With new ships coming and client confidence growing, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines boss Peter Deer tells Tom Parry why the tide could soon be turning for the line and the industry.
Following a recent wave of varying opinions from government ministers over when (or even if) Brits should be booking holidays this year, you’d forgive any cruise boss for being frustrated.
But despite the storm of sound bites, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines managing director Peter Deer is upbeat and believes a sea change may soon be on its way.
“There has been quite a lot of negativity by ministers but I think that’s starting to change,” he tells TTG, a week after the government unveiled its Covid roadmap – promising to lift restrictions based on “data not dates”.
Deer is supportive of the “more structured” approach laid out by the government as well as Westminster’s cooperation with the cruise sector, and the industry itself pulling together during the crisis, which he says has helped ministers to “believe in our plans because we’re all on the same page”.
He holds hopes of a July return to sailing should UK Covid figures continue to decline, and Fred Olsen customers seemingly share his optimism. [Deer was speaking to TTG before the DfT confirmed a 17 May restart for domestic cruising].
“People are believing there’s a good chance of getting sailing either this summer or later this year and they’re booking on the back of it.”
In the week following the PM’s announcement outlining the post-Covid roadmap, Fred Olsen saw sales “improve significantly”, with around a 40% week-on-week boost and new bookings coming in for the summer.
Deer says “by far the majority” of customers are opting to reschedule rather than request a refund, while those traditionally booking cheaper cruises have decided to upgrade to longer voyages or higher-value cabins.
This turning tide bodes well for a line that boosted its capacity in September after acquiring Holland America Line’s Amsterdam and Rotterdam – set to soon be launched as Bolette and Borealis.
And it feels to TTG as if the new ships have helped re-energise the business after a difficult chapter in its history.
The line cut a third of its Ipswich-based head office team in August, having to say goodbye to many long-serving and loyal staff. Deer, who first joined Fred Olsen in 1993, took over as managing director in August 2019 and has spent much of his time at the helm battling with the impact of Covid.
He says the restructure was a “challenging and emotional period” across the company. “We had to do it and become leaner to get us through,” he adds, describing how a handful of employees have already been able to rejoin as business improves.
NEW ITINERARIES AND INNOVATIONS
Borealis and Bolette are a major focus for Fred Olsen’s team, with the vessels looking to provide the line’s familiarity but also innovations.
“There are some lovely concepts being put together right now,” Deer reveals excitedly. Among them are new dining venues – Goan and Asian fusion restaurants – and another, Forrest Estate, offering “home-cooked Scottish food” and paying homage to the Galloway estate of line owners the Olsen family.
Dining times will also become more flexible based on customer feedback, while another new experience concept will bring the ship’s onboard community together “in a different way than in the past, rather than the formal dining setting”.
Further new horizons come via Fred Olsen’s 2022/23 programme, launched on 15 March, offering 126 new cruises across 82 countries.
As Borealis and Bolette are slightly faster ships than their predecessors Boudicca and Black Watch, the line can travel further during shorter itineraries, with extra five- and seven-night cruises of the UK, Northern Europe and Scandinavia added.
A new itinerary, which Deer believes is a first for the industry, is Fred Olsen’s 80-day world cruise retracing the classic literary journey of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg.
When Fred Olsen’s ships are given the green light to sail, what else may be different?
Some lines say they will only accept guests who have been fully vaccinated, with Saga the most notable brand in the UK to announce the move as yet. Deer says such a policy has been under discussion at Fred Olsen since December and it’s one he’s clearly thought about in detail.
Although the line currently has “no intentions” to introduce it, he says the team will “watch the data and listen to our experts”.
“We’re considering our options but it’s part of a multi-layered approach… we shouldn’t just rely on [a vaccine] as a one-horse road.” He believes “a combination of protocols” should be used to mitigate any future changes to the virus or vaccine.
“The vaccine might work today but might not work in three months’ time. What would worry me a little bit to make it [vaccination] mandatory at this stage is not everyone knows when they’ll get vaccinated,” considers Deer, adding how multi-generational groups sailing with the line could be impacted.
He is also conscious that as government policy changes to adapt to travelling post-Covid, new regulations or even developments by insurance providers may take the decision out of cruise companies’ hands altogether.
“I could see insurance companies taking quite a line on this at some point and therefore it won’t be in our hands because perhaps to go on a holiday or go on a cruise you would have to be vaccinated to be insured.”
Although it seems whatever challenges the coming months may bring, Deer is positive and hopeful the industry and Fred Olsen will benefit.
“I believe consumers will see cruise in the longer term as a safer way to holiday. They’ll realise how safe and well regulated it is and more people will try cruise for the first time,” he says.
“Our team have worked day and night and can be really proud of the effort they put in – they’ve really put us on a path for a much better future.”