breeze_animals3.jpgIt’s National Cruise Week, but anyone who spent Thursday trying to book a ship-board holiday might have had a problem.
The country’s leading specialist travel agents were not in their offices and shops. They had travelled far from the sea to Birmingham and were being urged to “think differently” at the Columbus Day conference organised by the Association of Cruise Experts.
Thinking differently included listening to several speakers repeating the mantra that, following on from record growth last year with the number of UK cruisers passing 1.7 million for the first time, 2012 has been tough.
Double-dip recession and the Euro crisis have both had a bigger effect on cruise sales than January’s Costa Concordia disaster and it is unlikely this year’s statistics will show much in the way of growth. Though even flat-lining will be considered an achievement.
Royal Caribbean International president and CEO Adam Goldstein flew in from Bermuda for the day to tell his audience it was time to focus passengers’ minds on how much they were getting from their cruise rather than how little they were paying for it.
And he pointed out that, unlike resort hotels, the 22 ships in his fleet can be deployed anywhere in the world. He left them in no doubt that if he could make bigger profits by operating them out of growing markets such as China or Brazil he would switch them away from the UK and Europe.
Thomson Cruises’ managing director Fraser Ellacott had a similar message, saying that although flights had now become a commodity, it would be wrong to treat cruises in the same way. He also became the second speaker of the day – following Royal Caribbean UK’s Jo Rzymowska – to use a picture of a Marmite jar to make his point.
In his case, he was claiming that “if you don’t like a cruise, you’re on the wrong ship.” Rzymowska, later honoured for her “outstanding contribution to the UK cruise industry,” showed a picture of a jar alongside a can of Heinz baked beans. Her pitch was that, rather than being an item that consumers either loved or hated, cruising should be on everyone’s shopping list.
Armed with a battery of graphs and charts, economics professor Linda Yueh gave an insight into the factors making customers keep their wallets and credit cards in their pockets – facts and theories the High Street probably did not need to be reminded of.
It was left to TV’s Hotel Inspector Alex Polizzi, who has made a career out of running up-market establishments and telling proprietors at the cheaper end how to improve theirs, to put an elegantly-manicured finger on what she believes is cruising’s biggest problem.
Is it the fact that, despite the excellent value it provides, it is still widely perceived as being unaffordable? Is it a fear of seasickness, or concern at being trapped at the dinner table with unwelcome company?
None of those things in her case. Alex truly was “thinking differently.” She has an aversion to that ever-present cruise ship stalwart, the towel animal.
“When I step out of the bath or the shower, I want a clean, fresh towel,” she said. “I just don’t like the idea that someone has been manipulating it.The only place where a towel animal is appropriate is Disney.”
Jo Rymowska was quick to promise a cabin free of fluffy white monkeys, elephants and swans if Alex chose to take her family on a cruise aboard one of the line’s sophisticated Celebrity ships.
But as the day drew to a close, and even with a battalion of the country’s finest cruise agents in the room, it was beginning to look like even that was not enough to persuade Alex to make a booking.