Plain sailing

The Channel Islands is an archipelago in the English Channel located close to the northeastern coast of France. The Islands’ location between England and France and their long history as an important juncture between the two countries has led to a uniquely blended culture that today attracts large numbers of visitors every year. In addition to this, with a total residential population of more than 150,000, significant numbers of people from the Islands travel to both England and France. There are two options for most people going to and from the Channel Islands: by aeroplane or by ferry. Though air accounts for 75 per cent of travellers to the two main islands of Jersey and Guernsey, the remaining 25 per cent opt to go by sea via the two islands’ primary ferry service Condor Ferries.

“Condor Ferries was founded in 1964 by a Guernseyman and has remained a Guernsey – based company ever since,” managing director Simon Edsall tells Shipping & Marine. “At first it offered basic passenger services between the Channel Islands and Saint-Malo, France, but developed into operating hydrofoils in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Subsequently, by 1991, the company had expanded out to operate services (including cars) to the UK; likewise, on the route to France, it expanded into carrying cars in 1993. We first introduced the Australianbuilt high-speed catamarans from Incat onto our fleet around the same time and today our fleet contains three 86-metre Incats: Condor Express, Condor Vitesse and Condor Rapide. There are also two conventional ro-ro freight ships: the ROPAX Commodore Clipper and freight-only Commodore Goodwill.”

Condor Rapide is the newest addition to the ferry company’s fleet. Incat built the vessel in 1997 as a civilian passenger ferry before it became the first large military catamaran in the world when it joined the Royal Australian Navy between 1999 and 2001. Condor Ferries acquired the vessel in April 2010 as a replacement for the Condor 10 – a significantly smaller vessel at 74 metres – and its identical nature with the Express and Vitesse grants far greater flexibility in moving ships around the company’s routes. Despite only being 12 metres longer, the more spacious interior arrangement means that like its sister cats, Condor Rapide can carry a maximum of 750 passengers and 170 vehicles. This is a significant upgrade from the Condor 10’s maximum capacity of 500 passengers and 60 cars.

The extra on space afforded by the Condor Rapide means that like its sister vessels there are more opportunities for improving the passenger environment. With this in mind Condor Ferries has been investing in upgrades across the fleet, creating new facilities such as kiosks used by retailers like Costa Coffee and extra windows for more pleasurable views. The company has also been investing elsewhere in its operation.

It consults passengers with an ongoing customer survey to discover what passengers have enjoyed and what they feel could be improved, and this has led not only to better onboard facilities but the introduction of a new online booking platform that will be launched after the peak summer season that will make finding the best fares much easier than before. The surveys also suggested customers were interested in more visibility by Condor Ferries, so the company is about to begin publishing quarterly its punctuality and reliability statistics on its website.

These statistics will cover all of the company’s routes and services, about which Simon talks more: “We run to the two main Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey, because by and large the other islands have either harbours or populations too small to justify our visits. Our cat routes run to and from two islands to Weymouth and Poole in the UK and Saint-Malo in France.

The conventional ships sail out of Portsmouth, UK, both carrying freight and one carrying passengers too. There are approximately 3100 sailings per year including the Portsmouth-bound ROPAX vessel, amounting to almost one million passengers and 200,000 vehicles annually. The Commodore Goodwill runs year-round on a daily basis, carrying more than 100,000 freight vehicles to the islands and carrying many tonnes of local produce back.”

Given the sheer number of journeys and passengers handled by Condor Ferries, it is no surprise the company faces a wide range of challenges just in its daily operation. “The first is that we run a network operation,” Simon explains. “That means we aren’t just running from point A to B and back again but may well send a ship from Poole to Guernsey to Jersey then on to Saint-Malo before returning back again. This makes loading, for example, particularly complicated because you have to make sure vehicles alighting in Guernsey aren’t trapped behind those not off-loading until Jersey. On top of that, waters around the Channel Islands are very tidal leading to complex schedules that are constantly shifting. Access to and from Jersey’s capital Saint Helier is restricted at different times of the day meaning we can’t provide a routine service leaving the UK at nine o’clock every morning, for example, because it will arrive at the wrong time in terms of tides. Furthermore the harbours of both islands are relatively s all and the largest vessels they can accommodate are 130 metres. Therefore our ships, particularly the conventional ferries, have to be specially selected to serve these routes and making manoeuvring in the ports a very skilful task.”

Nonetheless, Condor Ferries has remained the primary means for passengers travelling to Jersey and Guernsey by ferry for many decades, illustrating the skill and deftness with which it operates. Business has even remained positive despite the financial recession affecting industries across the board: in 2009, Condor Ferries improved its customer volume by 11 per cent and in 2010 improved on that figure by a further six per cent. Several factors have contributed to these positive results including the introduction of durational fares, which are competitively priced fares offering for example short two or five day visits to the islands. Other incidental events have also contributed such as the volcanic ash cloud in May 2010 that grounded flights and economic squeezing that has encouraged people to look closer to home for vacations.

This year Condor Ferries expects customer volume to increase once again but more than this it is also looking to increase its proportion of the market share. Though 75 per cent of travellers go by air, increasing financial pressures as well as widening awareness of environmental concerns means Condor Ferries has a prime opportunity to improve its competition. “Fuel costs will always be a challenge though,” says Simon. “Fuel is a major part of our cost base so two years ago we started a hedging programme to stabilise our fuel surcharge mechanism by consolidating it into the final price. That has helped to minimise impact on our customers.” By taking this consistency initiative, the company has given customers the ability to better compare flight prices with ferry costs. Combined with the numerous improvements previously mentioned, the prospects for company and customers look bright.

“We don’t have any aspirations to expand out of the Channel Islands market,” Simon concludes. “As a lifeline operation for Jersey and Guernsey it would be too strenuous to try running services on other, unconnected routes. What we do want to achieve, however, is an improvement on existing service levels. Our license for the islands runs out at the end of 2013 so we are already starting a dialogue to get a renewal, and connected with that will be many other initiatives and investment to improve customer services and, hopefully, grow the numbers of island visitors and our total share of that number. That is our concern for the future.”

High capacity, high speed ferry recently added to fleet
The only ro-ro ferry operator for the Channel Islands
Looking to improve its already significant share of the traveller market