DFDS’ simplified Channel crossing method: Reviewed

A snowy, December morning and the coach prepares to leave the Ashford International Hotel for France

A new app from DFDS is aiming to simplify coach operators’ administration on the short sea crossing from Dover. But does it work? We joined a Coach Tourism Association familiarisation trip to find out

It’s early morning on a December day in Kent. Members of the Coach Tourism Association (CTA) are gathered in the foyer of the Ashford International Hotel, one of 21 four-star hotels and resorts in the QHotels Collection. The mix of coach and tour operators have gathered from across the country to join one of the CTA’s regular familiarisation trips.

This time the destinations are the French towns of Arras and Lens, both in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France. A relatively short journey from Calais or Dunkirk, and therefore attractive for those who don’t want to travel too far, it’s a region often overlooked by tour planners looking further south or east.

The previous afternoon the group had visited Designer Outlet Ashford, part of the McArthurGlen Group. With 23 outlets across Europe, including six in England and one in Wales, this is an organisation that knows a thing or two about looking after coach groups, and drivers.

Pauline Bull uses the new app to scan a passport

Scanning and uploading

But on this particular early morning, the hotel foyer is full of coach and tour operators brandishing their passports and all milling around one person sat in a corner with a mobile phone in hand.

The coach for the trip, a very tidy Van Hool TX16 Acron, is being operated by Northamptonshire-based R.B. Travel. Owner Roger Bull is outside, getting the vehicle ready. The owner of the aforementioned mobile phone is his wife Pauline, who runs Taurus Holidays, and our courier for the trip.

Loaded on Pauline’s phone is the Coach Passport Scanning App, a new initiative from ferry operator DFDS.

At its simplest, the app allows the coach driver or courier to scan all the passports of the group. That information is then uploaded to DFDS ready to be accessed when the coach presents itself at the check-in booth at Dover port a little later. No personal information is left on the phone. This new process removes the need for passports to be individually collected on the coach and handed in to the check-in booth at the port.

Pauline and Roger had trialled the new app a week or so before on a Christmas market tour to Valkenburg in Germany, and the process had worked well.

“Sorry, can you hold the passport flat,” Pauline is saying to one of the group. “Sometimes the reflection of the overhead light on the shiny coating of the page makes it difficult for the phone camera to scan the page properly.”

With all the passports scanned, Pauline presses ‘send’, and the information hurries through the ether, bound for DFDS.

The benefit of the app becomes apparent when the coach pulls up at the DFDS check-in booth inside the port.

Graham Hopcraft, DFDS’ Group Sales Manager, who’s travelling with the trip, says that the new app speeds up check in per coach by reducing time at the booth from anything up to 30 minutes to around five minutes.

A quiet Monday morning in mid-December and Roger Bull guides the coach onto the DFDS ferry

More capacity for coaches

“The app enables DFDS to manage up to six coaches per sailing, without risking delays to other traffic,” he explains. “Over the last few months we’ve been able to demonstrate the quality of our product to operators who might have previously used other ferry operators, or taken the tunnel. With introducing this app we wanted to demonstrate our commitment to the coach sector, helping reduce delays in the port and improve the customer journey. This sets DFDS up to challenge what was once pretty much the P&O Ferries monopoly on coach traffic on the short-sea route.”

Finding itself having to handle the passenger fall-out from the P&O Ferries and Eurotunnel debacles last summer, DFDS has looked closely at what it can offer coach and tour operators.

“If a coach driver visits the DFDS Duty Free port shop and brings at least 15 of their passengers, they will receive two free bottles of wine,” explains Graham. “They also receive a voucher entitling them to a 10% discount off purchases in the onboard duty free shop. At check-in, the driver, and courier if there is one, receive a voucher that gives them access to the onboard Road Kings lounge and restaurant. This includes a free meal.”

The group of coach and tour operators and suppliers get together for the obligatory pose on board ship

Graham highlights another benefit to coach operators.

