Travel Agent magazine caught up with Peter Shanks, president and managing director, Cunard Line, just prior to the opening of Cruise Shipping Miami. Following are highlights of that discussion, which touched on the operation of the new Queen Elizabeth, plans for any changes in venues on Cunard ships and the latest cruising trends.
How’s Queen Elizabeth’s initial year going? Anything learned?
She’s built a fine reputation in her first few months. We had an ambition to achieve that reputation and we have done so. She had a very successful range of inaugural voyages before Christmas and she’s now halfway around her World Voyage.
I spent three days on her in Sydney and in Wellington, New Zealand and she has a lovely feel about her. It’s strange. She seems very, very settled, very quickly. And I think that’s because all of the hard work and time that the crew onboard put into it. But, she’s universally well received.
What are the “hits” of the ship? What’s most popular with guests?
The first one is the Britannia Club. These days with people wanting a more flexible approach to dining, the way we did that was to produce the Britannia Club in a separate, beautiful setting. Also, the flexibility we added up in the Lido with the three different alternative venues in the evening has been very well received.
And, you know, there was a little bit of contention at the time when we said we were going to charge $10 for that, once people have eaten they understand that’s it’s such great value for money and the quality is so high. That’s working extremely well for us.
Probably, though, the one I’m proudest of is the Verandah Restaurant. It was a brave move to step outside [the box] and say we’re not going with an external celebrity chef, we’re going to do it ourselves. It’s proved to be tremendously popular.
Do you think the smoothness of the Queen Elizabeth’s launch has to do with the newness of your other ships and the experience level there?
I think so, yes. Because history will tell that Cunard did have a bit of a challenge in introducing Queen Mary 2 in 2004, but obviously [those issues] were overcome. Certainly [the introduction of] Queen Victoria was much, much better, and the Queen Elizabeth [launch] has been exemplary. Yet, with a ship of that standing, you only have one option which is to deliver it perfectly. I’ve very proud of the staff onboard because to date, she has built that very strong reputation.
Is the three-ship fleet the right size for Cunard? Or are you looking at more ships?
I think right now three ships is the right size for Cunard. I always have a vision and an ambition [in the future] to grow the brand further and I think that will happen over the coming years, but, at the moment, our focus is on three ships. They’re substantial ships with 4,600 berths total.
For Cunard Line, remembering that we’re a premium, top-end brand, I think in the current market, three ships is the right size for us.
Has the Queen Elizabeth launch buzz brought in new clients?
I think it’s given us a step change. I know when we spoke back in October, I was hoping for a step change --- both in the awareness level and the booking levels. Generally when you launch a new ship you see a spike in bookings for a few days. We saw a sustained jump in bookings, which we were delighted with because of the worldwide coverage.
Queen Elizabeth is doing remarkably well for 2011, and Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria are also doing adequately well. So, while we’re in a tough market, we’re on track with our plans despite growing the business by 37 percent.
The fact we now have three young ships, the fact that we now have a consistent product to offer our travel agents and our guests, and more importantly, the fact that we’re going to more places and trying new things, that’s what’s led to a bit of a step change in people’s opinions or consideration of Cunard line.
We haven’t finished the year yet, though. You can ask me in another six months, but so far, so good.
What did you learn from Queen Victoria’s Mediterranean season last year and the ability to position a Cunard ship in one region for a sustained period?
The 2011 program at the end of this summer is [doing] much better than it was last year, because it’s the second season, particularly for the North American market with both travel agents and customers. You do have to be consistent. We had dipped out of that market in 2009, so 2011 is the second consecutive year and we’re much happier with the booking levels [we see coming up this year].
During the fourth quarter last year, when she was in that deployment, Queen Victoria was our best performing ship as measured by our guests. She did very well in that deployment. So it’s looking stronger at the same time – for the moment – in this forthcoming season, in 2011.
And we’ve just announced our 2012 program where we’re going to maintain that deployment, but swapping Queen Elizabeth into that Mediterranean deployment. I was particularly keen to do that because the Queen Elizabeth has been so warmly received in North America and I wanted to give that market a chance to experience Queen Elizabeth in a strong deployment – what will become the third consecutive year of that deployment.
