Learning valuable cruise lessons in Odessa

The MedCruise General Assembly has been an internationally recognised and valued educational industry roadshow for 20 years. In May 2016, 120 delegates arrived in Odessa for the 48th meeting. Jon Ingleton reports

Learning valuable cruise lessons in Odessa
This article was first published in the Itinerary Planning Special Report 2016. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Cruising in the Black Sea has almost vanished due to volatile political altercation and abhorrent terrorist activity. Access through the Bosphorus from an Istanbul homeport has been effectively suspended and so regular activity tends to be largely limited to river cruise ships that sneak in, for example, to Constanţa through the Danube or Odessa from the Dnieper. But Bruce Krumrine, vice president of shore excursions at Holland America Group, confirmed that the Black Sea will win ships back.

“I’m very disappointed by the current situation,” he said. “We face two challenges in committing to the Black Sea but our guests aren’t telling us that they don’t want to come here – just that they don’t want to come here now. We’re still optimistic for the future.” This delayed meeting in Odessa (originally slated to host the event in 2015) was a bold statement from the port and city – a plea for the industry to remember this unique cruising region when planning future itineraries. Krumrine believes that “2018 is the soonest we can realistically see a return to cruising in the Black Sea, assuming the situation in Turkey stabilises and there is no repeat of the Russian-Ukranian conflict.” Sadly, this predication may have to be reassessed after the devastating attack in Istanbul just a month later.

Adam Sharp, head of port operations and guest port services for Europe at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. provided some sage advice to ports readying themselves for cruise calls again. “The limits of the Bosphorus Strait are ships of about 2,500 passengers. Ports need to focus on being able to handle this volume of guests well.” But Sharp also highlighted a more difficult problem, “Immigration challenges frustrate passengers – queuing four or five times during a cruise will impact their opinions about their holiday.” Reducing the number of immigration checks required during an itinerary that might visit four or five countries will require significant political intervention but would be a huge demonstration of the region’s desire to win traffic back.

Conference discussions inevitably turned to the main topic of Mediterranean cruising. Thanos Pallis, secretary general of MedCruise continued to put a fresh spin on themes such as source markets and terminal investment. Getting straight to the point, Thanos asked cruise executive panellists “Do we need better terminals more than we need better experiences? Which should we invest in first?” George Koumpenas, vice president of operations at Celestyal Cruises expressed a clear terminal investment priority: “The terminal has to be functional. The passengers want to get through the facility as quickly as possible – luxury isn’t high on the list of requirements, just comfortable. (And) we need to think about security. As ships get bigger we need more space to meet security, luggage handling and passport control requirements.”

Luigi Pastena, manager of port operations at MSC Cruises agreed with the choice: “Invest in the terminal in order to give more appeal to the itinerary.” Pastena added a caveat, “We need to remember the issue of congestion when thinking about investments.” But there was also a cautionary note from Pastena: “Invest in a terminal and increase the tariff (to recoup the investment) – and maybe the cruise companies won’t come.”

In concluding this topic, Sharp made a really valid point that provides good counsel to ports with big ideas, “It’s time to SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) up – what type of port do you want to be? Not every port needs to be an Oasis-class port. It’s about celebrating what you are today and can be tomorrow. How do you get there? What needs to be done? What role can technology play? Do you know your customer? Who are your guests? What do they want? How can you make sure that each guest leaves with a lasting memory of the destination? You are a retail environment – never forget it. And when guests want to come back, guess what? A cruise ship will come back.”

The delegates were eager to hear more about the future fortunes for the region and there was a full house when Koumpenas, Sharp and Federico Bartoli, head of itinerary planning at Costa Cruises, gathered to discuss the topic. Koumpenas kicked off the conversation: “There’s plenty of room for improvement in the Med but we need the assistance of the ports. There’s been great improvement in the last few years but there’s still of lot of things to progress – mainly around the environment.”

Bartoli was keen to emphasise itinerary planning priorities: “(The) main constraints in developing an itinerary are guest safety, nautical feasibility, accessibility, ticket revenue, onboard revenue, shore excursions, port costs, fuel and the environment. Shorex revenues are important to our profitability and we ask you to work with us to develop interesting variety. We have to offer the best possible tours.” The growth though will continue to rely on developing local source markets and on this point Bartoli found an easy consensus. “Our target is always to enlarge our source market base. Our passengers primarily come from Europe but numbers from other source markets are growing. If we want to maintain our load factor we have to explore every market.”

Pastena agreed: “Penetration is still not what we want. In Europe the numbers are still lower than they can be. We still need to do a lot of work to grow the appeal of cruising for a European source market.”

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