The cruise industry will have to work hard to dispel consumer safety concerns, leading retailers have predicted.
Speaking during the latest Agent Matters panel, hosted by TTG group editor Pippa Jacks, Mary McKenna, managing director of Dublin-based Tour America and Cruise Holidays, said the sector had “really taken a bashing” amid the coronavirus pandemic, due to widespread media coverage of the challenges faced by several lines.
“The perception you could be stuck on a ship somewhere and not get into dock is horrific for customers, so that is going to take a long time to get over,” she said.
“It’s the best holiday ever, but really I don’t see it coming back until 2021.”
Paul Hardwick, head of commercial at Fred Olsen Travel, said the agency was “quite happy” with a 60- 65% cruise rebooking rate across its 14 branches, aided by lines’ “generous” future cruise credits, but agreed the bounceback could take some time.
“I’m hopeful we might see some of it come back at some point this year, but I do agree with Mary, the majority of bookings are going to be for 2021 now, and I think most operators are almost conceding to that at the moment. 2020 is going to be really hard to sell a cruise package.”
Edwina Lonsdale, managing director at Mundy Cruising, said her clients had fallen into “two different camps” when it came to consumer confidence.
“Some people are saying ‘no that’s it – never again’, while others are saying ‘just get me a ship and I’ll book on whatever is there as soon as it’s available’.”
Lonsdale also predicted small-ship cruising, river and expedition could recover quicker than traditional ocean.
“You’re much more able to keep a distance on a small ship, and big ships can feel quite crowded sometimes, so that could be an area of concern for some people.
“We may well have a bit of river business still in 2020 and expedition; we’ve got exciting new ships coming and the future looks rosy for those products, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
Hardwick called on ocean lines to take “positive action” to reassure consumers around safety once the sector begins to operate again, and use onboard technology to enhance procedures.
“With the right coverage and the technology these ships have got in place now, it should be pretty easy to work out who’s on there, whether they have had any sort of ailments, and [a cruise ship] could actually be seen as a safer place to go than a land destination where you don’t know who the people are around you.”
McKenna said lines would need to be “very careful” when deciding on future pricing structures.
“Consumers are very savvy, they know if a price has shot up. We need to nbe fair to them and get confidence back in the market."
Lonsdale warned against “post-9/11 deep discounting”, suggesting lines should look to control capacity rather than drop prices.
The panel agreed that clear communication with clients is key.
Hardwick said Fred Olsen Travel was “trying to just be honest with consumers”, with weekly video updates, while McKenna hoped her team’s engagement with the public on Facebook would help it curry favour for the future. “I’m hoping consumers remember we cared.”
Lonsdale said Mundy’s customer messaging approach to “engage and entertain” had seen higher email open rates and response rates than ever before.
Looking ahead, Hardwick said Fred Olsen Travel was taking it “month by month”, with about two-thirds of staff on furlough for April, and would assess whether to increase or decrease that during May.
“We’re taking it slow and steady – not panicking – but want to be as proactive as we can to make sure we’re doing all we can to protect our business and employees,” he added.
McKenna said her business was “in good shape”, but admitted “this is going to hurt big time”, while Lonsdale said despite the challenge ahead Mundy had “very prudent cash reserves” and “was safe and able to move forward”.
She predicted the landscape of cruise retail could change postpandemic.
“There’s nothing to say the companies that got themselves in a position to be huge in the market before this are the ones who will be able to retrieve their business as quickly as maybe other, more nimble companies – I think
it’s all to play for.”