It’s not often you get to sit down with P&O Cruises’ head honcho.
Despite, or perhaps because, the line is gearing up to launch the biggest ship in its history (and largest-ever designed for the UK market), Paul Ludlow has largely stayed out of the limelight recently, focusing instead on getting on with the day job.
That all changed recently when he took to the stage to be interviewed by TV presenter Fearne Cotton before welcoming Take That star and new P&O Cruises ambassador Gary Barlow at an intimate venue in London’s Shoreditch, packed with journalists and travel agents.
Fast-forward 24 hours and Ludlow is still buzzing. “Fun, wasn’t it?” he grins. It certainly got the line some attention, with headlines across the national press from The Sun to The Telegraph.
This, of course, was the idea.
“We need to grow this market,” Ludlow says passionately. “We need to create more demand and get cruise into the consciousness of people who have never even thought about it.”
Barlow is part of P&O’s plan to achieve this. He is also, says Ludlow, the epitome of “Britishness”. “Our heartland audience is ITV Saturday night. Gary was top of the list for us – everyone loves him, from nine-year-olds to grandmas. Working with Gary helps us to reach new audiences”.
This is also the reason for the launch of Ionafest – P&O’s summer floating festival, which will feature celebrity names such as Clean Bandit, Jo Whiley, Sara Cox, Trevor Nelson and now Barlow.
The line’s ambitions are being realised, it seems. Ludlow says over the past year it has seen an increase in both new-to-brand and new-to-cruise customers.
It’s also seen interest from a younger demographic. And this, as Ludlow is all too aware, is crucial, because within six months P&O Cruises will have a whole lot more capacity to fill: a 5,200-passenger ship to be exact, followed by a similarly sized sister vessel in 2022.
That’s a lot of additional beds.
Ludlow, though, seems to be relishing the challenge. “We started the Iona project nearly five years ago. We did a lot of research including demonstrating there is absolutely the capacity in the market to fill a new ship,” he explains.
A lot though, can happen in five years (Brexit, for one thing). And rival Royal Caribbean took the decision last year to reduce its UK capacity for 2020, pulling British favourite Independence of the Seas out of Southampton.
Does this worry Ludlow? “I’m extremely confident about demand. Business is good,” he insists. “We are more than 80% filled for Iona, which is above where we expected to be. But it’s not so much about the new ship, it’s about filling the other ships in the fleet,” he points out.
“We have to make sure we manage the rest of the fleet. What’s remarkable is that we’ve got staggering occupancy on Iona and the rest of the fleet is better sold at this point for 2020 than we were in 2019.”
On Iona itself, he admits the line has stayed secretive, particularly with regards to its onboard features.
“Physically seeing it will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before”
Other than the SkyDome and some family-focused eateries, the trade has been kept largely in the dark about what to expect on P&O’s newest ship.
Ludlow will say only that Iona, which is 50% larger than Britannia, will be an “evolution” of this vessel, which launched in 2015.
Also that Iona’s sister ship will not be identical – “it will be a sister vessel, not a twin”.
“There are a lot of reveals to reveal,” Ludlow smiles. “But also it doesn’t matter how great the photos are, physically seeing it will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before”.
And “at least 2,000 agents” will be able to testify to this in May as part of P&O’s ongoing wave campaign.
Ludlow says the line will also continue to operate its “One Day Holidays” ship visit experiences over the summer as well.
Meanwhile, although he might be tight-lipped on actual features, Ludlow does confirm Iona won’t feature Princess Cruises’ wearable tech Ocean Medallion – at least not yet.
“Never say never,” he grins. “Princess is doing a fantastic job, and it’s something that can be retrofitted,” he hints. “But there are no plans at the moment.”
He is keen however to talk sustainability and eager to stress that Iona will be P&O’s greenest ship. “Never before has sustainability been more important,” he says emphatically. “It may not today be a determining factor in the choices people are making for their holidays, but it will be. We are really vested in doing the right thing.”
As a result, Iona and its sister ship will both be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Ludlow acknowledges LNG isn’t perfect (it produces lower levels of toxic emissions than equivalent diesel engines but its methane emissions are higher than current marine fuels), but he insists “it’s the greenest choice available to cruise lines today”.
“In the future there will be better technology, and we are building ships to be hybrid-ready. We’re building the engine room with more space so they can be adapted.”
This includes Iona and its yet-unnamed sister ship, meaning they can be retrofitted with batteries in future. “These are 30-year assets,” Ludlow says. “We need to think ahead.”
Like other cruise lines, P&O’s focus on sustainability has also seen it move to scrap single-use plastic.
“Never before has sustainability been more important”
It’s a journey Ludlow admits will take time, particularly with regards to the line’s supply chain, but he says a number of small steps have already been implemented.
These include the banning of plastic straws and individually wrapped condiment sachets. It was also the reason for P&O’s decision to axe the Union Jack flags that passengers used to wave during the line’s “Great British Sail Aways” to the accompaniment of patriotic music.
The decision to scrap the flags (as well as the old-fashioned tunes) earned the line a drubbing in The Sun earlier this month, which labelled P&O “snowflakes”.
Ludlow chuckles in response. “The flags were entirely made of single-use plastic. It doesn’t detract from our party atmosphere not to have them. We also introduced a more contemporary music choice. We send nearly a million people on holiday every year – our onboard entertainment needs to reflect that.”
Which brings us back to the Gary Barlow partnership. Ludlow insists it’s “not just a 12-month thing”, but “a many-years partnership”.
This perhaps explains why Barlow seems so personally invested in the construction of Iona.
He’s already been out to the Meyer Werft shipyard in Germany, where Ludlow reveals Barlow gave input on architectural sketches and even cocktail menus.
“He’s given feedback on the drawings and what we could tweak. He’s travelled the world and seen so many venues, it’s great to hear about the spaces that have inspired him. He was genuinely buzzing when he saw Iona.”
Barlow will get to see the finished product this summer when he joins Iona for its official launch on 4 July.
He’ll also be hosting performances in the ship’s theatre for guests, with all proceeds of the £25 ticket price going to both his chosen charity of Childhood Bereavement UK and P&O’s charity partner The Teenage Cancer Trust.
As for the cocktails, I ask if guests will be told which ones Barlow had an influence on. “Well, he’s a big gin fan, so any cocktail with gin in, he may well have had an input on,” Ludlow grins.
Best keep an eye out for the Relight My Fire G&T then…
Find contacts in TTG's Little Black Book
Why choose P&O Cruises? The decision lies in the choice! We like to treat guests to a taste of the good life, or rather the great life!