The boss of a major cruise line telling you mid-interview he is “watching the clock tick down” would likely unsettle the most hardened of journalists. And that’s exactly what happened just a few minutes into my conversation with Marella Cruises’ managing director Chris Hackney. Thankfully for my tender ego, though, he had a good reason.
We meet at TTG Towers on a scorching mid-April morning, with less than a month to go until the launch of Marella Explorer – the Tui cruise brand’s new flagship, and the third vessel to launch in three years. The launch, which will take place in Palma, Majorca, will be Hackney’s first since becoming managing director in December, and it is clear he wants to make it a success.
“We’re so close now it all feels very real,” he smiles. A point which he is reminded of every time he walks into work. “The countdown clock really does exist,” Hackney chuckles, adding that it’s currently hanging on a first-floor wall at Tui UK and Ireland’s Luton headquarters.
The 1,924-passenger Explorer, formerly Mein Schiff 1, will split its time between Palma and, in the winter, Bridgetown, Barbados. It joins the fleet amid a modernisation strategy Hackney says has “transformed” the line, and fuelled UK growth of more than 20% last year. And he insists the launch is “going to be the best we’ve done yet”.
Besides teasing an “interactive treasure hunt”, though, Hackney remains tight-lipped on exactly what Marella Cruises – which rebranded from Thomson Cruises in October 2017 – has in store for Explorer’s christening. Instead, conversation turns to who will be onboard.
Hackney describes the fact that more than half of the 1,200 people sailing on the inaugural to Barcelona from Palma are UK and Irish agents as “one of the most fantastic aspects” of the Explorer launch. Included in that number are a mixture of Tui’s own retail staff and around 40 cruise specialist third-party independent agents.
“We’ve made a conscious effort over the last few years to do more [with independents],” says Hackney of the invites, touching, too, on the success of Marella’s online training tool for third-party agents launched in February.
“I’ve been a massive advocate of this – for someone to sell your product you have to make sure they know what it’s all about and third-party agents are key for us.”
And it would seem Marella’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Sales through independents have “grown significantly” over the past three years, and Hackney reveals sales for the line’s current winter season are 30% up year-on-year. Its 2018 summer programme is an impressive 60% ahead.
Hackney insists that Marella is “not solely reliant” on selling through the Tui retail network.
This focus on third-party agents, combined with the line’s “dedicated targeting” of the British market, helped it grow by a fifth last year, Hackney says.
“We’re so close now it all feels very real. It’s going to be the best launch we’ve done yet, that’s for sure.”
Chris Hackney, Marella Cruises
Elsewhere, Hackney insists Marella remains focused on its UK offering. This year, Marella Discovery will homeport in Newcastle and Southampton, and with sales remaining strong, Hackney says there are “no plans” to remove a UK-based ship from Marella’s programme.
Hackney is also upbeat in the face of increased ex-UK capacity from rivals – such as Royal Caribbean International’s revamped Independence of the Seas returning to service in the same week Explorer launches, as well as other US-based and European lines teasing the possibility of bringing bigger vessels to British shores.
“There are more ships coming into the UK market, but we’ve had a very successful time over the last few years with our best commercial and operational performance, so we are confident,” he grins.
He is equally confident about Marella’s new all-inclusive strategy, which has drawn attention in recent weeks. On March 20, the line announced its six existing ships (including Explorer) as well as all future vessels would become solely all-inclusive from summer 2019. This followed Norwegian Cruise Line’s announcement in the same vein for the UK market in April 2017.
“It was a logical step for us,” Hackney explains. “We’ve seen a natural progression over the last two years of more people booking all-inclusive, and even on our ships that weren’t entirely all-inclusive, around 75% of customers onboard were choosing it.
“It makes a lot of sense and gives us a real point of difference to tell people about.”
But does Hackney believe rivals will follow suit?
“We have started to see a few more tactical messages around all-inclusive in the market,” he smiles. “I think they [other cruise lines] have backtracked a little bit in terms of saying they wouldn’t go all-inclusive [since NCL’s decision].
“For us, our tour operator tends to sell a lot of all-inclusive anyway, and that progression is something that we have seen over the years.”
“It’s all about the onboard offering… you’ve got plenty of choice there so it’s a really good package.”
Marella listens to customer feedback in other ways too. Hackney himself took to the shop floor of a Tui branch in Stevenage in January.
“The amount of people who were coming in asking about cruise was really noticeable,” he recalls.
Getting in front of customers also came in handy, Hackney says, to explain the line’s rebrand to Marella – the Celtic word for shining sea.
“There was no negative feedback,” he claims. “It was more a question of ‘why Marella?’, so we just need to talk through the reasoning.
“The timing made sense [with the Tui rebrand running concurrently], and our first dedicated cruise TV campaign in January put us in a good position and was a great chance to get the name out there.”
“Going all-inclusive makes a lot of sense and gives us a real point of difference to tell people about”
Chris Hackney, Marella Cruises
Other moves Marella hopes its customers will get behind include the introduction of the line’s first adults-only ship, Marella Explorer 2, and its deployment in Asia – the latter of which Hackney says customers are “really excited about”.
He continues: “There is definitely a market for adults-only. From a tour operator environment we have always had our adults-only hotels. Asia sales have got off to a great start and that has given us the confidence to market that adults-only experience – and it was the next logical step to launch an adults-only ship.
“It’s not to say we want to focus solely on adults but it’s to give people a choice. The likes of the Discovery ships and Explorer – they have great kids facilities. With Explorer 2 we are not going to do that… so that’s an opportunity for us.”
Looking to the future, Hackney refuses to rule out the possibility of new-build vessels. “We haven’t got anything confirmed at the moment, but we are looking at more options… we wouldn’t rule it [new builds] out,” he says. But the clock is ticking, and his mind is clearly more concerned with the task in hand – delivering Marella’s best launch yet for Explorer.