Cosmos boss Giles Hawke discusses his career with Sophie Griffiths, and explains why he feels Britain leaving the EU is one of the biggest threats facing travel.
“I’ve never been political”, grins (arguably) travel’s most vocal political pundit.
Giles Hawke’s Twitter followers would likely beg to differ. As his “pro-Europe, not unicorns” emoji-filled Twitter handle suggests, Hawke is not a fan of the B-word.
We’re sat on a sunny terrace near London’s South Bank. It’s mid-summer. Boris Johnson has not yet shocked the UK with his decision to suspend parliament but the Cosmos and Avalon Waterways chief executive believes Brexit – deal or no deal – is one of the greatest threats facing the travel industry.
Hawke has a personal reason for his support of the EU. “I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had without that freedom of movement; that freedom of being able to work somewhere else,” he says simply. “I’ve lived and worked in France for a big chunk of my career, I worked in Austria, I even studied in France for part of my degree.”
I can’t help but ask if this (as Nigel Farage and co might suggest) is a classic case of the EU benefiting the metropolitan elite. Hawke laughs.
“I grew up on an estate in an ex-council house, single-parent family on free school meals.
“I wasn’t born into any kind of privilege, but I had an opportunity through education, which anyone can get, to apply for a European Study Grant to study in another country.”
It was this that ultimately shaped Hawke’s career. His time in France led to a love of travel, and the day after he completed his final exam for his French and business studies degree at Lancashire polytechnic, Hawke jumped on a plane to Chamonix where he spent the following five months working as a night porter.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do, I just wanted to do something practical,” he explains.
He returned to France a year later on a family skiing holiday – only his second time skiing – where, after watching a ski rep, he decided “that looks like fun”.
“I reckoned I could do a better job than him,” he says. Hawke applied for a job and interviewed at Crystal Ski, where he laughingly admits to telling a whopper. “I lied and said I’d done 10 weeks’ skiing. I thought: ‘Sure, I can get down a hill’.”
Luckily for Hawke, his fib worked. He was offered a placement as a resort rep at Les Deux Alpes. “I thought: ‘I’ll do a fun season, and then I’ll work out what I want to do with my life’.”
Instead, Hawke fell in love with the seasonal life and ended up working ski seasons in France for eight winters (the summers were spent in Austria as a lakes and mountains resort rep and later, back in the UK, in recruitment for Crystal).
Hawke continued to climb the career ladder, eventually becoming the operator’s general manager for France and Switzerland.
During this time he also met his now wife, after interviewing her for a rep role when he was contracts manager. They have been married for 17 years. “I think everyone should interview their partner,” he grins.
In 2001, Hawke returned to the UK and joined tour operator High Life Breaks – later bought by Super Break – where he stayed for a year before being approached about a job as head of sales at P&O Cruises, Princess and Ocean Village.
“I’d never cruised before – I don’t think I’d ever even seen a cruise ship let alone been on one,” he says.
At the time, most British consumers felt the same. But unbeknown to Hawke, cruising was about to experience a boom. “I wasn’t aware of the scale of growth that was to come,” he admits. “I just thought the job looked appealing.”
Hawke looks back on his 11 years in the role with fondness. Ocean Village was gearing up to launch – “the strapline was ‘the cruise for people that don’t do cruises’ – and agents loved it” says Hawke, “as did everyone who worked in the business”.
Alas, Ocean Village faced competition from its new sister line Carnival Cruise Line (Carnival bought P&O Cruises, Princess and Ocean Village within six months of Hawke joining) and despite its success the decision was taken that more money could be made elsewhere. The brand was closed in 2008.
“I was sad,” Hawke reflects. “Everyone who worked on the line was. We had invested a huge amount of time, energy and passion in it. But it was a business decision.”
Instead, Hawke focused on the three core brands of P&O, Princess and Cunard, which continued to grow as Brits’ appetite for cruising increased. Something else was also growing in parallel to this, though – discounting.
“I know what you’re going to ask,” Hawke cuts in with a wry smile. “And I stand by it. It was the right thing to do in that business, at that time.”
He is talking of the now infamous commission cuts of 2011, which saw Carnival hit back against “the big boys” that used their commission to undercut smaller competing agents. Hawke introduced swingeing cuts, slashing commission on P&O, Princess and Cunard cruises to 5% – a move that sent shockwaves through the industry, and prompted several other lines to follow suit.
“The big boys were just giving their commission away. We kept hearing from smaller agents they couldn’t afford to sell P&O as they couldn’t compete. Something had to change,” he insists.
“With hindsight, maybe we put the commission down too low,” he admits. “But the model was broken and we had to fix it. And there were some agents that said privately they liked it.”
Hawke is quick to reassure he wouldn’t implement such a move in his current role. “Would I do it where I am now? Absolutely not, because we haven’t got agents giving away to the customer a big chunk of what we’re giving them, in order to secure the booking.”
Hawke also points out since he left Carnival in 2013 he increased agent commission at both MSC Cruises – where he was UK managing director for three years – as well as Cosmos and Avalon, which he joined as chief executive in 2016.
He confesses this latter role as boss of a river line left him eating his words with the Clia committee. “I remember [when I was at MSC] saying to Andy Harmer [then Clia director] we were spending a lot of time on river cruising, and that we needed to focus more on ocean. Now that’s come back to bite me,” he chuckles.
Three years in as chief executive of the river line and touring company, though, Hawke is relishing his role, and heads up the sustainability work at parent company Globus. It’s Hawke’s way of tackling what he believes is the second-biggest threat to the travel industry.
“I think climate change and sustainability will have a major impact on what we do [as a sector] over the next 10 to 15 years,” he says, and he is proud of the changes the business has already made.
This includes removing bottled water from its coaches across the world; plans to use filtered water on Avalon’s Mekong and European ships; a determination to “get rid of paper [documentation] completely”; and the installation of solar panels in offices owned by the group.
“The UK has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050 but things will have to change fairly fast to get there,” Hawke points out. He is passionate about Cosmos being part of that change, and he’s not afraid to think big.
“What are the things we should be thinking about in our business in 10 to 20 years’ time? In 30 years, can we have all our river ships fully electric? How do we make that happen? I can foresee river cruise lines working together to buy land to have that renewable energy to enable ships to plug into points shoreside.”
And where does Hawke see himself in 10 years? “Well, I’m 50 this year, so hopefully driving round Europe in a camper van,” he grins.
As for the industry, he believes that will also look “drastically different” in a decade. “Aside from family and work, there are two things that I spend my time worrying about,” Hawke confesses. “The state of the world and climate change, and Brexit.”
I ask why he is so passionate – and vocal – about Brexit. “No Brexiteer can give me a good reason why they’re affecting my children’s future,” he states bluntly.
“I just can’t see what the negatives are of being part of this greater cause and working together. This is my small way of protesting against something which I see as so grossly wrong, unfair and irresponsible. When my kids say to me in 10 years’ time: ‘Daddy, what did you do to try to stop this,’ at least I can say: ‘I did this’.”