Working around the clock to kick-start the return of cruising

Resuming operations during the coronavirus pandemic involves a dedicated team addressing a myriad of details on a daily basis. Susan Parker speaks with Michel Grimm of CroisiEurope

Working around the clock to kick-start the return of cruising
CroisiEurope plans to have 27 ships sailing by the end of October

On 15 July CroisiEurope resumed river operations. Botticelli set sail again on the Seine. Before the month was up, she was joined by eight more vessels, followed by another 15 in August.

The French, family-owned company has a fleet of more than 50 ships, two of which are small ocean-going vessels that accommodate 130 to 198 passengers. It plans to return a further four ships to service in September and October, bringing the total to 27.

On a normal year it carries about 200,000 passengers, 50 per cent of which are French and the balance international, mainly from the UK and Europe but also the US, Canada and with the market now growing in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. However this year will be mostly about French, Belgian, Swiss and German passengers, as those further afield will be more affected by travel restrictions.

International sales director Michel Grimm is just one of a team of about a dozen, who are working “every day in checking on what is going on in every ship in every country”. Back in March about 90 per cent of the staff, including the crew who are all CroisiEurope employees, were furloughed. However, since May there has been some return to the office, mostly from the sales team.

“We work on numbers but also we have to work on the rules/processes that we have or want to apply onboard,” he explains. “For example the technical people on where we can cruise, the services onboard people regarding the numbers of passengers vis a vis the new rules and the sales team because, for example, 90 per cent of passengers are confirmed here and 40 per cent there, so which cruise do we go with?

“Every cruise is a journey. Every ship is a floating hotel. We decide cruise by cruise,” says Grimm, pointing out that there is a benefit to being a French company under French law in the present situation. Furlough in France means that once CroisiEurope knows how many passengers are booked on specific cruises, it can activate crew on one cruise but not another which has too few bookings. Grimm says: “We study case by case, ship by ship.

“We have a clear vision of what we are going to do in the next four to six weeks but, for example in a month or two this could be more or less. We have a daily review. Every week we have a new situation summary. We know one month prior [to sailing] but we keep a one-week update because we have to combine occupancy with our partners in different countries plus we try to produce additional sales.”

What is good and perhaps surprising news is that by the end of July, the company was receiving additional sales for 2021 and also for 2020. “It is not a wave, of course not, but there are some people who still want to travel. They trust the company, but also for example the coach and air travel companies, to be clever with all the health protocols.”

With countries having different levels of the pandemic and changing protocols, it is not easy for any of us to keep abreast of regulations at home, let alone beyond borders. Grimm makes reference to the UK government’s advice in early July against cruise travel, saying this was “really a bump for our industry”.

Since then river cruises have been taken out of that advice. As he points out there is a world of difference between an ocean-going cruise ship with 4,000 passengers in the middle of the sea and a river ship with 100 passengers travelling between cities, when it comes to possible health situations. The company is not making changes to its river itineraries. “We have absolutely no reason to change any river cruises. The only reason to change a port of call is, for example, if the country we cruise does not let us stop in certain places, but this is not the case in France, Portugal, Spain, Germany or Holland [in July]. On the Danube we are going as far as Budapest. Most people operate now in Western Europe where there is no problem operating.

”We also have cruises on the Mekong and Africa but these are not operating so far. We hope to operate in winter but there is not enough information so far to decide, not just on the local operations but also regarding flights, borders etc.”

Whilst the company is focusing more on Europe, which accounts for 90 per cent of its destinations, it has made changes to the programme of one of its ocean ships. “We were supposed to operate in Quebec on the Saint Lawrence but, with the Covid situation, the Canadian authorities have closed river access to cruise ships. We have decided to keep that ship in Europe to be able to sail destinations that are close and safe and with easy access.” This means La Belle des Oceans will be sailing out of Nice round Corsica with port calls every day. In winter she will operate in the Canary Islands.

Grimm says that Corsica is selling extremely well and is going to remain a classic in the fleet. Most of the July departures were sold out and the numbers for August, September and October were on the rise. In August, La Belle de l’Adriatique resumes operating out of Dubrovnik along the Adriatic.

During this unprecedented situation, working relationships both internally and externally come to the fore: “We have always had excellent relations with our partners, such as Voyage Jules Verne, Noble Caledonia, Great Rail Journeys, Titan and Saga, and we are continuing with those. We know about different countries’ circumstances and how these can be handled. The collaboration has been excellent, even with small coach operators, which is a very good sign.

“I know all tour operators have more or less the same goal: to save the business; keep security and health care a priority; to be able to travel and look forward to when times are better. It is good teamwork internally, but also with partners.”

CroisiEurope’s health and safety protocols, which were already stricter than in land-based hotels and restaurants, have now been significantly increased. The company has also earned a Safeguard Certification Label from Bureau Veritas, showing the it has properly applied new preventative sanitary measures and that its crew members have been thoroughly trained to implement them.

For Dubrovnik and Nice, however, CroisiEurope has worked closely with the port authorities to adopt and respect local processes. Onboard, the company is following the relevant countries’ guidelines which, as Grimm points out, are changing almost every day. There is good news: “The feedback we have from the cruises which we have been operating for five weeks is that the atmosphere onboard is friendly and the people are happy,” says Grimm. “The processes are quite easy to handle because the cruises are not totally sold out. There are between 60 per cent and 85 per cent onboard, so we haven’t had to reduce sales [due to coronavirus protocols].”

Grimm admits that it would have been easier to put everyone on furlough and to put the ships into layup until next year. However he says: “This is not the way we do business in this company. And, more important, I think when you face challenges you have to fight to achieve your goal and reach your dreams and not let others take control of your life.

“In terms of river cruise business, we are the European leader and one of the leaders in the world, so we have to show our contribution for the river cruise industry. We have to try.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Susan Parker
By Susan Parker
23 October 2020

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