Any changes in interior spaces onboard the Cunard ships – adding new venues?
We have a refit coming up for the Queen Mary 2 in November of this year, and we’ll be doing a substantial amount of refurbishment in the hotel area, and a few bits and pieces and surprises that we will announce over time. But she’s doing very well and needs that investment so we’re rightly making that.
In regard to what we learned on Queen Elizabeth [that might translate into shifting the same venues to our other ships, I would cite] the approach we’ve given to the theater company, the change in the way we’re doing alternative dining in the Lido, and the art program – an art retail program not an art auction.
We’re immediately going to roll that new art program onto both Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria this summer. We also introduced the afternoon champagne tea service on Queen Elizabeth and we’re going to roll that onto both other ships. In addition, we’ll introduce some of the products in our retail areas on Queen Elizabeth onto the other ships.
The Britannia Club is already on Queen Mary 2, but whether we follow through and put the Britannia Club on Queen Victoria as well, that’s something we’ll look at. The ship is not due for a refit for another couple of years, so we have time to see how that goes down, but that is something we may well consider.
As for the Queen Elizabeth theater operation [and any changes to the other ships as a result], we’ll have to wait and watch, but so far it’s very encouraging. It gives us more depth and variety. Let’s give it a summer season, but again, it might be something to push onto the two other ships.
The last one, which has taken us a bit by surprise, is the success of our Apple computer program. Who would have thought Cunard and Apple were two brands that would sit so comfortably together? And we’ve already rolled the Apple learning program onto Queen Mary 2.
I was on the Queen Mary 2 a couple of weeks ago down in Australia and it was absolute standing room only from our guests, wanting to learn how to use iPads, iPhones and Apple Macs. That delighted us, and we want to move as quickly as we can to make sure we have that Apple relationship across the fleet.
Any service enhancements?
Because we were so strong behind our White Star service, because we had to welcome so many new staff to the fleet, and therefore to back fill [staffing] on the other two ships, at the moment we’re concentrating on making sure we offer White Star excellence and high levels of service across the fleet. It’s already very strong, but with the growth of the fleet our goal is to make sure we absolutely deliver that to our guests this summer.
We now have White Star Academies on all three ships; when you start [as a crew member] on the ship, you don’t go right into service, you go down to the White Star Academy on the ship and have five or six days of training. That’s something we’ve now committed to on all three ships. It’s an investment for us.
Any trends about what clients really want?
Over the past two years, we’ve slowed the ships down because of fuel costs. Therefore, we have slowly reduced the number of ports on some of our itineraries and had more sea days. Our guests have welcomed that for two reasons. First, people are on [vacation] and rushing in and out of ports can be very tiring as well as exciting.
Secondly, it seems that days at sea on Cunard are a special part of the experience -- given our ships and our ambience, and particularly on the Queen Mary 2 with her deck space. So I think the one thing we’ve seen is that people do appreciate sea days more. It’s not just about the destination, it’s about the experience and a very relaxing experience. That’s probably the biggest trend. We like that because it helps us keep the price down and our sea days are just very special.
The other trend we’ve noticed is “experiences”-- the three queens [scheduling all three Cunard ships in the harbor] in New York and the two queens in Sydney. The more experiences of that nature that we can give our guests, then the bigger wow factor they get. We announced in our 2012 program that we’re doing a three queens program in Southampton, the day of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration.
You’ve cut commission to U.K. agents recently. Will this spread to the U.S. market?
Absolutely not. The U.K. landscape – in terms of travel agents and travel agent rebating – is entirely different than in North America. This move is P&O and Cunard in the U.K. and is not really related to how we manage our markets in other parts of the world.
So you can reassure your travel agent friends that this was something that we think is right for the U.K. market. And by the way, we think U.K. travel agents will be more profitable as well. We also expect to get strong support from the U.K. travel agents. But this is not something we’re looking at for other markets, because it’s just really the landscape we have here [in the U.K.].
What’s Cunard Doing for the Royal Wedding? Anything special?