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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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.
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
Jane Bainbridge is a journalist on Marketing who should have travelled
to Paris by Eurostar. She flew to Amsterdam instead.