That the Eurostar director of comms chooses to stage our interview in the departure lounge of the company’s current London home is apt. In a few days’ time (14 November) Eurostar will move north to the swanky new St Pancras International station.
Montague, together with his agency Freud Communications, has been lining up a launch party to celebrate Eurostar’s big change and in anticipation of heavy media coverage of the event. Not that the pressure seems to be affecting our man, who is coolly detailing the advantages of travelling by train.
‘I wonder why anyone flies,’ he says. ‘We have 91 per cent punctuality. And you can work on the way. But 30 per cent of people still fly – I can’t understand it.’
Montague is a train evangelist. Having graduated in engineering, he pursued a range of related journalistic roles, eventually becoming BBC News’ transport correspondent in 1997. Eight years later he moved into comms, landing a role at Fishburn Hedges, and then his current position. ‘One way or another, I’ve been around the Eurostar story – reporting on the Channel tunnel, plans for a high-speed line, the launch of Eurostar, and now working for the business – for 20 years,’ he says.
Reading his CV, it would be easy to imagine Montague as something of a geek. He professes not, pointing out: ‘Even when I was BBC transport correspondent I couldn’t tell you the class numbers of trains.’
Montague joined Eurostar in April last year, and it was good timing. Not only was the firm embarking on a tie-in with film-of-the-book The Da Vinci Code, but the company was finalising plans for moving its business to a new terminal overnight.
‘Moving in stages [to St Pancras] would have made no sense,’ he argues. ‘It would have confused passengers and made messaging very difficult. Right now it is simple: We are here. We’re going there.’
Set out in those terms, it does seem easy, but the truth has been far from it. Retained Eurostar agency Consolidated Communications and a team from Freud Communications have been working for the past six months, alongside Montague’s 14-strong comms staff, to get message of the move out.
‘There are events planned, such as the Queen officially opening St Pancras on 8 November, but the bigger job is to communicate exactly what the move means to passengers,’ argues Montague. ‘We’ve already achieved 100 per cent awareness among potential travellers about the move, so now it is about reinforcing that and making it seem like an event.’
For the past few months Montague has been focusing on a UK-wide campaign highlighting St Pancras’ benefits. The firm wants to attract 40,000 passengers from Scotland and has been emphasising the ease of commuting to St Pancras from the North.
‘Leading up to the day it will be a case of articles saying “this is here”,’ says Montague. ‘We are fortunate in that channels such as BBC News 24 are willing to dedicate so much time to the event – new services generate a lot of excitement.’
Montague also highlights the Ebbsfleet story as particularly important: Ebbsfleet, a new terminal near Dartford in Kent, is designed to mop up passengers that would find it difficult to get to St Pancras. Eurostar has heightened awareness by sponsoring the town’s football team, and communicating with Kentish residents.
‘There has also been an internal comms issue. Staff that live near Waterloo or our train depots will have to travel further to work every day.’
The internal side is one you would not initially think of, but Montague gives the impression he thinks of most things, and this is backed up by his peers.
BT group director of comms Peter Morgan, who allowed Montague the privilege of being the best man at his wedding, is glowing in his praise.
‘In the 25 years I’ve known Simon he’s never ever been rattled,’ reveals Morgan. ‘Eurostar is a company that will have good days and bad days – it will not affect him.’
Former boss and Fishburn Hedges co-founder Neil Hedges agrees: ‘Sometimes hiring a journalist works, and with Simon it definitely did.’
Both Morgan and Hedges point to Montague’s environmental work for Eurostar, and it is an area he talks about passionately. ‘We actually had companies coming to us asking about our carbon footprint so they could calculate theirs when they use us for travel,’ reveals Montague. ‘We expected to be far better for the environment than planes, but when we looked at the figures we were surprised at just how much blue water there is.’ Eurostar is now committed to reducing carbon dioxide emission by 25 per cent per passenger journey by 2012.
Following our chat on the environment, a sniffer dog and his handler come through the departure lounge, decide Eurostar’s head of comms is an unlikely terrorist suspect, and continue to wend their way through the rows of passenger seats.
‘We have the same checks as every other international port, so this is probably the safest train terminal in the world,’ says Montague. ‘Most of the work is about the move. It’s going to be really hectic.’
And then he strolls, seemingly unburdened by the thought, back into a station full of passengers desperately trying to get the next available train to Paris.
PRWeek: What was your biggest career break?
Simon Montague: Getting a job at the BBC. It opens up so many opportunities. I stepped up to the world of general media – far removed from starting out as a civil engineer. Without that I could not have followed the path I have.
PRWeek: What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
SM: You don’t necessarily have to have the qualifications to succeed. If you are confident, enthusiastic and driven, you’ll get somewhere. Look at businesspeople like Alan Sugar – if there is one thing they should teach at school if they could, it is confidence. Also, they should develop the ability to network. Contacts will get you everywhere.
PRWeek: Who was your most notable mentor?
SM: The editorial team at New Civil Engineer. Mike Winney and Ty Byrd turned me from an engineer into a journalist. I had so much to learn. My first press trip was with Mike in a car to frozen North Germany. We got involved in a car crash and were strip searched in an unheated room – it was crazy. They’d be surprised to hear it, but I learned loads from them.
PRWeek: What characteristics do you most prize in new recruits
SM: Enthusiasm, optimism and a desire to succeed. And teamwork is critical, the ability to communicate energy and ideas.
Director of communications, Eurostar
Consultant, Fishburn Hedges
Transport correspondent, BBC News
Transport correspondent, BBC South East
Reporter, New Civil Engineer