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In Focus: Better seafarer travel management with Paul Cronjé of Clyde Travel Management

Arranging travel for crew to and from vessels is a complex task, but adaptability and technology help ensure seafarers are brought to their destinations safely and promptly.

In this episode of the Seatrade Maritime Podcast, host Paul Bartlett, Correspondent for Seatrade Maritime, sits down with Paul Cronjé, Managing Director of Clyde Travel Management. They delve into the complex logistics and challenges of arranging travel for seafarers, a critical but often overlooked aspect of maritime operations.

Paul Cronjé offers insights into Clyde Travel Management's dedicated services for the maritime sector, emphasising their commitment to seamless and efficient travel solutions for seafarers worldwide. He discusses the unique challenges faced by maritime travel management, from dealing with unpredictable sea conditions to navigating the complexities of international travel regulations.

The conversation also touches on the impact of technological advancements and the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector, highlighting Clyde Travel Management's strategic adaptations and their focus on digitalisation and sustainability in travel management.

Tune in for a comprehensive look at the efforts behind ensuring that seafarers reach their vessels and return home safely, underpinning the smooth operation of the global maritime industry.


Learn about these topics and much more by listening to the episode now

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Episode transcript

Paul Bartlett 00:07

My name is Paul Bartlett and I'm a senior correspondent on Seatrade Maritime News. Today I'm talking to Paul Cronjé, Director of Clyde Travel Management, a division within the Northern Marine Group, which itself is part of the Stena group of companies and a leading ship manager and provider of seagoing personnel.

We’re going to talk about the logistics of providing convenient and efficient travel arrangements for the world’s seafarers. An immense challenge faced by seagoing personnel providers virtually every day. For seagoing personnel away from home and loved ones for long spells, travelling home after a lengthy deployment at sea or having just left home to be sent to an unfamiliar vessel in some faraway place for a new assignment lasting another spell of many months, travel arrangements that run as smoothly as possible are essential. For the benefit of everyone listening to this podcast, Paul, please can you explain the corporate structure and summarise the service provision of Clyde Travel Management?

Paul Cronjé 01:22

Thank you, Paul. It's such a privilege to speak with you today. Clyde itself was established in 1989 in Govan in Glasgow, and got absorbed into the well-known Clyde Marine, later Clyde Group brand. And in 2017, as you just said, we were incorporated into the Northern Marine Group, which is part of the Stena brand. Now, since our formation, Clyde has specialised in marine and offshore travel management with the bulk of our business activities still very much centered around the maritime world. Over time, our way of working has of course been ever more digitalised and our borders have expanded to now also include operational teams in Sweden, the US and India, in addition to our UK operation.

We are responsible for moving thousands of seafarers between their homes and their vessels, and do our best to not only make travel itself a stress-free experience for these important travellers but to also help ship owners and ship managers to control their budgets and perform duty of care. Our clientele is from a wide range of maritime related and corporate organisations, with the majority from outside the Stena environment.

The importance of marine travel in the shipping industry

Paul Bartlett 02:30

Now, the movement of seafarers from home to ship and back again is a critical but generally undiscussed and hidden aspect of our industry. Would you agree and can you summarise the importance of the work that your teams do?

Paul Cronjé 02:44

Yes, indeed. When I first joined the marine travel sphere, I felt like I stepped into a parallel universe and I would concur that it is because few in the wider travel industry, let alone everyday life, really speaks of this segment, of the importance of the jobs these travellers perform. I think COVID restrictions on those travelling in the marine and offshore industry, being classed as key workers, shone more light on how critical their activity at sea is for our everyday lives. But for some global airlines, the maritime sector is considered the core, if not the most important contributor to their revenue. This is of course recognised through added value features such as marine friendly corporate travel reward schemes or indeed dedicated marine and offshore airport lounges.

Now, given how vital the flow of goods on international waters is, it follows that vessels need to be well manned by qualified, rested and satisfied seafarers and that is where our role becomes important. Not only in getting them to their vessels on time, but to make sure their flight options were reasonable, allowing them to travel with as much ease and a healthy pace as possible so they arrive fresh and ready on duty. By the same token, once they disembark, it is our desire to get them back to their families as soon and as comfortably as possible.

