Niche online retailer Directferries.com expects to see further growth this year as bookings continue to migrate online and it improves its service for customers.
Matt Davies, Directferries’ director, said the family-owned business is benefitting from extremely low fares and growth into overseas markets in Europe.
Even in the UK where the ferry sector has been stagnating the website saw 10% growth last year as it continued to benefit from the aftermath of the ash cloud crisis of 2010, said Davies.
Directferries has succeeded in the market that larger online rivals like lastminute.com and Expedia have failed to make work for them by being a specialist, believes Davies.
“Most people say the industry is not growing but it depends which sector you are looking at. We have seen huge growth in the cross-Channel market this year.
“It has grown by nearly 80%, driven by low fares. The UK business for us was starting to get a little bit stagnant before the ash cloud but that turned things round for us in the UK.
“Before the ash cloud people’s perceptions of ferries was perhaps a little different to what it is now and also perhaps before the economic crisis.
“We are fortunate because we started selling ferries a long time ago and that’s all we do. Because we haven’t experienced a downturn in our history it’s difficult to see one now.”
In recent years Directferries has driven growth by expanding into other European markets, although it has just about reached the limits of expansion.
Internet bookings are generally lower on the Continent than in the UK so further growth is expected as customers migrate online in those markets.
In the UK 90% of Directferries bookings are taken online, making the website a valuable source of web business for operators which Davies believes will only be at 50%-60%.
Davies said it is this high volume of bookings that makes the business model work in a sector that has seen commissions from ferry companies decline to between 5% and 10%.
Previous attempts to expand the site’s reach into other markets like cruise and campsites have not paid off, but Davies is planning to add hotels close to ferry ports for overnight stays.
Davies said in the last three months the website has improved its offering for customers by adding more information about ships including pictures, videos, consumer reviews and onboard guides.
A route planner is also being considered to improve the user experience further that will allow customers to enter their postcode and destination and will offer travel information and advice.
“It’s about making the user experience better and giving them more information about what they are booking, whereas in the past they got a price and that was it.
“Perhaps people in the past have not booked a ferry based on the ship but they may do in the future. We probably have more information about ships on out site than the ferry companies.
“We will refine our booking engine as time goes on and try to compare what is comparable, making the process faster.”