How do you follow the Queen of England? That was the question facing P&O Cruises president Paul Ludlow and his team ahead of the christening of the line’s newest, biggest and most environmentally friendly ship, Iona.
Their answer was to choose instead the queen (or dame) of travel, hero of the high street and much-loved boss of the UK’s largest independent travel agency, Irene Hays. A choice that Ludlow says “just felt perfect”.
We meet a week after the ceremony, and Ludlow is still buzzing from the christening of Iona on 16 May. The ceremony may have been largely virtual, but with a performance by Gary Barlow and DJ Jo Whiley as compere, it still reached more than 20 million people across social media.
“We were in every major newspaper and on every major news network, from Sky News to the BBC. Of course, I think Gary Barlow helped,” Ludlow laughs. “But we beat all of the records and statistics we generated for Britannia, who was named by the Queen.”
The launch of Iona was noteworthy for many reasons, not least because it was the first significant cruise event to take place since sailings were halted across the board more than a year ago. And just days after Iona’s christening, MSC officially marked the return to UK cruising with the maiden sailing of its own newest ship, Virtuosa.
Ludlow is complimentary about his competitor, attributing the strong sales witnessed by P&O in recent weeks for its UK summer sailings in part to MSC’s resumption of cruising.
“We’ve seen a real pick-up in pace since Iona’s naming and, to credit MSC, since they’ve started sailing again,” he says. So what will cruising look like onboard P&O ships this summer?
The answer, Ludlow admits, is still largely unknown, including whether customers will have to wear face masks while walking around the ships.
“If we were travelling right now, we’d follow whatever the guidelines are but we’re not resuming sailing until the end of June so we’ve got some time to re-evaluate where we’re at, depending on what the government says on 14 June.”
Ludlow also says he has no regrets about waiting to resume sailings a month and a half after his competitor, insisting: “It was never our policy to be the first line back. We always wanted to be considered in our restart. It’s been a difficult 14 months – when you restart cruise operations, you commit to costs a long time out, and you need a degree of certainty in your planning.”
P&O and MSC are, of course, not the only lines returning to cruising this summer. A good many will visit UK shores, all looking to capitalise on government-permitted “seacations”. So could these brands pose a threat to the company that likes to brand itself “Britain’s favourite cruise line”?
“We were actually looking at the number of passengers that need to be acquired by all of the cruise lines sailing in the UK this summer, and that’s nearly 300,000 people,” Ludlow replies.
“Our sales are good, so that shows us either that the entire sector is doing well or we’re out-performing the sector. I don’t know how booked out our competitors are, but there’s 300,000 people who may not have gone on a cruise if we were in a different situation. And if a large number of these come back, that’s a massive shot in the arm for this industry.”
And like other lines, P&O has seen a huge number of new-to-cruise customers booking for this summer. Ludlow admits he’s surprised. “When we put our staycations on, we honestly thought it would be our heartland, our five-time-plus customers, who would be rushing to book,” he says. “But on some sailings newcomers are representing 60% [of total passengers], where ordinarily that figure would be about 40%.”
THE INTERNATIONAL QUESTION
Of course, the big question facing many cruise lines is what happens after this summer.
The government remains tight-lipped on when international cruising will resume, but Ludlow is optimistic P&O’s international itineraries will be sailing by autumn, possibly as early as September.
“The government was very supportive for our phase-one return. We’re now figuring out with them what international travel looks like for phase two onwards – we’re working through a process with them right now to demonstrate cruising is safe.”
In the meantime, like others, P&O is focusing on this summer. I ask whether Ludlow is concerned by confusion caused by each cruise line’s unique Covid policies. While MSC insists customers provide only a negative test, other cruise lines, including P&O, are only accepting passengers if they have received both doses of a Covid vaccination.
Would it not, perhaps, be easier to have a universal policy, decided in agreement with Clia?
“Clia is not there to mandate policy to cruise lines,” Ludlow explains. “It’s not in the interest of any line for there to be an incident. I’m confident all cruise lines are going to do a phenomenal job this summer, and It will demonstrate to the world, the government, and current and future guests that cruising is safe.”
Ludlow is also firm about P&O’s own policy of insisting guests receive both doses of the vaccination, despite this effectively ruling out the family market onboard its ships this summer, although he hints the policy may change by autumn.
“It was overwhelming the number of guests who said to us they would prefer to sail with [fully] vaccinated travellers. That will remain our policy until the end of September; we haven’t yet announced the longer term policy.”
THE FUTURE OF AGENTS
One silver lining of the confusion surrounding cruise line protocols is that travel agents will be more vital than ever to the cruise booking process, helping customers navigate the different requirements of each line.
Ludlow is passionate in his insistence that agents remain crucial to P&O’s success, and recognises the “rollercoaster journey” the last 14 months has been for the trade.
“There have been agent closures… and I think that’s just meant that those agents still around are even more important for this industry,” he says.
“We always had this challenge to appeal to newcomers as this sector grew rapidly but we’ve now also got a challenge where people will need clarity around where cruise lines are right now, versus some of the terrible headlines we saw 14 months ago. We’ve always valued travel agent partners, but now more so than ever.”
Which brings us back to the choice of godmother for P&O’s newest ship.
Ludlow says choosing Hays Travel chair Irene Hays was not just a recognition of the incredible work by her and late husband John in saving thousands of Thomas Cook jobs, but also a nod of gratitude to the wider travel agent community.
“Yes, Irene represents Hays, but she represents the agent community at large,” Ludlow says. “This christening was a reflection of how we’ve pulled together as an industry. We’ve supported travel agents, and together we’ve pulled each other through,” he adds. “There will be brighter times ahead.”