Taking the helm in testing times for the ferry industry

Sandra Speares asks Abby Penlington about her new role as leader of Discover Ferries and how she is working with ferry operators and other partners to promote safe ferry travel

Taking the helm in testing times for the ferry industry
Discover Ferries has been helping operators like Uber Boat by Thames Clippers to promote ferries as a safe mode of transport

Discover Ferries is an industry body representing 13 ferry operators in the UK, Ireland and the British islands, operating more than 80 routes both internationally and domestically. The organisation’s role is to promote the comfort, ease and value of ferry travel and ferry holidays to British consumers. It also acts as the voice of the industry and champions best practices, such as sustainability and accessibility, and leads passenger information campaigns. 

Abby Penlington took over as director of Discover Ferries in September 2020 in what has been one of the most challenging periods for passenger shipping in modern history. Although she is only a few months into her new role, Penlington has already set key goals to achieve during her tenure.   

“I started in the role of director after two years as head of marketing at Discover Ferries,” she says. “My immediate priority is to position ferry travel as the safe and enjoyable way to start your holiday or visit friends and relatives, once restrictions are eased and we emerge from the pandemic. My long-term priority is to make ferries an integral part of the sustainable travel conversation as new and more efficient vessels are added to fleets and the industry continues to innovate with greener technologies.” 

Penlington’s first challenge was to help Discover Ferries’ members navigate their way through the complexities of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Ferries continued to operate throughout the pandemic, ensuring the supply of essential goods, the movement of key workers and providing lifeline services for island communities,” she says. “Operators implemented stringent Covid-19 procedures early on to ensure passenger and crew safety, such as staggered boarding and disembarkation, reduced capacity and increased hygiene measures. 

“While domestic carriers benefited from the staycation trend and the UK’s warm summer, albeit with reduced capacities, routes to Ireland and Continental Europe were hit by a mix of changing travel restrictions, quarantines and negative government travel advice.”  

Consequently, the biggest challenge has been restoring consumer confidence in ferry travel. Discover Ferries has worked with its ferry operator members (and other partners) to develop and implement measures to overcome this issue. In June 2020, for example, it launched ‘Travel Safe, Ferry Freedom’, a two-part, post-lockdown campaign to promote new Covid-safe protocols and reassure and inspire holidaymakers. The campaign reached over 15 million people via national TV and regional radio interviews, as well as print and online media coverage. 

“Highlighting new safety measures onboard, we communicated why ferry travel lends itself to social distancing, with outside deck space, large public lounges, the ability to board in your own vehicle and, on longer sailings, to book private cabins,” explains Penlington. “Encouragingly, our consumer research revealed ferries are considered the most Covid-safe form of public transport compared to planes, trains or coaches. Of course, the vaccine rollout will play a key role in driving this year’s bookings.” 

Ferry operators have also had to contend with challenges arising from Brexit. Penlington notes that travelling by ferry will remain largely unchanged following the end of the transition period. “The good news for passengers is that they will now be able to take advantage of duty free on routes to France, the Netherlands, Spain and the Republic of Ireland,” she says.  

Discover Ferries has been working with members to drive awareness of the new travel requirements via a passenger travel guide and dedicated questions page on its website.  

“Our research has shown that the main challenge will be educating passengers on the changes in documentation needed to travel to the European Union (EU) and on new regulations,” says Penlington. “Only 46 per cent of respondents were aware that they would need six months validity on their passports and just 30 per cent knew they would need a Green Card to drive their vehicle in the EU. Meanwhile, only 22 per cent were aware that you can no longer take meat and dairy products into the EU and just 22 per cent knew about the new procedures for travelling with pets. While updating travel documentation may not be a consumer priority at the moment, we want to ensure everyone can travel as soon as they want to.”

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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By Sandra Speares
28 April 2021

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