Wightlink is number 40 on the Solent 250 list. The main link between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, it operates nine ferries on three routes to the Island, undertaking almost 50,000 sailings a year and carrying around five million passengers. The Business Magazine’s Sue Hughes met CEO Russell Kew
Wightlink is one of the biggest employers on the Island and provides residents with a quick and convenient service to the mainland, as well as giving holidaymakers their first taste of Island life. CEO Russell Kew is determined to play his part in growing the overall economy of the Island in order to support sustained ferry services, particularly in the off-peak and out-of-season periods.
“Marketing the Isle of Wight as a destination is vital,“ said Kew. “Island tourism is driven by summer seasonal volume, but more people are taking short weekend breaks and we want to appeal to those who are free to travel at non-peak times. We’re proud to be a key partner in Visit Wight, the Island’s Destination Management Organisation, which co-ordinates activities promoting the Isle of Wight as a fantastic place to visit all year round.“
The Wightlink operation is a complex one, with a range of factors needing to be taken into account. “Safety is always our top priority,“ says Kew, adding that “increased legislation, regulation, crewing patterns, maintenance, operating at maximum fuel efficiency are also important considerations, as well as offering a timetable which meets the needs of Islanders and tourists alike.“ At a recent Isle of Wight Council meeting, Kew revealed that a third of Wightlink’s sailings are loss-making, and that the company operated 600 empty sailings last year. “A comprehensive timetable is critical to our commitment to being part of Island life,“ says Kew “but we can only support it if tourism grows and the overall market increases.“
Kew has clear ideas on how to achieve this: “When planning applications are considered, it’s vital that those which offer potential for run down areas gain support. The key is looking at how to successfully enable a venture, encouraging and supporting development. The Island needs more wet-weather attractions and those which will encourage year-round tourism.“
There are already several exciting developments underway, such as ’The Wave’, a new surf destination project which is currently under discussion, and a smartphone app which has brought dinosaurs back to the Isle of Wight more than 120 million years after they roamed freely.
“Many new initiatives are paid for by the private sector and more could be developed. A timeline springs to mind, running from Jurassic findings through 800 years of history at Carisbrooke Castle, to The Needles Battery High Down Rocket Test Site where scientists and engineers built, assembled and tested the first, and only, all-British satellite put into space.“
Wightlink knows that there is real excitement in taking that first ferry trip as a holidaymaker to the Island, and the company prides itself on excellent customer service. Staff onboard have been asked ’where’s the duty free?’ and ’do we need passports?’ … all part of the job. Kew himself has extensive operational and commercial experience within the customer service industry and prior to his appointment in 2009, was managing director at Condor Logistics.
Islanders enjoy substantial discounts on ticket prices and overall fares have risen more slowly than inflation over the past thirty years, something not many transport providers can state. Wightlink’s regular surveys of thousands of customers also show that tourists rate the company highly for value for money and quality of service.
But Kew points out that the core ferry operation is not the only focus. “The company is part of Island life and we proudly support the Isle of Wight community with a range of initiatives from sports sponsorship to local regeneration projects. Our £350,000 sponsorship programme supports more than 100 organisations. We’re interested in so much more than just selling tickets.“
Weather is a major influence on volume, but Wightlink also uses price as a mechanism to move peak volume around with substantial discounts for off-peak travel. At peak times, such as during the famous Island music festivals, the Wightlink fleet works flat out and extra catamarans are chartered. Today’s travellers enjoy 24-hour social media updates and the communications team is part of 400 full-time staff, a figure which rises to 600 in peak season. Wightlink enjoys excellent retention rates, with apprenticeships and professional development running across the operation.
A board member of the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership, Kew also chairs the Solent Local Growth Panel and the Solent Local Transport Body (SLTB) as well as being on the board of Shaping the Future of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce. “If the Isle of Wight is more successful, we all win – Wightlink, residents, visitors and businesses.“
When he’s not in the offices adjacent to Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, Kew’s found on, or under, the water. He’s a governor and chair of the Corporation at Fareham College and, when he can, he escapes to warmer climes where he is an enthusiastic scuba diver.