they can be transformed if the need arises, but most of your interior experience has to last until the next major refit. 

SN: The fact that every investment has to deliver an immediate return – through improved passenger ratings, higher rates, increased onboard sales, and more. Investments are deeply considered and measured to give a positive return for passengers and the company. 

JC: Finding the perfect balance between our commercial needs and our passenger’s needs within our budget is our most significant challenge. 

PS: All of the above. We’re a commercial operation and we need to find the right balance in everything we do. We therefore need our passengers to value the service and experience that we provide at a price that’s fair for us, and for them.

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 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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