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abstract, while its Amsterdam ‘secret city’ poster had to be withdrawn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