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%.”