Iconic Outlook: One-on-One With David Dingle, CEO, Cunard Line

david dingle, ceo, cunard line
This photo is from Cunard Line; all other photos by Susan J. Young

David K. Dingle, CEO, Cunard Line (www.cunard.com), is becoming more visible as the public face of the iconic brand that operates Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.

Many U.S. agents may not know him but, in reality, he’s an industry veteran with 36 years of cruise segment experience. He’s had full responsibility for Cunard for seven years as head of Carnival U.K.

Dingle, based in Cunard’s offices in Southampton, U.K., traveled to the U.S. last week for corporate meetings in Miami. During his visit, he talked one-on-one with Travel Agent about his background, vision and what’s ahead for Cunard.

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This artwork of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth graces the ship's interior.
This artwork of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth graces the ship's interior.

“I have an incredibly long history in the cruise industry,” Dingle told us, noting that he started nearly 36 years ago, back in 1978. At that time he was with P&O Cruises and, in those days Princess Cruises was part of P&O. Then through a various organizational changes and mergers, “I found myself in the Carnival [Corporation] organization in 2003,” Dingle said.

Dingle assumed all responsible for Cunard in 2007 when that brand’s head office was relocated back to the United Kingdom from the U.S.

Peter Shanks, the former president and CEO, who had become the public face of the brand to U.S. travel agents for several years, left Cunard last year.

RELATED: Cunard Line Restructures Commercial Leadership Roles

“It’s only since I made some internal reorganization of the Cunard brand that I said, “Well, as the CEO I should now should become the ultimate public face of the brand,” Dingle stresses. “I’m not new to Cunard, but it’s just that I’m giving myself more visibility,” he said.

So here is Dingle’s perspective on his brand, sales and marketing, North American agents and more…

What’s your vision for the Cunard brand and its future?

I would describe Cunard as the only big-ship luxury cruise brand, and I think that is unique. Cunard is a global brand although its roots are British … and I think those are valuable roots.

I still that there is a recognition across the world that Britain -- at least at once upon a time -- was a predominant seafaring nation and Britain is associated with 'doing ships' very well. I think that heritage percolates Cunard.

Two-level library onboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth
Two-level library onboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth

Therefore, it really make Cunard what I would call “Britain on a World Stage.” That’s one of my favorite expressions. It’s a great brand with a British heritage and that has resonance right across the world. So my vision for Cunard is preserving and enhancing its uniqueness and continuing to grow its global appeal.

How many North American guests does Cunard carry annually? Is the market growing?

Our North Americans carriage at the moment is around 25-30 percent as a whole. My belief is that it naturally should be higher than that and my desire is to make it higher than that. Why? Because America has an extremely large number of affluent travelers and that’s one of the markets we should tap into.

Guests might dine in The Verandah, an alternative restaurant on Queen Elizabeth.
Guests might dine in The Verandah, an alternative restaurant on Queen Elizabeth.

Overall, though, I am less concerned about which markets I’m drawing my travelers from; I’m more concerned about making sure we are creaming off premium, upscale travelers from the available markets across the world. I know clearly, though, that the United States and North America as a whole still have -- despite the growth of Asia -- enormous potential.

RELATED: Cunard and Seabourn Revise Smoking Policies - How Will Changes Impact Clients?

What about the mix on your trans-Atlantic voyages?

The trans-Atlantic mix -- very, very roughly -- is going to be 40 percent American, 40 percent British and 20 percent would be the rest. Among that 20 percent is going to be a significant German portion. That’s because we extend some of our transatlantic voyages through to Hamburg.

Cunard has a high-end Grills experience for suite guests? Is it a ship-within-a-ship concept? How do you balance that with the onboard experience elsewhere on the ship?

 

I tend less to see our ships divided as classes although I do acknowledge that dining is a very important element of the suite experience, and it is the dining segregation which I suppose is unusual on Cunard ships.

