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Taking the Helm at Cunard

August 13, 2009 By: Susan Young Travel Agent


Queen Mary 2, which debuted in 2004, is Cunard’s grandest ocean liner

Chatting with Peter Shanks, the newly appointed president and managing director at Cunard Line, is akin to listening to a motivational speaker with unwavering passion for his subject matter. Named to his new post in July, Shanks takes over from Carol Marlow, who after five years at Cunard's helm was appointed managing director of sister brand P&O Cruises.

Shanks exudes unbridled enthusiasm for his job and Cunard's iconic ocean-liner brand. He first joined the company in 2001 and was European managing director for the line when Queen Mary 2 debuted in 2004.

"I've been known for passion [for my job and the brand], and feel I can build the brand further," he says. Shanks hopes to raise the presence of Cunard in North America, citing the evolution of the line to a three-ship fleet next year as a big plus. Currently Cunard operates Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, which set sail in late 2007. The luxury line's third ship, Queen Elizabeth is set to launch in October 2010.

"The American market has always been important to Cunard," he says. But in recent years, Cunard has fielded a fairly narrow range of deployment. However, by fall 2010, "we'll have a much more consistent deployment pattern." He cites the positioning of Queen Victoria into the Mediterranean in 2010. "That should help travel agents within the U.S. and give them the ability to support us year-round," he says.

Queen Victoria begins its 2010 season in Southampton with a series of voyages to Iberia, northern Europe, the Norwegian Fjords, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, in addition to its first sailing around the British Isles. After repositioning to Venice, it will begin a series of "open jaw" sailings between Venice and Rome or Barcelona. Many sailings will feature overnight stays in such cities as Venice, Istanbul and Barcelona.

Shanks believes Cunard's guest appeal is evolving from a once-in-a-lifetime luxury experience to a scenario in which a bigger pool of loyal guests book two or three voyages a year. That should accelerate as Queen Elizabeth launches and Cunard can develop more diverse itineraries for a three-ship fleet.

Shanks points out that, for the first time, Cunard will also have a far more consistent fleet in terms of onboard accommodations and features. While Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth are smaller than QM2, many features will be consistent across the fleet, including the highly popular luxurious "Grill" accommodations, which offer exclusive access to intimate dining rooms.

Construction work for Queen Elizabeth is on track, Shanks reports. The keel was laid in July. "We've completed the design phase," he says, adding that while Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria share similar features, "when people see [Queen Elizabeth], they'll realize she has a personality of her own."

The new liner is 75 percent sold out for its first six voyages between October 10, 2010, through year-end. Space is still available, but Shanks says the line is seeing strong demand for the voyages. Cunard's appeal, he believes, is about its iconic liners, but also about dining, entertainment and, most importantly, its White Star Service. "That's what it's all about," he says.


A rendering of the interior of Cunard’s third ship, Queen Elizabeth, which will set sail in October 2010

On the trade side, "I'm keen to make sure we have a strong presence [with agents]," he says. Cunard will launch an extensive road show for agents and trade partners this fall.

In terms of markets, Shanks says, Cunard is highly popular in New York, has a strong presence in Florida and growing opportunities on the West Coast. About 40 percent of Cunard's customers reside in North America, another 40 percent are from the UK and the remaining 20 percent reside elsewhere, mostly in Germany and Australia.

What types of clients are best for a Cunard voyage? "One of the things I always say is that if people like 'cosmopolitan,' Cunard is fantastic," says Shanks. He adds that clients who enjoy mixing with like-minded people from all nationalities are also a good fit. So are luxury-focused guests who enjoy sumptuous suites such as QM2's two-level duplexes, but want big-ship amenities.

Cunard remains the only cruise line offering a series of regularly scheduled transatlantic crossings and the line has spiced things up with voyages of varying lengths. "That is proving successful," he says.

Cunard has proven remarkably resilient to the current economic crisis. "We recognized we had to sharpen prices this year and that worked for us," says Shanks. "We've had a strong summer season on the transatlantic, because back in fall 2008 and through the Wave [season] we decided to go with [value], and that was well accepted by travel agents in North America."


Peter Shanks

As a result, he says there is less discounting in the marketplace for late summer.

Is the global economic slump impacting customer booking decisions about the type of cabin category? "We're not seeing people trading down this year," he says. "Once they experience the Princess Grill [Suite], they're hooked. If anything, our loyal passengers are trading up with an eye for value, and they're going more frequently."

In his new role, Shanks is based in the UK but oversees Cunard offices in Los Angeles, Hamburg and Sydney and is supported by the commercial and product groups within Carnival UK. He reports to David Dingle, CEO, Carnival UK.

His key message for North American agents is that Cunard is moving to a new era with more flexible deployment and a modern fleet with consistent features. "I don't want anyone to wonder, 'How do I sell Cunard?'" given those developments, he stresses. "Not only is it a fabulous brand, very exciting, but it's also about having the youngest fleet in the world and a terrific quality product."

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