ANALYSIS: Tunnel PR teams aim to sink Channel armada

Will an injection of fresh PR and marketing expertise be enough to enable Channel Tunnel train operators to boost their share of the cross- Channel tourist trade?

Will an injection of fresh PR and marketing expertise be enough to

enable Channel Tunnel train operators to boost their share of the cross-

Channel tourist trade?

Last week’s marketing shake-up at Eurostar operator European Passenger

Services (EPS) is just the first shot in what promises to be a closely

fought battle for the hearts and minds of the cross-Channel traveller.

New owner London and Continental Railways (L&CR) has wasted little time

in drawing on the marketing flair of its lead partner, Virgin, drafting

in two former Virgin staff - Mark Furlong and Debra Aspin - to senior

communications posts.

Meanwhile Eurotunnel has brought in Millbank PR to boost consumer and

trade awareness of Le Shuttle.

Both services have previously come under fire in the media for

lacklustre marketing campaigns. The respective marketing departments are

accused of achieving poor overall public awareness and a serious lack of

individual brand differentiation.

Le Shuttle, the vehicle carrying train operated by Eurotunnel, was the

first service to be launched through the tunnel. The more recent

Eurostar is a passenger-only service linking London Waterloo with

European cities such as Paris and Brussels. Currently operated by EPS in

Britain, responsibility for these trains is gradually being handed over

to L&CR as part of its contract to design, finance, build and operate a

high-speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel.

Few would argue that there is room for improvement in public perceptions

of both services. From the start Le Shuttle has been overshadowed by

Eurotunnel’s dire financial straits, while Eurostar has suffered from

much publicised technical problems.

Above-the-line activity has similarly failed to live up to expectations.

Eurostar’s futuristic TV commercial was criticised for being too

abstract, while its Amsterdam ‘secret city’ poster had to be withdrawn

following complaints about Van Gogh being associated with marijuana.

Jonathan Prynn, transport editor on the Times believes the marketing for

Eurostar and Le Shuttle has lacked self- confidence. He says: ‘The

underlying products are superb and the operators should really be

socking it to the competition with more upfront and aggressive


The transport editor of another national paper is confident that the new

Virgin blood will achieve just this at Eurostar. Mark Furlong, the new

marketing director at Eurostar with responsibility for PR, advertising

and marketing, spent the last two years working on L&CR’s bid.

Furlong’s former colleague Debra Aspin will head the PR team and

Marianne Hewitt from Virgin Trading takes up the position of sponsorship


Will Whitehorn, Virgin’s corporate affairs director, believes passengers

want more choice of service and price and promises a more pro-active

approach to communicating the Eurostar offer. ‘EPS has until now been

bound up with privatisation and operational issues and unable to get

sufficient marketing messages across. Eurostar is cheaper than airlines

on equivalent routes and its on-time departure performance is better,’

says Whitehorn.

Dominic Fry, communications director at Eurotunnel, is equally bullish

about Le Shuttle’s future. ‘Our strategy is to make Le Shuttle the

natural cross-Channel choice by the end of 1996 and to use PR to make

people leave the ferries for us,’ says Fry.

So does this rhetoric sound the death knell for the ferry operators?

Chris Laming, director of communications for leading ferry operator

Stena Line, remains confident. ‘Le Shuttle has gained market share in

leisure trips across the Channel but it’s not the 70 per cent claimed in

its original prospectus,’ he says.

Stena Line is introducing new high-speed ferries on many routes

including the Lynx, which it claims beats Eurotunnel on speed when

check-in times are taken into consideration. The company’s new corporate

identity is backed by major advertising spend and supported by PR.

But behind the brave face the reality is more serious. Day trippers

taking ferries to France were down by 30 per cent this winter due to

stormy weather and tunnel competition. Cost cutting and higher quality

standards are good news for the customer but by the end of the summer,

with the tunnel operating at almost full capacity during peak times,

some ferry companies could face intolerable financial pressure.

British Airways, facing competition on some of its short-haul routes,

recognises Eurostar’s growing marketing clout, but will not admit to

being unduly concerned.

Andrea Matthews, newly appointed head of communications strategy at BA,

claims Eurostar is not a direct competitor: ‘We recently conducted a

survey which showed that the volume on our Paris service had actually


Certainly there are still some basic service and communications

obstacles facing the increasingly self-assured ‘Chunnel’ operators.

Three million passengers used Le Shuttle or Eurostar last year and five

million are expected this year. This still falls a long way short of

Eurotunnel’s original estimates. And overnight Eurostar services from

Waterloo, originally planned for early 1996, could be delayed until


L&CR has set itself the ambitious targets of doubling passengers and

bringing Eurostar train operations into profit within the next two

years. This summer will prove a very important battle, but the cross-

Channel war will continue.

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