It resembled a scene from an overdue sequel to 80s comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The images of thousands of Eurostar customers stranded by snow that was 'too fluffy' will be some of the most enduring to emerge from the festive period.
While the majority of passengers did eventually make it home in time for Christmas, the damage to the Eurostar brand is clear. The public has been left none the wiser about how some snow in the electrics managed to shut the 15-year-old train service entirely.
An event like this during one of the rail operator's key travel periods was already bad enough. However, to compound its difficulties, the experience of customers marooned in a tunnel in one of the broken-down trains was played out via social media. Tales of restrictions on drinking water, overflowing toilets and a lack of communication were posted on Twitter and Facebook. Meanwhile Eurostar's own social media sites, which were designed to reinforce its 'Little break, big difference' marketing campaign, became a platform for abusive messages.
The timing of the fiasco could not have been worse. This month Eurostar's monopoly on cross-Channel services comes to an end after an EU decision to liberalise the European rail network. Other firms have already expressed an interest in entering the market.
A planned brand overhaul may not be enough. We asked Andy Nairn, executive planning director at MCBD, which works for Virgin Trains, and Stephen Woodford of DDB UK, which handles the Star Alliance business, to look for light at the end of the Chunnel.
EUROSTAR DECEMBER DISRUPTION STATISTICS
Broken-down trains 6
Passengers trapped on trains 2000
Stranded passengers 75,000
Total compensation to trapped passengers £450,000
Estimated total cost of disruption £10m
Two industry experts suggest how Eurostar can get itself back on the rails
ANDY NAIRN, EXECUTIVE PLANNING DIRECTOR, MCBD
Eurostar is a fundamentally sound business. It has a massive share of a high-interest market, thanks to a speedy, convenient and environmentally responsible product. It has clocked up a long run of growth and should have been enjoying more of the same this festive period.
Then along came some pretty severe weather and, with it, unprecedented technical problems. Except that it wasn't really 'the wrong kind of snow' that hurt Eurostar's reputation so badly - it was the wrong kind of corporate reaction.
Ground-level staff were said to be rude and unhelpful, senior management were initially defensive and the PR strategy seemed to be to blame a key business partner, Eurotunnel.
Admittedly, the organisation has since adopted a more constructive approach. However, while it bolts this particular stable door, another, far bigger horse is already on the move: competition.
The EU's decision to open the Chunnel to other operators means Eurostar will need to think harder about its brand positioning and product offering. While it clearly needs to learn from the Christmas fiasco, the real task is to get fighting fit for the challenges ahead.
- Use PR, social media, CRM and compensation to mitigate the damage done.
- Run a mass promotion to regain goodwill and generate custom.
- Redefine what Eurostar stands for in a competitive environment. Rediscovering the brand's original cosmopolitan cool would be a good starting place.
- Communicate this vision to staff first, and rally them behind the cause.
- Introduce at least one concrete change to the product that will symbolise revitalisation before the competitors arrive.
STEPHEN WOODFORD, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, DDB UK
Eurostar and its passengers had a less than merry Christmas. Its technical failures ruined a fair few thousand travellers' plans. With an expected loss of £10m, the brand must get its house in order, or else the damage to its technical and service reputation will be lasting.
The rail operator's announcement of a review of its 2010 marketing plans is a start. It is also reassessing the use of social media as part of its communication about ongoing service disruptions, but all channels (excuse the pun) should have been wide open.
Actions may speak louder than words (and its compensation offers to passengers seem to be appropriate), but communication is paramount. In our multi-channel society, silence is damning.
With an emergency-response social-media plan in place, Eurostar could have been in immediate contact with passengers and their families.
The need for communication isn't up for debate: a lack of information implies you don't have a solution, and that you're afraid and indecisive. It ramps up fear, and no business can afford to expose consumers to such anxiety.
- Be prepared to react immediately to problems by planning for emergencies with clear communications plans.
- Publicise the compensation plans to show customers they are valued and that Eurostar takes responsibility.
- Go public on what went wrong and what has been done to make sure it never recurs.
- Use the positive PR arising from the compensation and the engineering improvements to rebuild trust in the company's service and technology capabilities in a twin-pronged 2010 marketing strategy.