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Member Spotlight: Hovertravel
Welcome to our Member Spotlight series, which highlights members that go above and beyond or have extraordinary and compelling stories to tell. This month we are delighted to feature Hovertravel, the fastest Isle of Wight ferry route across the Solent and the world’s only year-round passenger hovercraft service.
In 2019 the Government set an ambition for the UK to become the world’s most accessible tourism destination by 2025. In the UK alone, the Purple Pound – the spending power of disabled people and their families – is worth a staggering £274 billion. Yet it is estimated that less than 10% of organisations have a targeted plan for welcoming customers with disabilities.
Ahead of Global Accessibility Day, we spoke to Pat Sowerbutts, Commercial Development Executive at Hovertravel, who have been recognised as a Leader in the Government’s Inclusive Transport Leaders scheme, to find out more about the organisation’s approach to accessibility and what businesses can do to welcome more customers with diverse needs.
Thank you for taking part in our Member Spotlight series. Can you tell us a little bit about Hovertravel, and your role in the organisation?
Hovertravel is the world’s only year-round scheduled passenger hovercraft service operating between Ryde, Isle of Wight and Southsea, Portsmouth. Since our operations began in 1965, we have been the fastest operator across the Solent with a crossing time of under 10 minutes.
My role at Hovertravel as Commercial Development Executive involves looking after several key markets such as Group Travel, Corporate Travel, Excursions & Partnerships, as well as creating and developing new products.
What are some of the highlights of your job? And the biggest challenges?
To be completely honest this is difficult to answer as no one day is the same here! However, just knowing that I am doing my bit for the local community is certainly one. As I am a trained crew member on our hovercraft, being part of an emergency transfer for a NHS patient from the Isle of Wight to ensure that they receive essential treatment also stands out for me.
Looking at challenges, without a doubt I would say the weather! As adverse weather can impact the operation of the hovercraft, it can be really frustrating when you spend so long planning something only for our great British weather to then hamper it. Having said that, weather affects less than 4% of services, and we have alternative travel arrangements permanently in place to work through such times.
Last year, Hovertravel was awarded the top level of accreditation in the Goverment’s Inclusive Transport Scheme, becoming the only marine transport operator and ferry operator to be accredited. What were some of the key initiatives that led to this fantastic achievement?
The Government scheme recognised that Hovertravel had gone beyond the statutory requirements and had made substantial efforts to elevate accessibility above a simple tick-box exercise. The launch of our HoverCare initiative, which includes training for all staff at a variety of levels from specialist external trainers, set an exceptionally high standard for all employees.
This training was then used to create a comprehensive out-reach programme which saw (in pre-COVID times) several open days for different sectors of the community. Each open day had a theme, such as autism, partially sighted, dementia to name a few, and included guests from local support groups and charities, as well as specialist schools.
What advice would you give to businesses looking to improve their accessibility? Are there some things that are often misunderstood or overlooked when considering accessibility?
When we launched HoverCare we had two guiding principles: firstly we said publicly that accessibility is a journey. We fully accepted that we did not have a finished product or service, and we expected our initiative to continue to evolve.
The second principle was to make sure we listened to a broad range of people. We have consistently made sure that we are in contact with regulators, charities, lobbying groups and the customers themselves. Too often we see companies adopting a rigid policy which might not have the ability to adapt to new information.
The Government has set a target for the UK to become the world’s most accessible tourism destination by 2025. Do you think enough is being done to achieve this?
I think we can always do more and always do better – as I mentioned this is a journey and we want the experience of hovercraft flight to be accessible to all. We have been proactive in sharing best practice with various other transport companies and we are more than happy to engage with anyone trying to improve their accessibility.
COVID-19 put travel on hold for much of the past year, but we were proud to see Hovertravel playing a significant role in supporting the local community. What was the organisation’s approach to the pandemic and were there challenges in pivoting your operations so quickly?
At the start of pandemic we were in the very unusual position of asking customers not to travel, but also in the position of working with our closest competitors to ensure a lifeline link remained open for the Isle of Wight. Thanks to the support of our shareholders and our dedicated team, we remained operating – albeit with a severely reduced timetable – to keep key workers and essential supplies flowing across the Solent. At several times during the past year we have been the only foot passenger service running across the Solent.
As well as carrying record amounts of Royal Mail, PPE and other medical supplies, we developed a rapid off-island transfer service for stretcher patients with the NHS. This meant improved medical outcomes for patients and significant time-savings for an already stretched Island ambulance service. Most importantly, although this service was born during COVID it still continues to operate successfully today.
Hovertravel has also been recognised for its outstanding customer service, with Lorry Middleton being awarded Tourism Superstar 2020. As a transport provider, what are your top tips for ensuring your customers have a great experience?
Lorry is a customer service rock star and his willingness to help customers underpins his friendly approach. Hovertravel prides itself on being present for its customers and exceeding expectations throughout the whole experience. As with HoverCare our top tip is to listen – your customers are your best source of market intelligence. We actually created an informal user group which is an invaluable resource for receiving feedback.
Finally, with the country reopening for travel what are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
Personally, I am excited to see people go out and enjoy themselves – after a challenging year I think we all deserve some quality time off. Professionally, I’m really looking to meeting with old colleagues again and starting to talk about opportunities for growth.
You can find out more about Hovertravel, including their HoverCare scheme here.