ANALYSIS: Has Eurotunnel burned out?’

Last week’s fire in the Channel Tunnel could threaten to undo two years’ marketing effort by Eurotunnel, writes Julian Lee

Last week’s fire in the Channel Tunnel could threaten to undo two years’

marketing effort by Eurotunnel, writes Julian Lee



Since opening the Channel Tunnel for business two years ago, Eurotunnel

has spent some pounds 25m marketing itself as a modern, efficient and

reliable service to the Continent.



That brand-building investment was thrown into turmoil last week when

one of the company’s Le Shuttle trains, and its reputation, went up in

flames.



Television screens and newspaper front pages were filled with news of

the ‘Channel Tunnel Blaze’ and images of the burnt-out and blackened

wreckage of the train. The Times, which had been running a front page

popular promotion with vouchers for cheap travel by Eurostar, now found

itself carrying stories about whether travelling via the tunnel was

safe.



So how bad will the damage to Eurotunnel be? And what needs to be done

to restore confidence in the international service?



There will clearly be short-term damage with a backlash from the

thousands of passengers whose travel plans have been thrown into chaos

(see box). Both companies will now be left with some very disgruntled

customers, aggrieved at the missed opportunity and demanding a refund.



How they deal with the complaints will be one factor in limiting the

damage in terms of public relations. Customer help-lines were set up

after the fire, but the message was confused, with early reports that it

would be a short-term shutdown later being amended to ‘several days’.



The loss of revenue for each day’s closure has been estimated at around

pounds 1m. But the major worry for the Chunnel companies is the long-

-term damage which will have been done to customer confidence about its

service.



Up to last week, Eurotunnel was the clear winner when it came to

carrying vehicles across the Channel. Instead of cancelling their

tickets, consumers are rescheduling their trips or taking the ferry

instead. Last week P&O increased its Dover-to-Calais round trips from 20

to 30 a day. Stena increased sailings from 25 to 27.



The fear will be that passengers will be too worried to go back to Le

Shuttle or Eurostar and will opt for air or sea travel instead. Le

Shuttle clearly has the toughest task - the train that caught fire was

its own.



But as each day passes, both companies run the risk of further cementing

in the public’s mind both the fire and the question marks about safety.



Can advertising deflect that? Last week an advertising campaign clearly

wasn’t a priority as Le Shuttle struggled to deal with the practical

task of getting the service operational again and dealing with

disappointed customers.



But both companies will be looking at how they can reassure consumers.

Le Shuttle’s current advertising, featuring a young boy on his first

trip and likening it to a space rocket blasting off, now seems an

uncomfortable analogy.



Television advertising for both Le Shuttle and Eurostar has been pulled

off the box and no date has been given for its return.



What is clear is that a public relations campaign stressing safety and

the number of passengers who have used the tunnel without incident is

almost inevitable.



John Allen, a partner at Le Shuttle’s ad agency, BST-BDDP, is urging

caution. ‘We will be tracking the effect on people’s behaviour and go

from there,’ he says.



However, he is very clear about what not to do. ‘We have to be very

careful to avoid an instant reaction to this incident. Anecdotal

evidence suggests the damage is not as bad as it seems.’



Quentin Bell, chairman of the Quentin Bell Organisation, thinks time

will eventually erode the public’s memory of last week’s event. The

last thing either operators want to do is remind the public of the

incident.



‘Safety is a negative message. You’re only going to be putting something

into people’s minds that might not have already been there in the first

place,’ he says.



His advice is to leave it up to the independent inquiries to establish

that the proper safety measures had been implemented.



Public confidence in the Channel Tunnel will have been dented, but the

best way of overcoming that may be to just get back to business as usual

- as quickly and expertly as possible.



Train strain



I had taken advantage of Virgin Cola’s Eurostar promotion in the summer

to get two return Eurostar tickets for pounds 99. Then disaster - a fire

on the Shuttle broke out a couple of days before I was due to travel.



I wasn’t too concerned at first, but the day before I was about to set

off neither service was operational, although my holiday was booked and

the hotel deposit paid.



I rang a general enquiry number to find out what was happening. The

operator told me he’d heard on the radio that it was still shut - tell

me something I didn’t know - and I was given another number to call.



This time a patronising operator asked me if my journey was essential -

then decided it wasn’t. I was told I’d get a full refund, but I wanted

my holiday, so if I wanted to fly I had to sort it out myself.



I was furious at the lack of information and that, despite a breakdown

in its service, I had to sort out any alternative arrangements myself.

Nor did I receive any apology.



Fire or no fire, Eurostar clearly had no contingency plans for a

shutdown. This is one customer who won’t waste time with the train in

future.



Jane Bainbridge is a journalist on Marketing who should have travelled

to Paris by Eurostar. She flew to Amsterdam instead.



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