Exactly one year ago this month, travel witnessed one of the most notable industry casualties of the pandemic.
On 21 July, Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) entered administration, affecting 50,000 passengers and destroying the livelihoods of 4,000 staff.
One year on, and its chief executive Christian Verhounig is back in the CEO seat, this time in charge of new line Ambassador Cruise Line – a UK-based venture launched by a group of cruise veterans promising “premium-value” ex-UK cruise experiences, and a commitment to working with the trade.
Ambassador’s first ship, Ambience, will sail from Tilbury in spring 2022 with a plan to extend sailings from additional regional ports including Liverpool and Newcastle in 2023.
Like CMV, Ambassador specialises in the over-50s market; offers ex-UK cruises; and even employs notable CMV names including Verhounig, Christopher Coates, now Ambassador’s chief commercial officer, Gary Hides, chief information officer, and Simon Weeks, chief financial officer. Meanwhile, CMV sales director Lisa Jacobs has been appointed to lead the sales team.
It is here, however, Verhounig insists the similarities with CMV end.
“We do have to consider this is a completely new start-up,” he says. “It’s completely new ownership and it’s a whole new roadmap going forward.
“This [the collapse of CMV] was not the reason for the owners starting up this line. The reason is that there is massive pent-up demand in the market for no-fly cruises sailing out of the UK.”
That may be, but it’s hard not to draw parallels with CMV – even Ambassador’s ship was formerly owned by the failed company.
Verhounig, however, is unconcerned. “It’s not about staying away or staying close [to the CMV brand],” he says.
“I’m sure we will appeal not only to previous cruisers of CMV and other companies, but also to a new group of people.”
He does understand though, that agents – and customers – may have concerns about financial security.
While Ambassador is not currently a member of Abta or Clia (although the line is in discussions with both), Verhounig insists the company has robust financial safeguards.
“We have protection in place in the form of independent trust accounts of all deposits and balance payments,” he explains. “We have topped this up with insurance so all customer and agency monies are safe and secure. The trust account only releases funds on departure, which means we are not using any client money to finance our ongoing operations.”
The line is “very much here for the long run,” says Verhounig. Which is partly why he says he so passionate about sustainability.
“We want to ensure our environmental footprint is reduced to the minimum. We have a very strong focus on sustainability and being ethical in the way we operate.”
This focus on sustainability includes reducing Ambience’s nitrogen and sulphur emissions and adding a new sewage water treatment system in order to reduce the ship’s environmental impact, while all single-use plastic will also be banned onboard.
“A lot of money is also going into new technology,” Verhounig says, with apps used to make the booking and boarding process easier, and the technology being developed “as we speak”.
And he dismisses concerns Ambassador’s over-50s audience might not be so keen to use technology.
“I think the past 15 months has changed many things,” he says. “I’m speaking with a lot of people on video conferences and I know my parents and even my grandparents got used to it [using technology].”
Elsewhere, Verhounig says Ambience is undergoing a huge refurbishment to “make her unique for Ambassador”.
This includes upgrades in the cabins and public and crew areas. He also stresses that while the ship can accommodate 2,000 passengers, guests will be limited to 1,400 “to give the ship a premium feel”.
“Premium value is what we try to offer. It’s a classic vessel; it’s not a block of flats… We won’t have bumper cars on the top deck because our clients are not looking for the gimmicks,” he smiles. “We will have some maritime traditions – you can dress up if you want to, but you don’t have to. And you can still have your gala night and your specialty restaurants.”
So what is it that will really make Ambassador Cruise Line unique?
“You will come onboard to a very friendly vessel,” Verhounig replies. “It’s a smaller ship, it’s traditional. There is a lot of enrichment and education and programming going on with guest lectures.”
Agents curious about the new line will be able to experience “the friendly vessel” in the flesh in Tilbury from next April, ahead of Ambience’s inaugural voyage.
Verhounig says the line is planning to use a total of 10 days before its maiden sailing to invite trade onboard, with Ambassador’s five-strong trade sales team already contacting agents to introduce the new line.
He admits he has aspirations to grow the line, with hopes to expand its sales team and even acquire additional ships.
“We have ambitious plans – we do want to become the leading premium-value cruise line, first in the UK, and then in other markets around the world. We are looking at opportunities for acquiring vessels.”
He adds, however, that the focus, at least in the short term, is very much on acquiring existing ships rather than commissioning new builds.
Elsewhere, Verhounig is also keen to keep growing the line’s staff footprint.
“We are looking to create 100 jobs in the UK for British nationals. We already have 45 shoreside, so we’ll be looking to create another 60.”
It’s a bold ambition given the pandemic’s tight grip on the travel industry, but Verhounig is confident: “Cruise is one of the most resilient industries. And that’s why we’re here today,” he smiles.
“Because we don’t see this changing going forward – we see it growing further.”