“DFDS keeps a tally on how much is being spent by coach passengers in the port shops,” he says. “Operators will build up a monetary credit that will then be taken off booking payments the following year. It’s a positive way to support the sector and build brand loyalty. We’ve worked hard to make our new coach offer as attractive as possible.”

CTA familiarisation trips always bring together a range of partners. From left to right: Melanie Pickard from Designer Outlet Ashford; Stacey Whittington from QHotels Collection; Colin Fawcus and Graham Hopcraft from DFDS, Roger Bull from RB Travel; and Robert Shaw from Harry Shaw and Chair of CTA

Connectivity and remembrance

Our itinerary in France includes a visit to the Louvre-Lens museum, opened in 2012 as part of an initiative to bring items from the Louvre museum in Paris to other parts of France. Our overnight hotel, located just across the road, is the Hotel Louvre Lens, a contemporary, 52-room, four-star property that has been converted from a row of original miners’ cottages. In the evening the hotel hosts a supplier workshop for the CTA group giving everyone the opportunity to develop new business relationships. The entente was very much cordiale!

A networking evening at the Hotel Louvre Lens brought operators and local suppliers together. Maria Pond and Debbie Howorth from Southampton-based Angela Holidays (centre) are joined by local tourism representatives

The next morning and we’re all dutifully queuing up so that Pauline can scan our passports again, this time for the return DFDS sailing from Dunkirk back to Dover. But there’s a problem. The scanning process has gone well but Pauline is having some difficulty uploading the information. After trying a few times she closes the app. Graham then opens the app on his phone and enters the booking reference. The app recognises where the process had got up to, and this time completes the uploading process. It’s a useful reminder that if the process is interrupted, perhaps by a phone losing power, or poor connectivity, it can be completed later. Should the system fail completely the back-up is reverting to manually handing over passports at check-in at the port.

600,000 names of those lost in the First World War in northern France are inscribed in the Ring of Remembrance. Here, CTA Chair Robert Shaw checks the panels for relatives.

We head for Dunkirk, stopping off at the Ring of Remembrance memorial at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. The memorial commemorates those who died in the region during the First World War and features all 600,000 names irrespective of their nationality, creed or rank. It’s a thought-provoking and altogether memorable experience.

The sun catches the Ring of Remembrance at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the largest French military cemetery in the world. In the background is the 52-metre Lantern Tower

Arriving at Dunkirk, Roger presents the booking reference at the check-in office. The operator pulls up the reference, notes that all the information is in order, and we’re soon heading off to the French and UK border controls.

Once parked up in our lane to await boarding there’s time to visit the Port Duty Free Shop. It’s an older shop but well stocked. Graham has good advice. “It’s easier to buy your duty free here and load it straight onto the coach rather than struggling to reach the car deck on the ferry,” he explains.

Nearing the end of another successful CTA ‘fam’ trip and a festively-dressed Roger guides the coach onto the DFDS ship at Dunkirk

Plaudits for DFDS

What’s the reaction to the new Coach Passport Scanning App? Paul Cartwright, of CTA member, Lincolnshire-based A&P Travel, is clear. “In essence it’s a damn good idea,” he says. “But gone are the days of a speedy exit from the UK. On a ferry you also want to be off and gone, not stuck waiting for all the cars to leave first. That will aid drivers’ hours.”

Dave Parry, of Parrys International, who wasn’t on this trip but has used the app, is pleased with how DFDS has reached out to the coach industry.

“The app is good, but of course it’s only part of the whole port process,” he says. “DFDS came to the rescue after Eurotunnel reduced capacity for coaches, giving us more slots and being able to accommodate us. They went out of their way to support us. For that I’ll be eternally grateful.”

As we prepare to leave Dover and head back north, I ask Pauline for her views on the app.

“We’ve used the app now for two trips,” she says. “It works, and it saves time. DFDS is really putting the effort in.”

For more information, email uk.groups@dfds.com