“Agents will be critical to the cruise sector’s return – we won’t do it without them,” Ben Bouldin, the newly appointed chair of Clia UK and Ireland and Royal Caribbean vice-president EMEA, tells TTG confidently.
“There are too many protocols and requirements, too many changes and nuances, and too much adversity in the world right now for us not to need those complexities explained clearly by an agent,” he says.
Meeting over Zoom the day after it was announced he would be taking up the role of chair, and speaking alongside Clia UK and Ireland director Andy Harmer, Bouldin describes the new position as “a real honour”, having only joined the travel sector eight years ago.
His ringing endorsement of agents’ resilience and expertise is fitting, given the obstacles navigated by those in the UK cruise sector in recent weeks.
An eleventh-hour ban on ship calls by the Scottish government and an extension of capacity limits after the 21 June “Freedom Day” postponement, which could potentially run for much of July, brings Bouldin to agree the latest twists present a “tricky” start to the UK’s first summer “seacation” season, although he offers a measured outlook.
“For sure, it’s tricky – but the past year has been very tricky,” he says. “We know not to take anything for granted and be pragmatic about the situation we’re in.
“When the country had to slow down its exit from restrictions, we understood and recognised it was likely, and probably before we were told we could have guessed the 1,000-passenger cap would remain in place.”
“Active discussions” are taking place with the Department for Transport over whether the current guest capacity restriction “is at the right level”, Bouldin explains, while he says talks are also ongoing with Scottish authorities, adding: “I’m sure there’ll be some movement shortly.”
Such hurdles are things he and Harmer appreciate will continue to occupy the association’s focus and that of its more than 50 member lines in the coming weeks and months.
“As we all adjust to these new regulations, new surroundings and situations, there will be bumps along the way,” says Harmer. “But being at the table to explain to government the challenges we would face is really important.”
It seems Clia’s changing of the guard has come at an apt time as the sector looks to ease its way past simply returning – we’re speaking just over a month after domestic cruising in England restarted – to thriving once more.
Both Harmer and Bouldin are highly complimentary of former chair, Princess Cruises UK and Europe vice-president Tony Roberts, who held the position for an extra year to help guide the association through the onset of the Covid crisis.
With lines once again sailing, Bouldin has both consolidation and advancement in mind. “I’m following someone who has done a phenomenal job in Tony Roberts. I’ve got nothing to fix and only things to try to improve and to build upon what’s been laid already,” he says.
Harmer echoes Bouldin’s praise. “Tony did an amazing job for three years – we were delighted he stayed in role for the past 12 months. Ben comes with different views, from a different organisation and with a different skillset,” he says.
“I think it’ll help us move forward to confront new challenges.” Bouldin adds: “It’s a two-year term – I think we have to recognise the next 12 months are going to all be about return to service and then it will be about taking the [cruise] agenda on again.”
A major milestone being worked towards is the return to international cruising, with the pair determined to see cruise lines “treated equally” when it comes to Westminster’s travel policy.
“We don’t want special treatment, just the same as any part of international travel,” says Bouldin. “We all hope international travel can properly resume at some point this year and we want to be part of that – if that comes in July, August or September, that would be fantastic.”
“We’ve come a long way in the past 15 months,” says Harmer, adding optimistically: “And there’s still some way to go, but we’re sure that we can get there.”
IMPORTANCE OF AGENTS
Being able to cruise once again beyond UK shores is a vital step to recovery for lines and agent partners. Bouldin stresses that, as soon as the green light is given, “the sooner we can all have more ships available for our guests and the sooner we can have a nice pool of holidays for agents to start selling confidently”.
“Consumer confidence will build and then hopefully we can get our great industry back on an even keel,” he says.
Agents, he reiterates, will be “fundamental” to that recovery in the UK, so much so he warns the challenge for lines will be “giving them enough product so they can make some money this year and as we move into next year”.
It’s clear the industry’s continued return to service, coupled with his new role, has given Bouldin added impetus and he’s excited to be looking at how agents can be best served.
“We have a real opportunity to reappraise what the trade needs,” he says. “I’ve got lots of big ideas around what I’d like to amp up and build on to take a big step forward in 2022.
“Hopefully we’ll be in a position to really celebrate our return and our trade partners and put them at the forefront.”