How Condor Ferries charted a course through the pandemic

Business editor Will Green spoke to the chief executive officer of Condor Ferries, which provides critical ferry links to the Channel Islands, about the pandemic and looking to the future

Condor Ferries CEO Paul Luxon. (Picture by Adrian Miller, 29295159)
Condor Ferries CEO Paul Luxon. (Picture by Adrian Miller, 29295159)

‘There was a real palpable feeling of intense “this is very different and very, very big”,’ says Paul Luxon, CEO of Condor Ferries, when reflecting on the emerging Covid-19 crisis last year.

The immediate focus was on working through what it means for passengers and crew, keeping them safe when it came to repatriation sailings to bring people home as borders closed to control the virus’s spread. Then what it meant for Condor Ferries as it was ‘right on the frontline of implication’ as a ferry business.

‘There was a very early appreciation of the significant scale, but we couldn’t remotely forecast what actually was going to happen in real terms. But then very quickly what we did was we sat down as a management team with our shareholder board and we created a six-phase crisis management plan’ explains Mr Luxon via a video call.

This dealt with what actions needed to be taken immediately right through to the worst case scenario to recovery.

‘The difficulty for us is all four jurisdictions went into lockdown differently, and had different unlock strategies and then the fine detail was different. So all of that made it difficult for us to be able to be certain about any plans about restarting passenger services.’

The human and financial cost

A key element of the strategy was ensuring the company could chart a path through the pandemic and safeguard people working in the business, through measures such as split shifts and use of personal protection equipment.

‘When we realised that it was clearly going to be a significant issue all the way through 2020 we then had to make some difficult decisions about resizing the business. Unfortunately, we had to reduce our people resource by around about 37%,’ notes Mr Luxon sadly.

Some 205 roles went as the ferry operator faced not having any meaningful passenger services through 2020. The need to remain vigilant to manage the business as effectively as possible given the locations, financial and practical implications, have remained.

Giving colour to the situation facing Condor, Mr Luxon sets out some key metrics. Just 4.5% of the normal full year passengers sailed in 2020.

In the worst week, freight reduced by 40% – although it slowly recovered through the year. The CEO also stresses the ferry operator has acted with its status as a lifeline transport operator to the Channel Islands in mind throughout.

With ongoing costs, the company took a £40m-plus financial hit. There will also be an impact in 2021. The shareholders have been ‘incredibly supportive’ with additional funds injected into the business, says Mr Luxon, as well as Condor Ferries looking at its lending facilities to ensure adequate liquidity.

Looking to the future

To the backdrop of vaccination programmes taking effect, Condor Ferries is monitoring the situation to be ready should any tourism be possible this summer. The focus is on marketing the Channel Islands as the ‘staycation-plus’ option. Their natural attributes and how they have broadly handled the pandemic play strongly, says the CEO.

He adds: ‘You get the ability to relax and feel comfortable. We’re also extolling the virtues of travelling by sea on that basis because, of course, harbour terminals and on board ships, you do have more space or room.

‘You can move about without being so claustrophobic.’

That will only be possible once the islands are feeling comfortable, notes Mr Luxon, with the ferry operator being patient and awaiting decisions from governments given Covid-19 will be around a while yet. But critically Condor Ferries is focused on being prepared and ready.

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