What issues are shaping the European cruise industry?

Cruise Europe’s 2018 conference in St. Petersburg gave Jon Ingleton an informed perspective on the issues shaping this popular cruise region. He takes a look back at some of the highlights

What issues are shaping the European cruise industry?

This article was first published in the Itinerary Planning Special Report International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Russia’s cultural capital St. Petersburg was a worthy location for the 2018 Cruise Europe Conference this summer. Located on the Neve river at the head of the Gulf of Finland, the city and the port both have the facilities, appeal and attractions that make St. Petersburg a popular destination for Baltic cruises.

“St. Petersburg is the marquee port of Northern Europe – everybody wants to come here because it’s steeped in tradition and history, and guest satisfaction is very high,” said Craig Milan, vice president of Itinerary and Destination Development at Virgin Voyages.

The first plenary session invited cruise line executives to share their wisdom on deployment and itinerary planning in Northern Europe. With news already out that Virgin Voyages’ first ship will sail Caribbean itineraries from Miami, Florida, it may have been surprising that Milan ventured across the Atlantic for this conference. However, he has implied that the new cruise line is interested in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Milan’s comments at Cruise Europe’s conference suggested that ports must meet at least two criteria to be included on a Virgin Voyages itinerary: have a good environmental story and a differentiated product offering. “[Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson is very committed to conservation and sustainability and has made a commitment for the Virgin Group to be carbon neutral by 2030,” he said. “Be persistent. Be different.”

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s (RCL) vice president of Deployment and Itinerary Planning Chris Allen was another executive who noted the need for a “continuous, relentless focus” on making ships more efficient. Allen also highlighted the four criteria that RCL’s brands use to make deployment decisions: brand positioning and strategy, aligning hardware with destinations, guest appeal, satisfaction and sourcing, and profitability. Hence, there are opportunities for ports to improve their appeal to RCL’s brands. “Improved infrastructure and broader destination investment, particularly in developing a more seamless guest experiences will be key,” explained Allen. “It’s critically important that we have destinations that deliver memorable experiences.”

Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ commercial director Chris Coates also touched on the untapped potential in European destinations. “It’s a rapidly expanding market that, in our view, is going to dramatically increase over the next five years with the surge of new capacity coming online,” he said. “Europe is one of the best per diem markets across the globe. It’s a very special market for us.”

Always willing to help nudge the cruise industry in the right direction, Coates shared some ideas for the future. “There’s no doubt that a collaborative approach is needed with municipalities, tourist authorities, ports and embassies,” he said. “The possibility of shoulder-season incentives could keep cruise lines in the region for longer. Also, a more proactive focus on events could help differentiate itineraries.”

Port infrastructure was another key topic. Miguel Reyna, RCL’s director of Commercial Development, outlined how increasing ship sizes are driving new port developments. “Most markets will receive larger ships, it’s a natural evolution,” he commented. “The distribution of guests through the destination is key for ports, so due thought must be given to passenger flow.

Reyna made a strong case for ports to engage with lines in the planning process for new development projects. “We’re free consultants, please contact us and ask us about our experiences – build something that cruise lines will want to use,” he advised. “It’s also good practice to involve the city authorities.” Aside from terminal projects, Reyna also called for investment in waste water facilities. “We have to improve our waste management programme – collaboration between ports and ships to offload our waste water in the Baltic is really important.”

Focus soon switched to small- and medium-sized cruise ships. First up on the conference agenda was Viking Cruises’ senior port operations manager Nicolai Skogland, who said the line uses ‘The Viking Stress Test’ to decide which ports its ocean ships should visit.

“Can the destination give 900 guests a close to identical shore excursion experience ashore during the ship’s time in port?” he asked, adding that Viking then determines whether the destination has its four preferred attributes. “Is the port able to accommodate ships alongside? We don’t like anchorage calls. Has the destination got strong cultural, historical or natural content for excursions? Do all local stakeholders cooperate? And does the destination have a clear view on which cruise segments it wants to attract?”

Silversea Cruises’ director of Strategic Pricing and Itinerary Planning Justin Poulsen also shared his strategy. At a macro level, it broadly focuses on profit optimisation and at a micro level, it focuses on the elements that contribute to a great guest experience. “Brand promise, seasonality, itinerary-driven operating costs and revenues, source markets and transportation are all important,” he explained. “Safety and risk management, port infrastructure, tour programmes, itinerary differentiation and port selection are key for guest experience.”

James Cabello, executive for Operations and Product Development at Mystic Cruises, neatly summed up the topic by highlighting the advantage of small- and medium-sized ships: “We get closer to culture.”

Shoreside experience priorities and the need to continually develop fresh excursions with a combination of activities that are harder for passengers to find from land-based operators were also a hot topic. This session was headlined by Crystal Morgan, director of Deployment Planning at Princess Cruises, and Lotfi Trabelsi, RCL’s manager of Port Operations and Guest Port Services. The main takeaway was that cruise lines mostly rely heavily on shore excursion revenue, so those destinations that offer profitable and popular tours are significantly more likely to win and retain a place on itineraries.

The European cruise business is thriving on almost every performance indicator – growing and new source markets, improving port infrastructure, creating profitable shore excursions, optimising time-speed-distance values, and achieving high repeat rates from happy passengers. While there are certainly challenges that must be addressed, Europe is naturally suited to cruising and boasts many advantages that will ensure a prolonged period of growth.

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Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
Wednesday, December 12, 2018