diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 10, 2014

So what's been going on with the cablecar since we last spoke. Quite a lot, actually, mostly to increase marketing, branding and commercialisation. Three things...

1) Upselling

Time was when the most important Dangleway fare was how much it cost to travel from one side of the Thames to the other. Not any more. The single fare now appears right at the bottom of the list below five other options, all of which are returns, and most of which promise something else into the bargain.

Top of the pile is the Full Experience plus River Package, which I blogged about a couple of months ago. This permits a trip (or trips) on a Thames Clipper, a look round the sponsored Emirates exhibition on the south bank and a return trip on the cablecar. Viewed one way this is a saving of about £4 on the total price of each bought separately. Viewed another way, it's up to five times more expensive than a simple ride on the cablecar, which is probably what most tourists come here to do. I do wonder how many foreign visitors are tempted to buy the top option without thinking, perhaps not understanding precisely what it involves, nor that they'll need to make multiple riverboat journeys to get their money back. Indeed, what's the point of buying a Thames Clipper return ticket back to North Greenwich when most tourists will have travelled out here from Central London already? But it must be selling, because this combined offer was officially due to expire at the end of August, and now appears to be the lynchpin of the cablecar's marketing operation.

The next option on the board is something else visitors don't really need, but is being sold to them anyway. The Full Experience combines a return trip across the river with a spin round the Emirates exhibition, which is essentially a room full of advertising material. Reading the smallprint you'll discover that the return trip is non-stop, i.e. you'll be getting off on the same side you embarked with no opportunity of visiting the opposite bank. They can't really mean that, can they, else those buying a Full Experience ticket on the Royal Docks side would never get to the exhibition? Note that there's a special "Discount Adult" price, which you might assume was only for the over 60s but is actually for anyone with Oyster... so don't buy the £10 ticket, Londoners! And only at the bottom of the price list do you finally come across the austerity option, the non-pimped-up single trip, the up-and-over ride. With TfL now upselling its expensive add-ons in preference, there's no longer any pretence that the cablecar is for commuters.

2) The Feature Tour

Previously, when you rode the cablecar, you did it in silence. That's assuming you hadn't been shoehorned into your cabin with a jabbering family, or taken some particularly noisy children with you. But the silence option has now been superseded, as you'll discover a few seconds after stepping inside your pod and preparing to take off. "Welcome to your southbound journey on the Emirates Airline", goes the script, and hey presto you're in for an eight minute travelogue as you cross. You might be expecting "...and on your right you can see..." but it's not quite like that, more an East London regeneration documentary. Heading south the first point of interest is the Olympic Park, which merits a minute of audiovisual bluster out loud and on the in-car screen. It was when an athlete chirped up and described the Games in 2012 as one of the most amazing moments in his life that I started to despair and wished I'd brought earplugs. I can watch this kind of stuff on YouTube, I don't need it on public transport.

A banker popped up to explain about the importance of London's financial quarter, and then a boatman gave his thoughts from down the estuary in Purfleet. Halfway through the presentation a thinly veiled advert for the Thames Clippers riverboat service kicked in, conveniently located "just five minutes from the southern terminal", and then of course sponsors Emirates got their airtime too. And near the end of the video I was subjected to a full description of The Line, a most worthy sculptural project coming soon down the Greenwich Meridian, but absolutely not something I want to hear about while high in the sky above London. Riding the cablecar as a tourist ought to be about spotting stuff and taking in the view, because when else do you get the chance to be 90 metres above the Thames in a glass capsule? Instead the Feature Tour distracts from what's outside the window, in a persistent "Look at me! Look at me!" manner, so you waste your time looking at pixels on a display screen rather than the rooftops of London.

The cablecar's regular commuters will be glad to hear that the Feature Tour is switched off during peak hours. That's not out of kindness, it's because the video is too long for the speeded-up five minute crossing. But the best news is that if you ask the staff at the embarkation point they can turn the Feature Tour off. One pressed button and the screen in your cabin will be muted, and a series of slides and maps played out instead. Just don't leave it too late, because once those doors close and the commentary begins, there is no escape.

3) The app

Yes, I'm afraid so, there's now an official cablecar app. It's designed to be used while you're aboard, indeed it's heavily promoted just before you get on, so it's best to download the app before you arrive. Better still, don't download it at all, not unless you're a smartphone addict with a limited attention span who never wanted a ride in the air anyway.

There are only four options on the app's main menu, one of which lists the opening times and warns that "temporary disruption due to weather" may occur. The programming's not clever enough to display the cablecar's current status, nor even to link to the correct page on the TfL website, but instead advises you to ring an 0343 telephone number to hear a recorded message. Another homescreen option tells you how to get to the cablecar, including an invite to "Tap to view Tube Map", except this takes you through to the TfL website where the Tube Map doesn't actually show the cablecar. And a third menu button lists some of the attractions you might be able to see from the air, or perhaps visit after your flight. Surprise surprise the Emirates Aviation Experience and Thames Clippers are top, because this is the influence that sponsorship gets you, followed by a list which includes an eclectic set of places to visit - from the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park (half a mile distant) to Wembley Stadium (a 20 mile trek).

But the main point of the app is to allow you to "Check-in" and play an interactive game during your ride. Be warned that you can't check in elsewhere, even a few hundred yards from the terminal, the GPS won't allow it. Once aloft the idea is that you point your smartphone towards the horizon, allow the camera function to kick in, and try to spot 25 different attractions. These pop up in a short list down one side of the screen, according to the direction you're pointing in, and then you tick them off one by one as you spot them. In fact you don't need to spot them in real life, you just have tick them off, ideally as quickly as you can because there are 25 to get through in eight minutes. Play to win and you won't have time to read the accompanying text, or indeed enjoy the view, merely flailing around in all directions to see if you can collect the full set. Most of the attractions are genuine but alas one is is an Emirates A380, a promotional plane which appears in animation only, while another is a time-travelling mammal which can only be 'seen' by looking down.

And all the time you're being urged, by a menu option in the corner of your screen, to take a #MyEmiratesView selfie. This is just like a normal selfie, but with the Emirates Airline logo stamped in the corner, because the app's designers really hope you'll be compliant enough to download a promotional photo to your Facebook or Twitter timeline. Meanwhile back at the so-called game, expect to be awarded a score out of 25 at the end of your trip, although with no clues as to which of the attractions you found and which you missed. And then perhaps you'll reflect that you just spent several pounds to ride high across the Thames but were so preoccupied that you failed to look at anything properly along the way, and what a total waste of an opportunity that was.

TfL appear intent on adding extra trinkets to cablecar journeys in an attempt to make the sale of tickets more attractive to punters. Instead they're contaminating the experience with noise, digital frippery and additional advertising, as if somebody's allowed the marketing department to run riot. It's a bloody cablecar for heaven's sake, it ought to be exciting enough all by itself.

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