16.12.2019 14:12:49 //
Miia Manner
Timo Porthan and Eckerö Line

Vital cargo enables passenger traffic

Finbo Cargo, which operates between Vuosaari and Muuga, has quickly become popular with passengers travelling by car. Eckerö Line’s Taru Keronen listens carefully to her customers and reminds us that the Port of Helsinki serves the whole of Finland.

Last June, Eckerö Line launched a new route between Vuosaari, Helsinki and Muuga, Tallinn. In addition to cargo, Eckerö
Line’s Finbo Cargo also transports passengers travelling by car who have no need or desire to go via the twin cities’ town centres.

“Finbo Cargo currently handles about 40 per cent of Eckerö Line’s cargo capacity between Helsinki and Tallinn,” says Eckerö Line’s Managing Director Taru Keronen. 

Taru Keronen Helsingin Länsiterminaalissa.
Taru Keronen at the Helsinki West Harbour.

She says that Finbo Cargo’s business has gotten off to a good start.

“Customers have been satisfied. Truck drivers are happy that the ports are located outside the city centre in both Helsinki and Tallinn. Muuga and Vuosaari are easily accessible by ring roads, and logistics centres are usually located on ring roads.” 

“The ship has also been praised for its pleasant atmosphere. Passengers get to experience old-fashioned boat travel during their voyage,” says

Keronen says that about ten per cent of the cargo transported by Eckerö could still be transferred to Finbo Cargo without causing profitability issues for Finlandia, which operates between the West Harbour and Tallinn.

Taru Keronen stresses that cargo income is a basic requisite for passenger traffic.

“Cargo is an integral part of the shipping business. It is not possible to profitably operate passenger traffic alone. It has been tried over the years, but with very poor results.”

A port serving all of Finland

The shelving of a project to create a feeder route through downtown Helsinki – in practice, a tunnel beneath the city centre – has led to discussion over whether all passenger ferry traffic should be transferred to Vuosaari or another port outside the city centre. Taru Keronen yearns for a little realism in this debate.

“We shouldn’t be overly afraid of not serving them ‘correctly’.”

“Vuosaari does not have the infrastructure for passenger traffic. You need to have your own vehicle to board the ship. The ships do take some private cars and buses in addition to heavy goods vehicles, but there is no access for foot passengers.” 

“Traffic could, of course, be weighted differently between ports. We’ve already made some progress in this area with Finbo Cargo. I’d love to challenge other shipping companies to transfer some of their cargo away from city-centre ports,” says Keronen.

Taru Keronen reminds us that all parts of the Port of Helsinki serve not only the capital city region but also the rest of Finland.

“The cargo that passes through the Port of Helsinki is important for the whole of the country and all of its inhabitants. The port is not just for Helsinki residents.”

Changing passenger profiles

Helsinki has become Europe’s largest passenger port, and this has meant a significant increase in the number of international ship passengers. Many Asians pop over to Tallinn by ferry from Helsinki. International tourists also generate considerable financial income for the Helsinki region.

“Helsinki enjoys annual income of about EUR 700 million from ship passengers. If passenger traffic were transferred out of the centre, this would also have a negative impact on city-centre shops, restaurants and cafés,” says Keronen. 

International cruise traffic in Helsinki has been growing year after year. However, the passenger numbers on ferry routes are of an even greater order of magnitude. Keronen says that international travellers’ itineraries often include Stockholm and Tallinn as well. 

“There are German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Asian tourists. Last summer, a surprising number of visitors also came from the United States. Travellers appreciate safety and security in an uncertain world.”

The largest change in passenger profiles in recent years has been the sharp increase in international passengers. The travel behaviour of Estonian passengers has also changed. Their purchasing power has increased significantly over the past 25 years. 

“Finnish customers have become younger. There’s now a generation of thirty-somethings who visit Tallinn for restaurants, concerts and design. This is a new phenomenon. “Fotografiska is the big hit in Tallinn right now,” says Keronen.

“We also have an established base of couples aged 40–55 who take hotel vacations, and naturally families with children during holiday periods. There are also plenty of concerts held in Tallinn that don’t make it over to Helsinki, and these are always reflected in our passenger numbers.” 

Customer service also takes Asian passengers into consideration. 

“In the summer, we had customer service agents who spoke Mandarin Chinese. Announcements are also given in Chinese when there are a lot of Chinese passengers on board. They can also use the mobile payment methods that they’re familiar with.” 

Keronen thinks that Asians also travel to experience new things. 

“We shouldn’t be overly afraid of not serving them ‘correctly’. Asians are interested in Finnish culture and food. We don’t need to smooth the way too much.” 

Good results through customer understanding

In recent years, Eckerö Line has succeeded in increasing its net sales and improving its profitability. Customer value has also improved. Per-passenger purchases and consumption have grown.

“We’ve invested heavily in food products. 80 per cent of our food is prepared onboard. We favour Finnish products and use a lot of organic and local produce. And our customers thank us for it,” says Taru Keronen.

M/S Finlandia is also a major entertainment centre. 

“Live music and artists still interest a particular target audience. We also make considerable investments in service quality, and are continually receiving praise for it. We do a lot of development work and listen very carefully to our customers.”

“We know our customers really well and listen to them very closely indeed.  Our personnel are also highly committed. We’re continually developing both our competence and our attitude.” 

Keronen gives the starting time of breakfast as an example of this. 

“Schedule changes meant that breakfast had to start later, and we received a lot of feedback about this. Customers felt there was less time for breakfast. We solved this when the ship was in the dry dock earlier this year. We built a second door for boarding, which also made it quicker to get to breakfast.”

“This may be only a minor practical example, but this is what we do – and our customers appreciate it. We’ve spent a long time working to develop our corporate culture: clarity in both the service process and personnel’s responsibilities, and the chance for personnel to act independently within the framework of the process. We also invest in routine management. In a service company, you can’t wave a magic wand and make everything succeed. There are so many small details that need to work seamlessly together. Good service of a consistently high standard is the result of long-term effort.” 

When it comes to passenger figures, Eckerö achieved roughly the same result as in 2018, which was a year of huge growth. The figures are not, however, fully comparable, as M/S Finlandia spent some time in the dry dock in early 2019. The current focus is on Finbo Cargo. 

“It usually takes two to three years to introduce a new ship and stabilise a route.”

Commuter traffic causes congestion even without ships

Traffic problems in central Helsinki have sparked off debate, particularly in the area surrounding the West Harbour in Jätkäsaari. However, Keronen says that traffic problems are not solely the result of vessel traffic. 

“Traffic problems will be experienced for about twenty minutes per ship, and will escalate on the Jätkasaari bridge. About five per cent of traffic on the Western Highway will be heading to or from the ship. The majority is commuter traffic, so that intersection would be a mess even without the port.” 

“There are a great many people living in the capital city region who need to get in and out of Helsinki on a daily basis. It’s difficult to get into the centre, and public transport does not work well enough. Vessel traffic is not the only reason for traffic jams in Helsinki.”

“There are 24 hours in the day and ships do not arrive non-stop. There are, of course, traffic jams at times, but downtown Helsinki is otherwise congested at certain times. The traffic here in Jätkäsaari is no worse than that.” 

Upcoming changes will ease traffic flow. At the beginning of 2020, all truck traffic will be diverted to Tyynenmerenkatu. Trucks will drive in and out of the port from the same point.

“This will hopefully bring some relief for residents. The trucks will now be following the route originally intended for them. I also support the West Link project, which will take transferring traffic away from the port to a whole new level. Trams will be given a dedicated route that won’t depend on other traffic,” says Keronen.