Uniworld sticks to its successful strategy

While competitors have gone all out ordering new ships, Uniworld has maintained its slow and steady growth strategy. Guy Young tells Susan Parker why consistency is key

Uniworld sticks to its successful strategy
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Uniworld may not be grabbing headlines for ordering handfuls of newbuilds, but the Australian-born company is quietly producing results.

Former CEO Guy Young, who was promoted to global brand engagement officer at Uniworld’s parent company The Travel Corporation this August, says: “The first thing to highlight is that we have had a very consistent strategy over the past five to 10 years on how we are growing the company.”

For the past eight years, Uniworld has rolled out one or two new ships annually, which is all part of the company’s ethos. “The most important thing for us as a company is to ensure a consistently high level of quality and delivery and on that basis, we don’t want to grow too fast,” explains Young. “We want to continue to deliver capacity to the high levels our guests have come to expect. Uniworld is all about quality, consistency and personalisation.”

Despite Young admitting that it has been tempting to order more newbuilds during the current period of extreme growth in the cruise industry, the company has stuck to its guns. This is because Uniworld is one of the few river cruise companies to own almost all of its ships (13 of 18). “All of our new ships are internally financed and we don’t take on any outside debt,” comments Young, adding that although this limits the number of newbuilds on order, this approach will not change. “We always want to be able to finance our ships internally.”

The company prides itself on producing ships tailored to the regions it visits. The new Maria-Theresa, for example, has been designed in a Baroque style that fits with the European region she operates in. “I think we have a unique positioning in the marketplace,” Young remarks. “When we launch our new ships, we do spend more than any of our competitors. We invest more in the decor, the furnishings, the original artwork.” The hand-painted ceiling in Maria-Theresa’s lobby, for instance, took 12 painters three weeks.

In terms of the market, Young says: “There is no doubt that this year has been more challenging than in previous years. From our perspective, as we have not grown that much we are not filling every ship we have, but we are doing well. My view is that for the first time, there is more supply than demand in the marketplace and as a result, we are going to see a little bit of a slowdown in the newbuild schedule of our competitors.”

Looking ahead, Young believes the demand in 2017 and 2018 will be better matched to supply, and has every confidence in the sector. “The overall satisfaction rates on river cruising, I think will continue to grow,” he says. “I do think that there are a lot of great years ahead for river cruising.”

In terms of Uniworld’s own growth, putting a chartered ship on the Ganges for the first time this year has been a “massive success”. The itineraries are almost sold out for 2016 (January to March, and September to December) with a load factor of 93%. The combination of five nights in Oberoi hotels in the Indian cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra and seven nights on the Ganges has proved to be a big draw.

Meanwhile, guest feedback on Maria-Theresa has been outstanding, says Young. “Capacity sold well and although she is not full for the entire season, I think that is the nature of the market this year.”

Underpinning Uniworld’s success are its valuable repeat clients. “We don’t do very much consumer marketing at all, it is very much about our delivery,” comments Young. “Existing guests do a great job advertising to their families and friends. However, as markets grow and capacities increase, we are obviously now keen to attract first-time cruisers and will be doing more advertising in the future.”

Currently, two thirds of the company’s business comes from the US, while Australia and Canada are growing as source markets. There is also more marketing activity in the UK, Asia, Brazil, South Africa and New Zealand. For example, Uniworld has launched a virtual reality app (Oculus Rift) to enable travel agents to virtually tour Maria Theresa. Explaining that this tool will be used on more ships in future, Young says: “It’s a great way to showcase our ships.”

Although its core market is currently the baby boomers, Uniworld has been one of leading lines for family cruises for the past four years and is now trying to attract a younger clientele. In this respect it has developed an onboard wellness programme providing yoga lessons, TRX suspension training and more. “We are the only river company with a wellness instructor onboard,” says Young.

Go-active shore excursions have also been added, such as a cycle wine-tasting tour in Bordeaux’s Medoc region in France. Most of the excursions are contracted directly through the company’s local offices but Uniworld has signed a partnership with Butterfield & Robinson to work on a combined cycle/cruise programme. There will be two departures in 2016 and more next year. “We will continue to work with this sort of partnership to source new guests,” comments Young.

New themed cruises and focused itineraries, such as the Monarch Collection about Europe’s royal families, are also generating more passengers. This year there are nine themed itineraries and more will be added in the future. “This has been a great source of new guests for us and the feedback has been outstanding,” notes Young.

Next year Joie de Vivre will be delivered on the Seine in France. At 125m in length, rather than the more usual 135m, she will be the maximum length able to dock in the heart of Paris. The name hints at her French style which Young notes will be “fun and airy and fitting of a joyful time in France and Paris.”

In response to passenger requests, the cruise line is also studying the feasibility of cruising the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru. “For us, the key is to find the right partner because it is all about the quality and consistency across the products,” Young says. “We want to be able to achieve the same standards.”

No stranger to pioneering new destinations, Young underscores that owning, rather than chartering, the fleet in Europe makes a “huge difference” in what the company is able to deliver. “With secondary destinations we eventually get there but it takes a little more time as we are working through third parties,” he explains.

Although there are no plans to build or charter vessels on the table, Young says the company aims to continue debuting one or two a year. Despite the short-term effects of the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in Belgium, he is convinced the cruise market has a long-term future. “The fortunate thing with river cruising is the time to deliver is not that far out.”

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Susan Parker
By Susan Parker
17 November 2016

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