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Staying on track - Eurostar Group’s digital transformation success during Eurostar-Thalys merger

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood June 10, 2024
New Eurostar-Thalys combined company - Eurostar Group - says use of Contentsquare was a big part of successful single website and booking app rollout

An image of the Eurostar Group app
(Image sourced via Eurostar Group)

The successful October 2023 launch of a new combined Western European high-speed rail service provider - Eurostar Group - was made possible by a major back office, web and mobile app digital transformation project.

Called Delta, this project involved extensive use of both tech partner consultancy and agile development methodology - but was so big that planners had to fall back in some cases on older project management approaches, says the project’s leader, Laurent Bellan.

He says:

Our new website is a proof point that we are a fully merged company that operates across, not just in the UK, but also across continental Europe.

And technology was the precondition for that - there is no way we could have done this without it.

Speeding to a greener European rail future

Bellan works for Eurostar Group - the new holding company running what were previously the Eurostar and Thalys rail systems.

Famously, Eurostar had been the main operator of London to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam services through the Channel Tunnel.

Based out of Brussels, the former Thalys had been running high-speed routes between France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. Both organizations were majority-owned by the main French state-run rail brand, SNCF. In 2019, SNCF proposed their merger to the European Commission. The idea: create a new, enlarged single high-speed rail company.

Under the banner of ‘Green Speed,’ this pre-pandemic idea was centered on making rail-based travel an attractive alternative to flying.

COVID- 19 led to a pause on such hopes - but delayed completion of the merger in late 2023 has sparked hopes of a better future for both entities, which faced huge financial problems due to the collapse in travel during the pandemic.

In any case, the original Green Speed aim of the new Eurostar Group carrying 30 million annual passengers by 2030 has been revived. The offer here is that 13 Eurostar journeys is the carbon footprint equivalent of a single flight by plane. Getting to 30 million, though, is a steep rise from today’s 19 million yearly users of both networks.

Which is why, says Bellan - now Chief Technology & Process Optimization Officer of the combined Eurostar Group - getting Delta to work was such an important step.

One website to rule all our new train systems

To make the merger work, both a new brand identity, but also combined systems, had to be created.

For example, the combined company operates under the Eurostar brand partly because of name recognition, its CEO has said, as over 50% of US travelers planning a European trip involving rail by default go to the Eurostar website.

That meant, he says, that bringing together all customer-facing channels into a new center was a priority.

A new combined website, app, and frequent passenger loyalty program was needed. 

The latter was a significant asset, as existing the Eurostar and MyThalysWorld  loyalty programs had a combined enrolment of over 2.7 million, so their projected successor, Club Eurostar, had to be attractive from the start, Bellan says.

Ticketing would also have to be streamlined, as one of the promises of the entire move was to make it easier for passengers to book journeys and make transfers with one ticket purchase across the entire network.

Allied to that would be work to support after-sales, he says - but beyond customer-facing integration, the new Eurostar-Thalys would also need to support all the back-office scheduling and management of its rail and track inventory.

The good news is that Delta came through, and all project aims have been met.

To do so meant extensive pre-project planning, the commitment of 200 staff, and use of a wide range of technology including the Jira project planning tool from Atlassian. Work also had to be performed to integrate and extend the combined company’s contact center and cloud telephony systems.  On the customer-facing part of the program, AI-powered digital experience software from Contentsquare played a significant role.

The aim: create one seamless user experience across the new unified Eurostar platform.

To understand existing frustrations with its online portals and how to fix them, Bellan says 5000 user testing sessions were conducted. Very early on, poor page loading speed and a need to optimize content were identified as priorities. The vendor started with the extensive optimizing of over 1200 URLs for better search engine ranking.

That high number of websites included multiple local-language (French, German, Dutch, etc) Eurostar and Thalys properties, he explains.

Next, new branding and brand imagery for the website and mobile app, as well as UX redesign and new features to optimize the customer journey, such as a new widget for hotel and taxi booking, were delivered.

As a result, the new combined site is faster.

The website’s Customer Effort Score - a metric that reflects how easy or not it is for a visitor to resolve a problem on a website visit - has also been boosted by three points, from 80 to 83. Accessibility was also radically improved, with a claimed 95% reduction in such errors from September 2022 to March 2023.

Ballan says that website conversion rate has also increased from 4.6% to 5%, and Eurostar app downloads are also steadily climbing, to over 5,000 now per day.

He says:

It took 18 months, but we achieved what we set out to achieve.

This has been one of the rare projects in my career where we were on time, on schedule, and on budget. I mean, my CEO couldn't believe it.

A way to work with partners

Bellan stresses that, while critical to Delta’s overall success, the use of systems like Contentsquare are only part of a bigger digital transformation picture.

Getting that right, he says, was much more a planning story than a software story.

He adds:

Before we formally started the project, we did many framing projects and business discussions on what all this was going to mean and its scope.

Initially, neither Eurostar nor Thalys business teams knew each other, for example, but they needed to come together to check that the Thalys inventory would actually work with the former’s.

He says:

That meant there had to be lots of planning and lots of discussion on preparing the change and a lot of alignment to ensure that the customer experience would be as smooth as possible.

Of course, many of the details we had to figure out during the project, but the framing helped us a lot to get it right.

Bellan also says that while deeply committed to agile, it was not enough for everything Delta needed.

He says,

We had significant development to do in two areas. One, like I said, was loyalty, because we had to move to a new technical platform common to both companies, but with different calculations for points and different levels for the customers. We also wanted to make Salesforce our sole sales and after-sales solution, which also meant significant development.

That meant we needed to work with two external partners, and across countries and across internal and external teams. And a lesson we learned, and even applied in a project we did after Delta, is that when you work with partners you can't be completely agile and product oriented, et cetera - you have to come up with a requirements document and they do some development, and then you do some testing and then you test all the integration.

It's not easy to combine a highly agile team and traditional project management methodology, and it became much more waterfall; yes, there’s a little bit of sprint’s going on in the development phase but the whole project lifecycle had to be more traditional and mixing the two created significant tensions.

However, Bellan says workarounds were established that enabled a successful fusion of longer-term planning and the speed of agile deployment.

It’s this combination, he says, that was key to getting Delta to its destination - and which will enable a host of new booking and refund services to go live in the next upgrade to the website and app in November.

Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica partner at time of writing.

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