Belfast Telegraph

Ash cloud’s silver lining for Stena Line bookings

By Margaret Canning

Ferry company Stena Line said summer advance bookings demonstrate it has held on to some of the new customers gained during the ash cloud crisis.

Thousands of stranded passengers fell on ferry travel in April after their flights were cancelled as a result of the no-fly zones imposed by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Stena Line’s Irish sea routes carried 60,000 extra passengers in April, with 30,000 of those travelling on the Belfast to Stranraer route.

Route director Paul Grant said custom quadrupled at the height of the disruption and that advance bookings indicated some of those new passengers were coming back.

“I think we have been able to retain some of those people. So many of them hadn’t been on ferries for many years but came onboard and were pleasantly surprised. Feedback has been really positive.”

He said passengers were impressed by the facilities on Stena Line’s vessels — and, with airlines like Ryanair imposing charges of around £15 on baggage, that they were happy with the absence of baggage charges.

The company won’t put a figure on how much the extra business was worth, with a spokesman saying the information was “commercially |sensitive”.

But Mr Grant said: “It’s not as big a [financial] boost as you’d imagine, because we had to source and pay more staff to make it happen. But we are hoping we will see a big benefit from repeat business. If one of those people who used us then will use us once a year, then that will make a huge difference to us.”

He said the timing of its business boost had been good, with the company spending millions of pounds on updating its vessels and on moving its Scottish terminal from Stranraer to Loch Ryan around 10 miles away.

The new terminal opens in October next year but the high speed HSS will not be used on the route because of high fuel costs. A rise in numbers of advanced bookings for the summer was down to ash cloud fear, Mr Grant said, even though Eyjafjallajoekull in Iceland has stopped spewing its ash. “There is just that little doubt in people’s minds. But there was a positive trend emerging from the start of the year with numbers up five or six |percent.

“Looking ahead, forward bookings are ahead of last year by about 15%. And if we go up by that amount in July and August, that’s an extra 60,000 on top of one million passengers.”

He summed up the ash cloud crisis as a “great sampling exercise”. “You can try and get your message across by advertising but you can’t beat people having to use your service to show them what it’s like.”

Never had ferry travel been so much in the news — not least of all because of the galaxy of celebrities who were transported to and from gigs on the ferry.

“We transported the Black Eyed Peas, Whitney Houston, Rihanna and [golfer] Rory McIlroy. We are in an industry that has suffered from an image problem but there is no doubt people were pleasantly surprised by our ships.”

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