While it might be assumed that UK-oriented Carnival group brands P&O Cruises and Cunard Line are suffering in the run-up to what threatens to be a long and painful British exit from the European Union, David Dingle maintains that his market is more robust than ever.
“I think most of the challenges for us are in the past,” he says. “Back then, the UK cruise market was much smaller – we had to shout very loud to attract the attention of travel agents. We are a more expensive and complex product than ordinary package holidays, which needs travel agent advice. For someone who hasn’t cruised before there are a lot of questions, and fewer people will immediately take to booking online, for example. Now this is a completely different world where travel agents rely significantly on the cruise industry.”
Thus far, Brexit has had no noticeable effect on ticket sales at either Cunard or P&O, even with the latter’s considerable exposure to the British market and “almost 100% British guests.”
“We have a long time to go in the Brexit process of course, but so far so good,” Dingle says. “We haven’t seen any impact on cruise sales and we haven’t been able to correlate anything in our booking curve to indicate that Brexit is causing any nervousness among cruise customers. And interestingly, more generally we rarely spot any blips or fluctuations in booking volumes due to political matters.”
In fact, cruising may actually have more to offer customers than before. “Perhaps people are looking at the value they get from holidays harder than they would otherwise,” says Dingle. “Cruise may have a higher entry price, but because of the high level of inclusivity, there’s less need to mkae purchases during the cruise. P&O’s onboard pricing is also in pound sterling, so there’s no exposure to the Euro.”
If recent turmoil has provoked any conversation about Britishness, both companies are well placed to take advantage of it. “Cunard and P&O are different types of British,” Dingle comments. “P&O has itineraries that are primarily focused on British guests.”
For P&O, this yields some surprisingly complex considerations when designing cruise ships specifically for the British market. “The British are among the most sun-hungry cruisers in the world,” Dingle explains. “When we design ships for the British market we pay extraordinary attention to the amount of open deck space for sunbathing – more so than any other nationality. That’s down to how you organise and arrange the deck spaces, whether you put levels and balustrades on deck because they all take up space. On one ship, the second in its series, we even removed the dome over one of the pools because just the mechanism, tracking and the space where the dome was stored would be better used for more sunbathing space.”
Due for launch in 2020, P&O’s latest cruise vessel is capable of carrying 5,200 passengers and will be powered by LNG as a response to new sulphur regulations. “LNG is a more environmentally friendly fuel, it doesn’t emit sulphur or nitrogen oxides, the combustion is such that it doesn’t emit black carbon or particulates, and carbon emissions are reduced by about 30%,” says Dingle. “It’s really about what we don’t have to install in the ship, so exhaust gas cleaning systems and catalytic converters. It makes huge sense.
LNG has its own requirements of course, adds Dingle. “The tanks have to be cylindrical because of the pressure, and that can be more space-hungry. Also, because you get less energy per volume, either the tanks have to be bigger, or you have to bunker more frequently. So, we’re working with Shell to make sure we have capacity in the right places, whether locally stored gas, or bunker barges.”
Cunard’s vessels, which offer an experience redolent of the heyday of great liners, are necessarily unique, both in terms of brand proposition and operational requirements. The notion is one of outward, rather than domestic, Britishness, Dingle explains.
“Cunard, is focused on the idea of Britain on the world stage,” he says. “Around 50% of its guests are British, but it also attracts those from around the world who are interested in Britain as a longstanding maritime nation. Ironically, you may find more pomp and circumstance on Cunard than P&O, because that’s what people from overseas expect of something that is British.”
The main operational difference is technical. “Vessels are going through long ocean passages in bigger seas and are quite simply working harder,” Dingle explains. “When they’re in dry dock there’s a particularly robust repair and maintenance programme, and we have to replace components more often than would be the case on a standard cruise ship. Propulsion bearings would be a good example, particularly on podded propulsion.”
According to Dingle, the biggest recent highlight for Cunard was the remastering of Queen Mary 2, its iconic flagship. “She was built with a higher speed and a hull design that means she can slice through the water in any conditions whatsoever,” he says. “She hadn’t been through a major refurbishment of the internal areas since she entered service in 2004. This was a major project both in terms of the passenger spaces and technical upgrades, with a massive amount of complete refurbishment. We added about 50 extra cabins, and did a major makeover of the shops and restaurants onboard. We’ve just completed a similar exercise on Queen Victoria, which has just come out of the dry dock in Italy. We elongated the upper decks at the aft of the ship to add 36 new cabins and a completely new restaurant.”
It may soon be time for Cunard’s British cache to be put to the test as the company reaches out to tap into new markets. “Looking forward, particularly for Cunard, it’s a story of much greater international expansion – we are now looking at emerging cruise markets,” remarks Dingle.