Carry on abroad

In 1973 farming co-operatives in Roscoff, France, sought to export their cauliflowers and artichokes to Plymouth and chartered their own ships to undertake this task. The success of this enterprise saw opportunities grow not only for greater varieties of freight but also for passenger services and these eventually came together under the name Brittany Ferries. Nearly four decades on Brittany’s farming co-operatives remain the major shareholders whilst its service has expanded steadily to encompass nine mixed passenger and freight as well as one freight-only route between Portsmouth, Poole, Plymouth and Cork in the UK, Caen, Cherbourg St Malo and Roscoff in France, and the recently added destinations of Santander and Bilbao in Spain.

“We have a fleet of seven ROPAX vessels, one freight-only ship and the high-speed Normandie Express,” says group commercial and strategy director Christophe Mathieu. “Across our network we carry 2.5 million passengers and just under 200,000 freight units per year, with 75 per cent of our turnover generated by passengers – and that includes onboard sales. We are an essentially French company operating with French crew from the officers to the staff but bear a peculiarity in that 85 per cent of our customers are British.”

As its destinations suggest, Brittany Ferries avoids the popular Dover-Calais routes. There are reasons for this: the English Channel is already well serviced by a whole range of ferry and freight operators; the overcapacity on Dover Strait makes it unprofitable to enter the market; and Brittany Ferries is already well established on its peripheral routes. Though its annual freight unit turnover in particular appears comparatively small to many companies running the English Channel, Brittany Ferries’ longer routes enable many smaller producers to ship their products without the additional cost of road transport across France.

These reasons also formed part of Brittany Ferries’ decision to establish routes to Spain. “For the British, Spain is the number one holiday destination while France is number two,” Christophe explains, “so we said there was potential to take people from Britain, with their cars, to Spain. On the other hand we also felt there was a natural market for lorries, as they had to drive through France just to get to the UK. By having a vessel that could take both passengers and freight we saw the potential to improve business. Today, annually, we have nearly 30,000 pieces of freight on the service and almost 300,000 passengers on our Spanish routes.”

Sailing to Spain clearly proved a wise choice, and even more so following the impact of a global financial crisis that knocked the bottom out of the English Channel routes. By 2009, the number of volume and freight in the region dropped significantly and this led to a rates war that saw prices get lower in order to attract business. Because of this, combined with the aforementioned saturation of the market, Brittany Ferries ended up having to restructure its French routes in order to remain competitive. The success of its Spanish destinations, however, meant the company had greater flexibility in balancing business and maintaining its integrity as a high quality service provider.

Nonetheless, to date, the English Channel remains the company’s main route network. It has invested a huge amount of money in ensuring that for its passengers in particular the experience of travelling is an enjoyable one. Christophe discusses this further: “Brittany Ferries is a company with a French image positioned on longer routes so for us the customer service is of the utmost importance, therefore we ensure that our vessels are maintained in the best condition. We have, for example, invested quite a lot in modernising our two oldest vessels the Bretagne and Normandie to make sure their standards are up to date. If we want to compete not just with other ferry operators but with airlines as well, people have to feel comfortable and well looked after on our ferries.”

Business for Brittany Ferries has been strong despite the universal drop in tourism numbers since 2008. Whilst the latest government statistics reveal that 15 per cent fewer tourists to all destinations travelled in Q3 2011 when compared to the same period in 2007, the ongoing strength of France and Spain as vacation spots for the British public means Brittany Ferries has managed to retain admirable figures on its own records. In particular, people with second homes and families in the respective countries have been a lifeline for the company.

Not looking to rely on this source of business permanently, however, Brittany Ferries will be working with certain regional tourist boards and other ferry operators in the English Channel over the coming years to reassert France as a desirable holidaying location for the British. “If Brits do not want to visit our regions, they will not come on the ferry – the days of duty free and the ferry as a core part of the holiday are gone,” says Christophe. “Our core business is to carry the tourists and their cars that want to visit the destinations we serve so fundamentally we have to be sure that our regions and France promote itself in the UK in a current and efficient manner.

“Therefore, beginning this year, we have a three year plan to undertake joint marketing activities between ourselves, other ferry operators, regional tourist boards and the Atout France (the French National Tourist Office). We will link this to action in France that will improve the welcoming of British. The collaboration means there is a larger available budget and a more diverse message when attracting both people that have never been to France and people that haven’t visited the country for a long time. After that it’s up to the companies as individuals; Britanny Ferries strongly believes in its product, in its roots and in the quality of what we offer so as long as people want to visit France, we believe we will have our share of the pie.”

Successful niche route provider
Strong customer service
Freight and passenger carrier