April 22, 2024

Q&A: Paul Brindley, Eurostar

Eurostar's Head of Indirect Sales speaks to Editor Bev Fearis about the business travel recovery, capacity, sustainability and new ways of working with corporate customers

Are you starting to see a recovery in business travel?

From September last year to September this year we are up around 440%, which is great. Our corporate sales come through two channels: through our TMCs, distributors and GDS and then Eurostar for Business, where smaller corporates book directly with us. If you take the whole lot together, we are currently at about 40% of 2019 numbers, which is above our expectations.

Based on industry insight and research, business travel was expected to ramp up over November/December and then flow into 2022, so our expectation was that we’d see a slower return. The fact that we’re seeing these figures already means we’re confident that business is recovering and returning back to normal.

We’ve got 50 of our 77 managed clients travelling again, so a few aren’t yet, but the majority of our larger managed clients are travelling again.

Which sectors are coming back fastest?

The banking, auditing and consulting guys are generally travelling more. Where we’ve seen quite a change in the last four weeks or so is with some of the companies that haven’t travelled at all since the start of 2020 – constructions and aerospace – but they’re starting to travel as well.

The oil and gas guys have kept travelling with us, at lower levels, but now we’re seeing they are getting closer to their normal travel behaviour in the last few weeks.

What’s driving the recovery?

Restrictions being relaxed is a key driver and we’ve got more capacity than a few weeks ago. With our timetables we’ve got more day trip opportunities, so you can get to Paris and Brussels on a day return now. We’re seeing clients meeting us face-to-face now – in banking, finance and communication – so it’s quite positive to see that return to normal interaction.

Many are predicting that one-day trips will go. How will that impact Eurostar?

If you look at the profile for our corporate travellers, there was a fair chunk of day trips. The driving factor is when a client wants to see them. They’re saying that where there’s a client meeting, even if it’s a day trip, they will continue. What they’ll do is maximise their time but also minimise the touch points.

It really depends on the industry. If you look at the auditing and consulting guys, they’ll continue to do the day trips. In banking, they’ll probably combine a client meeting on one day with working in the office on the next day in Paris or Brussels. I think people are doing a lot more forward planning about what their trips are going to look like. People that were perhaps travelling twice a week might only travel once a week.

We’re also seeing the booking horizon change. Over the pandemic this was around 20 days but we’re seeing that number coming down, but the duration of stay is going up slightly. Business travellers are trying to combine office time and client meetings with a bit of social time for themselves as well, maybe meeting a colleague the night before a meeting.

Is this a long-term trend?

Personally I think it’s a short-term trend. People are desperate to reconnect with partners and colleagues that they haven’t seen for a long time. Most people say client meetings will be king, where you have to meet face-to-face. If you look at some of the internal meetings or training these might go more virtual in the future.

Do you think Eurostar will benefit from the growing focus on sustainability?

We’ve always been very focussed on sustainability as a rail operator. For the last two and a half years we’ve been providing corporates with a CO2 footprint calculator. We’re seeing more companies mandating rail, certainly out of the Netherlands. Our trains are electric and we’re all wind-powered in the Netherlands. Every time we talk to a corporate about their footprint we explain that if you take a plane – and that’s the just plane component and not getting to and from the airport – that’s equivalent to seven-plus journeys on Eurostar. Everybody is talking about the race to Net Zero and it’s becoming quite a powerful metronome within that corporate environment at the moment.

People are getting more discerning. About half of our corporate portfolio mandates rail and we have 11 companies who didn’t mandate rail before Covid who are now mandating rail. Yes, we were previously their preferred carrier of choice but we’ve now been moved from carrier of choice to mandate.

What trends are you seeing in terms class of travel?

It’s difficult to say if there is a trend because we’re not at the same timetable but we’re definitely seeing a high level of occupancy in Standard Premier and Business Premier but I couldn’t say yet if it’s a trend or not. We hope it is and we can reconfigure the trains if that’s the case.

What trends are you seeing in terms of booking lead-in times?

During Covid average booking time was 20 days and now it’s between nine and 10 days. Before Covid it was an average of between six and 10 days. We’re seeing people booking for next day, but will it get back to six days average? Probably not this year but maybe in 2022.

Where are you at with your capacity?

We’re roughly at half the capacity we were at pre-Covid. We’re trying to get from six to seven returns to Paris a day by October 22, with four to Brussels and two going on to Amsterdam. It’s flexible as we are adding capacity to meet demand. Our CEO doesn’t want to cancel trains. He’d rather have a base timetable and add if there is demand as that’s more reassuring for our customers.

Are carriages now back to being full again?

No, they are not, because we want to make sure we have some social distancing and we are capping some of the trains. We’re getting up to the point where our trains are 80% full, that’s where we’re capping at the moment. We’re being careful that we don’t overload the trains and get to the point where people aren’t feeling comfortable. We still ask people to wear masks on trains and platforms.

Are you actually policing mask wearing?

We are asking people to wear them. Our train managers will ask people politely, and people are generally very sensible and are wearing masks when asked to.

Are you now working any differently with your corporate customers?

Yes, we’ve launched a new framework – a global net deal – with a new discount structure for our corporates. Historically we would reward corporates for travelling in Business Premier and Standard Premier and we’d give them a discount in Business Premier and now we’ve extended that down to Standard Premier. So, we’re looking at the total revenue spent.

We wanted to give more value back to the corporates themselves. Our deal was 10 years old and I didn’t think it was fit for the future. We believe we haven’t necessarily looked after some of our partners in the past but we want to give them something back. From our side, we want to work with more corporates directly because it gives us more insight about the way they travel.

Meanwhile, our Eurostar for Business membership is growing. This is for smaller corporates who don’t have a managed account. For every 15 journeys they get a free upgrade. During the pandemic we were seeing between one and three sign-ups a day, so it was still slow and we weren’t putting much money behind it, but we’re now seeing three to five sign-ups a day. We have about 600 companies signed up now so it’s a fairly decent portfolio of clients.