Paul Ludlow had only been president of P&O Cruises for about 18 months when Covid-19 struck. At the time, the major task ahead was to bring the brand’s LNG-powered sister ships, Iona and Arvia, into service. However, virtually overnight he, and the rest of the industry, was faced with very different challenges.
“It has been a real journey over the past couple of years,” he says. “If someone had said that this was what we needed to tackle as a business, as a case study, as a hypothetical exercise, I would have said it was impossible. But what we all accomplished together is nothing short of a miracle, and it is something I look back on with enormous pride.”
Ludlow credits P&O Cruises’ long-standing loyal guest base with being a major factor in the brand’s recovery. “We’ve always been very grateful for that [loyalty] and never more so than in the last couple of years. As we’ve worked through the pandemic, we have tried new things, for example roundtrip UK sailings, and the guests came back time and again. Guests’ support has carried us through what has been an incredibly testing period.”
Keeping guests abreast of news and developments has been, and will continue to be, key to P&O Cruises’ success. “We’ve really learnt new ways to communicate through social channels, emails, webinars and more to satisfy that hunger for news,” explains Ludlow. “Our ability to talk in a clear, honest and transparent way will give our guests confidence that the next few chapters of our recovery story are going to be successful.
“We’ll continue to talk to guests, making sure they understand where we are at and the reasons why we are where we are at any given time.”
Certainly, bookings have been building since the start of 2022, and not necessarily due to any particular lifting of travel restrictions by the UK Government. “Momentum has been continually building week on week since Christmas,” says Ludlow. “We are now seeing booking volumes at historically high levels of performance, particularly for the second half of this year and into 2023 and beyond.
“Evidently there has been a huge level of demand out there but guests have been waiting until they felt confident to book. That’s coming through now which sets us up very well for the next couple of years.”
When CFR spoke with Ludlow in early February, Iona, Britannia, Azura and Ventura were sailing with Aurora due imminently and Arcadia in March. Newbuilding Arvia will join the fleet in December 2022 and sail a maiden Caribbean season.
While Ludlow had no crystal ball vis a vis the best way to restart operations, the decisions he took last year to sail UK waters, cancel world cruises and not attempt international sailings turned out well. “Looking back, we got those restart decisions right. As part of the build-back plan, we had the foresight to see which destinations would be back online before others. We realised we had to do things right and not rush. Thankfully we had the financial stability to ensure we made really considered decisions and that has paid dividends ever since.”
Opening up this year to northern waters, the Mediterranean and Caribbean has required close collaboration with destinations. “We are very mindful and conscious of adhering to local protocols everywhere we visit,” says Ludlow. “Each country visited is in a different stage of recovery from the pandemic and we have to be sensitive to that, both in terms of ship operations and guest behaviours ashore. We work very closely with destinations to understand what they need us to do. Through that close collaboration it has meant that calls have gone very well.”
In addition, there has generally been huge delight and enthusiasm by everyone involved at the destination – from port workers to taxi drivers – to see the ships again. “It shows how the cruise industry makes a huge economic contribution to the places that we visit,” says Ludlow. “This has been proven categorically during the lay-up period and now we are welcomed back with open arms.”
Welcoming the crew back onboard has also been monumental, according to Ludlow. “It is great to have the crew back – their enthusiasm has been energising. We forecast that we would have some natural attrition from people moving on, but the number of people wanting to come back – even those who had found other work in the meantime – has surpassed our expectations. Such is their love for the role that they did. It has been heartening to see that we can bring back the skill, talent and muscle memory these folk have because it means that we can restart even more confidently.”
Now that P&O Cruises has come through a period of uncertainty, is rapidly increasing capacity with Iona and Arvia on the horizon, and is due to have all the ships operational this year, Ludlow says: “Now is a great opportunity for P&O Cruises to take stock, continue to improve, strengthen the guest proposition and start to think what the next chapter is.”
Like everyone, Ludlow is keen to get back to business as usual but says: “One thing this pandemic has done, which is perhaps a silver lining, is make P&O Cruises a closer, stronger, and more efficient and dynamic business. The way we communicate internally, the way we prioritise changing landscapes and situations, it is now easier. It is a skill that we have learnt.”
Looking at how the industry generally may evolve post pandemic, Ludlow says: “Speaking from personal experience, the past two years has reminded us all just how important holidays are – there’s not much that can beat the enjoyment you get from researching, booking, anticipating and then travelling. Whatever might change in the world post-Covid, one thing that is going to be more solidified is that people will want their holidays.
“We are seeing that people are making decisions even earlier – by booking early they can get what they want, whether it’s a particular destination, cabin size, ship or time of year. And people are prepared to pay more for the exact things they want.
“I think as an industry we will see an improvement in demand and a willingness to spend more on the holiday, whether onboard or on ticket price. The upshot of this awful pandemic is that people want their holidays to really count and as a result people will do whatever it takes to get that.”
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.
Share this story