Suite guests have high-end accommodations and access to the Grills dining experience.
Suite guests have high-end accommodations and access to the Grills dining experience.

But although, frankly, on any cruise ship, you do have natural distinctions between those who travel in suites and those who travel in more regular cabins. It’s just that we have a dining overlay. I don’t really see it as a ship-within-a-ship concept.

What I would acknowledge is that from a business standpoint, the Grills concept is very profitable. It’s very valuable business. Were I to be designing another Cunard ship, then my suspicion would be that I would be increasing the proportion of Grills capacity within the whole.

The Britannia Restaurant is Queen Elizabeth's grand, elegant main dining room.
The Britannia Restaurant is Queen Elizabeth's grand, elegant main dining room.

That said, my Britannia restaurant experience is hugely important because that is where I have by far the largest number of passengers. We shouldn’t forget that our Grills guests only represent 15 percent of all those that we carry on our ships.

The vast majority of our customers are Britannia customers, so obviously they are hugely important.

What do you see for North American travel agents. Any changes coming in sales, marketing or agent relations?

The most important thing we’ve done recently is that I have developed a management team for North America which is dedicated solely to Cunard, because I think you’re aware that Cunard’s North American office is based in the Princess Cruises office near Los Angeles.

What I’ve been doing over the last year and a half is to develop a larger Cunard-specific team in that office. That gives me a group of people who can react far more immediately and effectively to travel agent needs, particularly in terms of joint promotion and giving special attention to particular travel agents. Including the call center, about 50-70 people are Cunard-specific.

So, it is much more about what I would call business support rather than new and different agent renumeration policies. Overall, I’m happy with our travel agent renumeration policies. Where I want to continue to develop our travel agent engagement is through better business support and planning.

Of course, we have enormous support from the Princess team including back-of-house support and the Princess sales force. We also do have a Cunard-dedicated sales promotional planning function.

What kind of consumer marketing can we expect in 2014? Will heritage continue to be the focus?

First of all our messaging is going to be much more about our brand proposition and much less about price. I think frankly all of us in the cruise industry -- particularly after living through a recessionary period – have been [as necessity dictated] overly focused on price.

Now, this is a time to lift ourselves above that and get back to talking about our brand. At Cunard, this is very much about the special, luxurious, indulgent nature of the Cunard brand.

The pool deck of Queen Elizabeth, showing the entry to the Garden Lounge.
The pool deck of Queen Elizabeth, showing the entry to the Garden Lounge.

Any changes in reservations the coming year?

In North America, we very much follow the Princess system's approach. We all have a single reservations platform. We all use the same basic basic travel agent booking systems… so Cunard in North America will sit alongside them.

Queen Elizabeth's Garden Lounge is an indoor space with soaring ceiling. Afternoon Tea is popular here
Queen Elizabeth's Garden Lounge is an indoor space with soaring ceiling. Afternoon Tea is popular here.

What trends are emerging for itineraries or destinations? Any hot spots or gleanings for agents about what's ahead?

For us, in terms of destinations, we’re looking at three particular things. First of all, how do we continue to leverage the transatlantic proposition? Because at the end of the day, the transatlantic is our single most successful trade.

But now what we’re starting to do -- particularly as we lead up to both the 175th anniversary of Queen Mary 2 and in 2015 Cunard’s 175th anniversary -- we’re very much looking back to transatlantic heritage and, for instance, bringing in other traditional ports of call.

Traditionally, this is a voyage between New York and Southampton, but of course, the original North American port was Halifax in Nova Scotia. So we’re including the other great liner ports. There’s Halifax. We’ll be bringing in more Boston calls. And over on the other side of pond is Liverpool, which is another great spiritual home for Cunard.

So number one is finding some ways of varying and enhancing the transatlantic experience. Number two -- as we internationalize our customer sourcing – is making sure that we have itineraries that have international appeal. That’s very important.

The Britannia Restaurant is Queen Elizabeth's elegant dining venue and a centerpiece of the ship.
The Britannia Restaurant is Queen Elizabeth's elegant dining venue and a centerpiece of the ship.

