Leading cruise agents have urged lines to create informational videos offering an early glimpse of future health and hygiene procedures, believing demand for 2021 sailings will rise with greater consumer confidence.
During TTG’s latest Agent Matters discussion, panellists called on the cruise sector to follow the lead of airports and airlines by giving customers a visual idea of how life onboard ships will differ when operations restart.
“We will see a bigger uptake in 2021 business once we start seeing more positivity [and] videos of what it’s going to be like,” said Paul Hardwick, head of commercial at Fred Olsen Travel.
“Customers won’t forget [what cruising was like before] they’ll just adapt, like we all have in our lives, and we’ll do that on our holidays going forward.”
He called on lines to include agents in their safety messaging strategies, suggesting they host a “relaunch event” to educate the trade on new protocols and processes.
“I think it would be fantastic. We’ll be the ones explaining the new procedures to customers. It could be the difference between getting sales and not.”
Tour America and Cruise Holidays managing director Mary McKenna agreed. “A cruise is the best holiday to have, but our job is to get that message out, and we have to work with the cruise companies on the positive PR because they’ve been battered the hardest,” she said.
The new-to-cruise market, McKenna predicted, which was growing buoyantly pre-Covid, would be “very tender” over the next few years and in need of “a huge amount of work” to promote the enhanced health and safety measures to potentially wary consumers.
Hardwick and McKenna also considered how typical elements of the cruise experience would work upon restarting, calling for more understanding on areas such as dining, embarkation/disembarkation and moving around the ship.
“I actually think cruise ships are pretty well built for flows of customers,” said Hardwick. “You could perhaps have people moving in a clockwise direction to get through corridors, and that would be fairly easy to implement."
McKenna added: “The buffet – if it’s gone, what will happen in its place? Sea days – what will beds be like around the pool? I think these are questions that need to be addressed and once we have those answers and see it, then
we can sell it.”
Mundy Cruising managing director Edwina Lonsdale she said believed river lines – the first to restart sailing amid the pandemic – would be “leading the way” with the implementation of onboard health policies, predicting the sector would be operating fully by September.
She also praised the cruise industry’s collaboration around the coronavirus crisis and its “determination to get it right”. “I think actually there will be no safer place than onboard a cruise ship [when cruising restarts].”
Assessing current trading, the panel were all experiencing good demand for 2021 and sales burgeoning for the end of this year. Despite “writing off 2020” in her business plan, McKenna said she had a positive outlook for Christmas and New Year.
“Christmas will come off and there’s going to be big demand. We made a decision – rightly or wrongly – to move all bookings to 2021, if we could. I would be fearful of someone not getting 100% of the experience they should get. I am seeing good interest for 2021 but it won’t be like 2019 figures.
McKenna said “the biggest issue” was airlines not offering 2022 schedules to help agents sell further ahead. “You can book cruises into 2022, but people have to know how they’re going to get there.”
Lonsdale said she was “confident for Q4”, with a strong clientele of veteran cruisers wanting to return as soon as possible. “We’re actually feeling pretty positive,” she said. “We’ve had a good May. We’re certainly seeing some new business coming in and a lot of interest among our regulars ready to rebook.”
Hardwick said Fred Olsen Travel had secured a world cruise for 2022 late last month from a customer telling their consultant they were “fed up and wanted something to look forward to”.
He said despite the company still having “slightly more rebooks than new business”, he was hopeful new sales would tip the balance this month. Discussing in what guise lines may return to operations, Hardwick said he believed cruising closer to home would be more popular to begin with. “It’ll be interesting to see how itineraries adapt,” he added.
Lonsdale said the cruise sector would be like “a blank sheet of paper – which lines will do what and race ahead?”
She agreed there would be more “nearer to home” business “initially”, with those customers going further afield opting for longer trips – travelling less but spending more. “We’re certainly starting to see that now.”
Lonsdale is also predicting initially lower ship load factors, investment in health procedures and a likely rise in air fares could lead to an industry “regrouping” with cruising “priced more realistically” in future.
Hardwick agreed, adding: “Some of the cruises we’ve sold in the past few years [are] just much too cheap. Sometimes what you’re selling a seven- night cruise for is ridiculous for what the customer is getting.
“I think there has been too much discounting with some of the lines. Most of the ones I’ve spoken to are selling really well for 2021, so I can’t see a mass rush to discount and sell beds.”
Tune in to the next Agent Matters at 11am Tuesday (9 June) on the Travel Trade Gazette Facebook page.