Paul Bartlett 04:01

Travel management as a service provision, of course, spans many industries. What makes this type of service provision in the marine industry different?

Paul Cronjé 04:11

Yes, well, the sea is a fluid workplace, pardon the pun, but therein lies the single biggest difference between maritime travel and all other forms of travel. There are always a range of variables when planning. Now, this can range from weather conditions, governmental or port authority, the availability of staff, changes in the nature of the journey or the job, etcetera. Now, with that amount of variables, one must always be prepared for changes to travel plans as well. And these can often affect an entire crew rather than just one individual. There are parts of the industry that are less prone to these, take ferries or even oil rigs, for example. Once these vessels have their route or are in place, travel can be planned well in advance with little change.

Another aspect is the sheer variety of nationalities involved of course. Whilst we have dominant nations in this sector, we still come across travelers from a really wide range of countries, all with different visa restrictions or aspects that limit their itinerary options. Now, a specialist travel management company like Clyde, who works in this particular sector, would pay a lot more attention to this aspect of the travellers’ journey than would usually be expected in a non-marine environment.

How travel management has evolved over the years

Paul Bartlett 05:22

So, Clyde Travel has been working in the sector for a long time, decades, in fact. How has travel management changed and adapted over that period of time?

Paul Cronjé 05:34

Paul, there are always two key factors that shape the changes we make and both, in my view, have become more refined, or dare I say, complex over the past ten years. One is the drive from within our customer portfolio for greater efficiency and digital collaboration. And the other is a travel industry that is really in the middle of reinventing airlines distribution afresh. Now, as an example of the former, we are accustomed today to capture large quantities of financial coding as part of the booking process, whereas even a decade ago there was generally a lesser requirement for that. We also have direct API connections between our platforms and some of our customers' crew management tools and/or their financial systems as all try to speed up the process and introduce efficiencies.

The marine travel sector is dominated by aviation rather than any other travel products like hotels or cars, for example, and therefore changes in air content distribution have a fundamental impact on how we work . Now, IATA’s New Distribution Capability, or NDC for short, is now approaching maturity at a great pace with some airlines, whereas others have not begun their journey at all. Under NDC, airlines are the ones driving the efficiency to bring their content direct to market with fewer players in the distribution channel and a more flexible fare offering. Yet, this is not standardised technology at all. It is in fact a huge disruptor that should, in the long term, benefit the traveller. Sadly, because of the greater complexity in marine fares, these fare types appear to be on the lower end of most airlines’ NDC strategy, which means the benefits are not yet accruing at scale for those in this sector.

Finally, I'd say that cost control is a far greater theme in recent times and that web carriers with no special marine fares have steadily grown to represent a far greater chunk of our airline spend than ever before and that comes with its own complexities.

Facing logistical challenges

Paul Bartlett 07:32

For seafarers, reaching their workplace on time and then later getting home promptly to their families after many weeks or months at sea is really important to them. What responsibility do your employees hold and feel in facilitating those journeys and how do they manage seafarer disappointment when logistical challenges arise?

Paul Cronjé 07:55

Well, for us, Clyde has always had maritime ownership from the day of its birth and with that comes a culture of being immersed in the world of the seafarer. We have used the other maritime companies within our corporate structure over the years to help shape the empathy and the care we have towards these travellers. And because we have a complimentary 24/7 service, very often we speak directly to affected  travellers. Within the wider Northern Marine Group, it always boils down to lives at sea, and I suppose this company culture reaches through all our departments and is extended to every seafarer we book across our entire customer portfolio.

Navigating COVID challenges

Paul Bartlett 08:36

I'd like to ask you about COVID which was a long and unprecedented period of misery for many stranded seafarers. The pandemic shone a light on the hardship faced by many seagoing personnel. How were you able to alleviate some of the COVID related challenges and has it had a lasting impact on the way you operate?

Paul Cronjé 08:57

Oh, indeed. If anything, COVID has cemented our company culture as intrinsically marine even further. It was, of course, the strangest of times and our team members all will have individual tales of woe to share. But through it all, we also have multiple successes and achievements in performing our jobs in the most restrictive of environments.