It’s why we are focusing much more on the Mediterranean as a destination. We're home porting the Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean and focusing on what I would call the iconic ports.

Cunard is an iconic brand with international sophistication, and Cunard extraordinarily relates to ports of call that have that same sense about them. For example, as we plan our 2015 programs and beyond, we’re thinking more and more about longer stays in places like Monte Carlo, Istanbul and Venice.

So our second thrust is really focusing Cunard on the iconic ports and increasing the customer time and the customer experience in those ports.

The third destinational thrust, particularly for our long-haul cruises, is increasing content in the Asian world. We do get an increasingly amount of customer sourcing in Asia, especially from the Japanese market and increasingly from markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

So you will see on our World Cruise itinerary for 2015 that we have a more exotic blend of ports of call in Asia.

Are you tapping into the "Down Under" market?

Yes, we are. We are very strong in Australia. As part of the Queen Mary 2 Grand Voyage in the winter, we will include a circumnavigation, either of Australia or of New Zealand.

Is Cunard right-sized with three ships? Any new builds on the horizon?

You never say never. I’m still at the stage in re-pointing the Cunard brand to make sure that I’m re-capturing my international market.

By doing so, that means I’m appealing to a wider pool of passengers. That enables me to increase my profitability through holding higher fare levels. And obviously, as I enhance the promotional performance of Cunard, my case for considering further tonnage continues to grow.

Do I have a design of a new Cunard ship in my back pocket? ‘No, I don’t.’ Do I dream at night about what a new Cunard ship might look like? ‘Well, of course I do.’

How will the brand tap into Queen Mary 2's 10th anniversary?

For the 10th anniversary of Queen Mary 2, the biggest events will be in May 2014. When she sails from Southampton on May 9, we will have all three Cunard ships in Southampton on that day.

Then she has her big crossing the other direction on May 16, and obviously we will make that a very, very big and special event as she sails from New York.

RELATED: Cunard's Queen Mary 2 Celebrates First Ten Years

Queen Mary 2 celebrates her 10th anniversary this year; this painting hangs within Queen Elizabeth's Commodore Club.
Queen Mary 2 celebrates her 10th anniversary this year; this painting hangs within Queen Elizabeth's Commodore Club.

We are including Halifax in our two eight-night trans-Atlantic crossings that we have in 2014. And it just so happens that for one of those we have James Taylor sailing as our special guest. That is on Aug. 27 and I think that’s going to add some more sizzle to that particular occasion.

Since 2015 is Cunard's 175th anniversary year, what celebratory events are planned?

In 2015, we are going to have major celebrations – although we haven’t yet planned the whole program – for the 175th anniversary of Cunard. We haven’t [completed] the piece which we call the “Royal Rendezvous” for two or more ships.

But for instance, we will have three ships in Southampton in May 2015, and we will put three ships into Liverpool in May 2015. We will have other rendezvous of ships globally as well. It’s a Cunard trademark and we do these celebrations in a way that no other cruise line does.

RELATED: Cunard Announces Events for Its 175th Anniversary Celebration in 2015

Industrywide, lines are seeking to snag new, young and first-time guests. How do you convince these potential cruisers that Cunard isn't only for their parents or grandparents?

Cunard is certainly different in a number of ways. Cunard for many cruisers…it’s almost a pinnacle. One of the fascinating factors is the number of customers who normally would be loyal to a premium, large mass-market brand, but they come to Cunard for that special moment.

For most cruise brands, people have their likes and their dislikes. Cunard is almost uniquely liked by everybody. There are very few people who cruise who wouldn’t have an aspiration of sailing with us. So we’re very happy for Cunard to be populated by people who have graduated from other cruise lines.

We also recognize that the Queen Mary 2 transatlantic is not necessarily something just for cruise people. It is a bucket list experience so that attracts a lot of people to the transatlantic who have never cruised before. And they will be of all ages.