From a childhood spent by the coast to becoming the boss of a cruise line and leading Clia through an eventful year, Tony Roberts tells Tom Parry his story…
You might not expect the chair of Clia UK & Ireland to turn conversation to the Titanic during an interview, but that is exactly what Tony Roberts – also vice-president UK and Europe for Princess Cruises – does during our sit-down in central London.
For full disclosure, Roberts is talking about the Oscar-winning film rather than cruising per se. “My dad was in the navy before becoming a university professor. He was in intelligence, robots – stuff like that,” he explains. “Do you remember the scene at the start of Titanic [where treasure hunters use a robot to search the ocean floor]? That was his speciality. He used to teach about mechatronics – basically machines that learn.”
Roberts’ dad’s expertise saw the family touring the world to attend engineering conferences and taking enviable family holidays to the US, Asia and Australia when he was a boy.
“Those trips were a big part of growing up – the best holidays were when he had to go to a conference in the US and we would do these big fly-drive road trips to California, Nevada, Canada,” he recalls fondly.
“I’m actually doing a bit of a road trip around Europe with my family this summer and its feels like emulating those holidays of my childhood.”
“The number of ships being launched and based here and the investment in the UK market is so significant”
Roberts’ mum was a bookkeeper, and he shared his parents’ interest in maths and science, training in accountancy before entering the cruise industry, in which he’s remained for almost 20 years.
In 2015 Roberts became Princess’s vice-president UK and Europe and established himself further as a sector leader by taking on the chairmanship of Clia last year.
We meet in a Covent Garden pub just as Roberts begins his second and final year at the helm of the cruise association – a role he is clearly relishing, with the UK and Irish market hitting record highs of two million cruisers for the first time during 2018.
“It’s a great milestone,” Roberts says, further noting that last year cruise accounted for an “impressive” 10% of UK holiday spend.
“The number of ships being launched and based here, and the investment in the UK market is so significant, there are lots of things with which to tell a positive story of cruise,” he adds.
His childhood was spent on the coast (Bournemouth-born and Cornwall-bred), and it’s fitting Roberts now works in the maritime world.
“It might sound silly but the ocean has always been a big part of my life. I’ve always lived near it,” he smiles, joking how his current home of Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire is the furthest north he has ever lived: “I’m getting nosebleeds I’m so far north!”
Growing up in a Cornish village and spending “a lot of time either on the beach or on my bike”, Roberts’ childhood sounds like something from a Famous Five novel. “I wasn’t inside reading maths books, don’t worry,” he smiles.
After university, a career in accountancy beckoned with a stint in the financial team of Estee Lauder and then, approaching his mid-20s and looking for a new challenge, he was offered four jobs in the same week.
“Job one was with IBM, and the next a firm specialising in storage heaters,” he grins. “Then it was Andersen Consulting and finally P&O Cruises.”
So why, having never set foot onboard a cruise ship, did he opt for P&O? “The job really interested me as a management accountant in the technical department – working with engineers to make sure the ships were working as efficiently as possible,” he explains. “I wanted to get excited about the product and be able to make a difference and that’s what I saw in P&O.”
Roberts’ first day in April 2000 was a rather historic one as the line welcomed Aurora to its fleet – at the time a 40% increase in its capacity.
A move soon after into more commercial areas saw Roberts become the accountant for Swan Hellenic, then owned by P&O.
He was also helping to shape the future for parent company Carnival UK as project accountant for its Ocean Village concept – at the time being developed under the codename Project Moon.
Launched in 2003 to offer “cruises for people who don’t do cruises”, it was discontinued by 2010, but Roberts talks excitedly of his time on the project and how it gave him a “fantastic grounding” in launching a cruise brand, as well as his learning under former Carnival UK chief executive – and now chair – David Dingle.
“David has been brilliant in supporting me and sharing his knowledge throughout my career – particularly in my Princess role. We regularly sit down and chat,” says Roberts.
“He has always got sage advice, and I’ve never met anyone who can look at a page of numbers and interpret them the way David can.”
During the next decade, Roberts held a range of commercial, technology and digitally focused roles, eventually becoming Carnival UK’s director of technology partnering, but a change was on the horizon.
Usually, cruise bosses are coy about having a favourite ship in their line. For Roberts, though, it’s Royal Princess, and there is good reason.
In the summer of 2015, he was invited onboard the vessel in Southampton for an interview with the line’s president, Jan Swartz, fresh from her own cruise holiday around the British Isles. They were to discuss leading Princess Cruises in the UK – a role that had piqued Roberts’ interest.
“I did the interview in the hotel general manager’s office. Now sometimes when I go in there, I tap the chair and think ‘this is where it all began’,” he jokes.
“We have had to respond and be more proactive, providing agents with the information and tools they need”
He got the job and began that September.
Curious, I ask how it felt to be suddenly front and centre of proceedings after years in more technical positions.
“It was quite a change and it took a while to take everything in,” he remembers. “I didn’t even have an official headshot for the press announcements,” he laughs. “That was the first job on my first day, going on the Carnival House roof to shoot some.”
Roberts’ profile would continue to grow, leading to his appointment as Clia chair last June.
It has been an eventful year since he took the helm, and he says a string of recent high-profile cruise safety incidents – involving both passengers and vessel collisions – has pushed the association and industry to “really hone its skills” around communication to customers and consumer press.
“We have had to respond and be more proactive, providing agents with the information and tools they need for being advocates of the cruise industry.”
And he’s quick to point out operational incidents in the past 10 years have – despite an industry growth of 55% – decreased by 37%.
Ever-present too is the “Brexit shadow”, as Roberts describes it, as the sector looks ahead to 31 October.
“I think we are prepared, but prepared for what is the difficult question.”
In cruise news of a different kind, Roberts reveals Princess has just renewed its partnership with brand ambassador Phillip Schofield for three more years.
It’s a partnership he’s clearly proud of, with ITV’s documentary series The Cruise another highlight of his time in charge – “I get a real buzz out of having us on TV”.
Roberts’ most satisfying achievement, though, is the line’s “steady, sustained growth” in the UK and Ireland – extending its number of UK-based ships and the lengths of its seasons.
And there is more to come – Princess has five new ships launching in the next six years, while its Ocean Medallion wearable technology continues to be rolled out across the fleet with agents being given a demonstration of the platform onboard Crown Princess later this month.
Expressing excitement for the new tech, it’s not hard to imagine Roberts taking an interest in his dad’s work growing up. Fitting, too, Roberts will be heading off on a road trip with his family this summer, in keeping with that important Roberts family tradition.
Roberts and his family will be accompanied on their road trip by their three cocker spaniels, Roxy, Henry and Bodhi. The family also has four chickens – which won’t be going with them!
His ultimate dinner guests would be Muhammad Ali, Ice Cube, Dusty Springfield and Nigella Lawson.
Long before his Princess days, Roberts took on a series of “dodgy” summer jobs including driving an ice cream van and a stint at a pizza restaurant.
He loves to cycle, and with industry colleagues completed an 80-mile ride for charity last year. He will be taking on 90 miles in 2019 and he’s looking for volunteers!