Over 20 cruise line panellists convened in the Unesco World Heritage city of Edinburgh to share knowledge and advice to aid European ports in their quest to grow cruise calls. In his welcoming remarks, Forth Ports’ chief operating officer Stuart Wallace encouraged delegates to remember the financial motivation for attracting cruise ships during these difficult trading conditions, saying: “It’s estimated that each port call generates £100,000 ($121,000) in economic benefit for the destination.”
Optimism, caution and unity were the trilogy of sentiments in the keynote address provided by Sacha Rougier, head of itinerary planning and shore experiences at MSC Cruises. “We have every reason to remain positive, but we should be under no illusion that travel will be the same,” she said, referencing the influence that sustainability will have on future travel choices.
“Cruise Europe’s role helps us to maintain fluid dialogue, building a brand requires togetherness,” she added, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the industry closer than ever before, an outcome that we must maintain.
The opening conference session explored strategic planning in an uncertain world, with Crystal Morgan, senior director of deployment planning at Princess Cruises, taking the moment to reflect on the industry’s future. “If the cruise industry is anything it’s resilient,” she said. “Demand still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels but that’s going to take time.”
Morgan went on to outline four strategic considerations: consumer psyche impacted by Covid, growing the new-to-cruise market, changes driven by sustainability, and leveraging global homeport sourcing.
During other discussions, the Cruise Europe association lamented the plight of its Baltic port colleagues and cruise lines expressed that they continue to closely monitor related operational hurdles. “We can’t lose sight of the reduced interest in Baltic cruises at the moment,” said Chris Coates, ambassador-at-large for Ambassador Cruise Line.
Morgan agreed, saying: “The uncertainty is around demand. We still have two ships in the Baltic and demand is strong. Demand for 2023 is mixed – we’re still making decisions for 2024 and demand for 2023 will influence those decisions.”
However, Carnival UK’s vice president of port and shore operations Sander Groothuis was more certain. “There’s no hesitation for us to keep going to the Baltic.”
Economy-fuelled issues are unsurprisingly influencing itineraries. Groothuis noted that Carnival UK is “trying to optimise our turnaround time so we can leave sooner and cruise slower.” Meanwhile, Morgan asked: “Are we operating the itinerary in the most efficient way?”
Current energy prices are adding weight to the demand for the provision of shore power in port and Groothuis offered a clear prediction for its future use. “Shore power is not something that we will have a choice about. In the future all ports will need to offer it.”
The second panel discussion addressed strategic planning and the importance of avoiding shoreside disruption. Agnes Brochet, director of itinerary planning and strategic pricing at Silversea Cruises, kicked the session off, noting a canny feature of a well-presented shore excursion: “At Silversea we’re quite good at capturing the anticipation.”
Prioritising the passenger experience from the point of booking steers most shore excursion decisions. Melanie Lewis Carsjens, senior manager of shore excursions product development and operations at Holland America Group, sets a high bar from the outset. “First impressions are very important,” she said. “I think it’s important that ports take passengers on a journey from disembarkation to embarkation. For our new-to-cruise guests it’s all about first impressions.”
Sandra Neffgen, head of shore excursions at AIDA Cruises, highlighted a treasured example of ports that give guests a warm traditional welcome. “Passengers love it and it really impacts the first impression.”
Ingenuity, sustainability and variety of excursions was routinely encouraged during discussion, and panellists also commented on the need for greater transparency in port bookings. The pandemic has reduced the availability of guides and buses in some destinations, risking their ability to fulfil shoreside programmes on a particularly busy day.
Brochet concluded the session with a nod of gratitude to port partners, saying: “We plan two years in advance, and we always make it work in the end. I thank you all for that!”
During the final conference session on sustainability, each of the panellists shared some of their port and destination-related priorities, offering guidance that will be valuable for project planning and investment decision-making.
Linden Coppell, vice president of sustainability and environmental, social and governance at MSC Cruises, referenced shore power, minimising local pollution and responsible tourism. Within her last point, Coppell specifically highlighted sustainable terminals, ecotours, appropriately sized tour groups and more generally encouraged the adoption of Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s approach to sustainable tourism practices.
Meanwhile, Sandra Bratland, director of destination affairs at Carnival Group Norway, considered the sustainability issues that impact deployment and planning. She cited industry regulatory requirements and local considerations, sustainable infrastructure within ports, and how to achieve efficiencies by better managing distances sailed and time in port.
Both Peter Wright, head of commercial and planning at Saga Cruises, and Kai Algar, marine and port planning manager at Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, spoke of their concerns about the potential return of port congestion. They fear that it will have a negative impact on passengers’ port experiences and potentially lead them to be dissatisfied with shore excursions if tour sites are overcrowded.
Most industries are only a few steps into their sustainability journey and so it is inevitable that there are currently more challenges to report than there are success stories to share. However, we must never tire of the topic at industry events because talk does lead to action, especially in this industry, and Cruise Europe’s annual conference remains an important forum for change.
Regardless of the size of the hurdles we may face in the future, we can take inspiration from event host Rob Mason, head of cruise at Forth Ports, who shared some sage advice he received from an industry friend: “above the clouds, the sky is always blue.” And it certainly was in Edinburgh.
This article was first published in the 2022 Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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