Now, we have seen many firsts in those years. It was the first time, for example, we ever chartered an entire hotel for one of our offshore customers. It was also the first time we ordered takeaways for a small group of Chinese seafarers stranded in a B&B in Dunkirk for weeks. We managed to work together with one customer to use Gibraltar for the first time ever as a crew changing hub for them, because that was literally the one place at the time where restrictions allowed that.

So, through it all, I viewed our travel consultants as heroes for their immense patience, learning new things on the job every day. We have seen some people really flourishing in that moment of crisis. It offered them an opportunity to use their skill and ability to manage under such circumstances which they otherwise may never have had the chance to. This has, of course, enriched our business with a much stronger management team than before. The disruption was of such a scale that the average travel consultant became a real specialist on visa and country restrictions, having to find the most creative way of getting seafarers to their vessels and home. And yes, Paul, many, many hours were spent those years often just listening to the person on the other side of the phone feeling lonely and anxious and keen to get home.

Paul Bartlett 10:37

Sounds marvelous, actually what you did.

Clyde's approach to seafarer well-being

What do your clients today, such as ship owners and operators, value most highly when utilising your services, would you say?

Paul Cronjé 10:47

Well, they do not often say it overtly, but there is an underlying trust when working with Clyde that we first of all share the same goals when it comes to seafarer well-being and that ship owners and operators therefore never have to explain the core principles of their businesses to us. Care and safety are just assumed.

We are also a very personable organisation where relationships really matter. And whilst our online booking platforms play their part, when it comes to complex logistics, it is our high touch and highly involved approach where each customer is different and requires personal attention that stands out. We are a very open and collaborative organisation where we commonly have our team members, sit around our customers budgeting and forecasting tables, analysing data, trends and any strategic changes to travel programs together. We're certainly not just here to book flight tickets.

Major industry challenges facing travel management operators

Paul Bartlett 11:42

What are the major industry challenges facing travel management operators such as yourselves?

Paul Cronjé 11:47

Well, as alluded to earlier, we are navigating changes in airline distribution and this takes a lot of energy. Clyde has been an early adopter of NDC and have our own IATA’s accreditation for NDC schemas with some of the larger airlines, but this is not a linear path though. But it is an exciting, albeit challenging journey to be part of and it affects the entire travel industry.

Many travel professionals also have left the industry during the COVID pandemic and as a sector, we are nowhere near growing the number of travel consultants back to what it used to be. This brings opportunity, of course, for new, fresh talent, but we have to work very hard to grab the attention of potential candidates to join the travel industry.

Now, within Clyde, we have very different labour markets though, as a result of our multinational footprint, and therefore we have been able to navigate this challenge. My ideal though would be to continue to create quality jobs and to convince new candidates of the satisfaction to be gained from a career in travel, especially here in the UK.

Paul Bartlett 12:52

How has Clyde Travel Management prepared itself for future success?

Paul Cronjé 12:59

Well, that's always the exciting part. We made a number of strategic changes in the past five years that I believe will contribute to Clyde's future success.

These include the fact that we expanded our leadership team with greater diversity and thought. We've also invested quite heavily in our own API enabled platform called Consort. This has allowed us to create direct connect channels to some of our key airline partners for their NDC content, but also to link directly with crew management tools like Compass. This has become the heart of our digitalisation strategy and we're reaping the benefits from this investment already by being able to introduce the sleek flow of data and transactions between us, our suppliers and our customers.

We've also expanded more internationally to offer billing in US dollar, euros and also Swedish and Norwegian krona.

And finally, very importantly, we are now investing far more in sustainability centric developments such as better carbon data capture and bringing more robust, environmentally friendly advice to our corporate buyers.

Paul Bartlett 14:01

Well, thank you, Paul, thank you very much. This has been really fascinating and I believe that you've shone a light on an aspect of global shipping that may quite frequently get overlooked. And yet, for all our invaluable seafarers, without whom life would not continue as we know it, it is such an important issue at the beginning and the end of their long spells at sea. Thank you very much for giving us your thoughts.