A smooth passage.
A surprisingly large number of business people use cross-channel ferries to get to Europe. Market research carried out by Dover Harbour Board suggests that anything up to 13% of the passengers using the port are on business - about 1.6 million of them last year.
The ferry companies, jolted into action by the imminent arrival of the Channel Tunnel, are now pitching for business travellers' custom by providing special lounges and office facilities (phones, faxes and photocopiers) on board their vessels.
P and O European Ferries introduced Club Class on its Dover-Calais and Dover-Boulogne routes in 1990 (the Dover-Boulogne route was abandoned at the beginning of January). Since then it has added 'Club' facilities to the services between Dover-Ostend, Felixstowe-Zeebrugge and Larne-Cairnryan.
The company, which reckons that about 10% of its passengers are business people, took a policy decision to go up-market and provide something along the lines of the old first class service for those who wanted it, P and O's passenger marketing and sales director, Brian Langford, explains.
Today's travellers want their status to be recognised and a way to do that is to provide another layer of service. 'In competitive situations there was always a tendency to fight on price and we very much wanted to change the emphasis, to fight on quality,' says Langford. 'Instead of saying, "Here is £10 off", we suggest that they pay more and get some exclusive facilities.' P and O's Club Class allows in anyone who pays the supplement, including children but, in practice, says Langford, few parents take children into the Club Class lounge so it remains a haven.
Stena Sealink has a no-children rule in its business lounges. The company retained a market research company in 1991, shortly after the Scandinavian ferry operator took over Sealink, to investigate the business travel market for it. 'It showed that the business traveller was prepared to pay slightly more for privacy on board and quicker handling,' says Heli Salmon, Stena Sealink's business travel sales manager. 'In Scandinavia they have been selling special products for business travellers for years. We felt there was a need for it and a market for it.
'What we try to do with our business centres is to give the business traveller the opportunity to use travelling time for what they would normally do in an office. There is business equipment there. You can phone to book appointments, prepare for the meeting you're going to, fax to your office.' At night, travellers can pay a special supplement on top of the standard cabin fare for business class accommodation which includes extras like hair driers and trouser presses.
The ferry companies are also copying the airlines by offering frequent traveller schemes which are intended to buy the loyalty of the traveller who makes a lot of journeys every year. Hoverspeed, which operates catamarans and hovercraft over the Channel, lets anyone join its Blue Riband frequent-user service for £5. To keep membership thereafter the traveller must ratchet up at least five return crossings of the Channel in a 12-month period. Blue Riband members get priority loading and unloading from the vessel, reserved seats and hostess service for drinks.
Although it does not like to say too much about it, Hoverspeed also keeps a special list of very frequent travellers who have used its services more than 35 times a year. They get additional benefits such as duty free vouchers at Christmas and free tickets for a car and passengers so that they can take their families on a trip.
Stena Sealink's Compass Points loyalty scheme gives the traveller a point for every £1 spent on a qualifying ticket. Once the passenger has collected enough points they can be exchanged on board for travel vouchers which give a cash discount on future journeys. There are two levels of membership, Blue and Gold, says Heli Salmon. 'The Blue card gives you 20% future discounts, so if you spend £100 you get £20 in the voucher. When you have done six or more return trips you automatically get a Gold card, which gives you 25% back in discounts.'
Ferry operators will, of course, soon not just be competing against one another: come December they will be touting for custom alongside the Channel Tunnel. How motorists will react to the tunnel is not clear.
A recent survey by the Automobile Association showed a remarkable ignorance among motorists about the opening of the Channel Tunnel: 80% of motorists could not say correctly when the tunnel would open; nearly a third of them were unaware of how the service would operate; and - music to the ears of ferry operators - more than 50% of motorists who have recently travelled abroad said they were unlikely to use the tunnel.