Paul Ludlow, president of P&O, tells Sam Ballard why the brand has prospered over its 180-year history – and how it will continue to do so.
This year was meant to be the biggest in P&O Cruises’ history. The line – which prides itself on offering “the best of British” – is part of the Carnival Corporation family – the biggest cruise conglomerate in the world. However, the safety of being in one of the largest companies in the world has failed to shield it from the Covid-19 pandemic and a virus that does not discriminate.
Carnival’s share price fell by more than 60 per cent in March alone. The virus has put the world into lockdown and ensured that cruise ships stop sailing for months on end – not an ideal time for P&O Cruises to be launching the biggest ship in its history.
“P&O cruises represents the best of Britain,” said president of P&O Cruises Paul Ludlow, speaking before the pandemic hit. “It always reflects the Britain of today. And I think that one of the reasons why we’ve been so successful is that we’ve always been able to dial into trends, consumer habits and people’s desires in order to reflect a holiday to them which they are going to enjoy.”
As a company with more than 180 years of heritage, the fact that 2020 is arguably the most important in its history is no mean feat. However, that’s what happens when you plan to launch the biggest ship in your entire history: Iona.
By any measure, Iona is big. At a massive 183,900 gross tonnes, it weighs more than the first five ships in P&O’s modern history combined – Arcadia, Uganda, Oriana, Canberra and Sea Princess – and takes a fair chunk of the second Arcadia, which launched in 1988.
“Iona allows us to continue to be relevant,” says Ludlow. “It allows us to create stories to give people memories that they’re going to treasure.”
At 5,200 passengers, Iona dwarfs P&O’s most recent ship, Britannia, which can handle up to 3,600 passengers. It will feature a host of new features including the SkyDome, a huge atrium that will combine daytime lounging by the pool with a space for evening entertainment beneath the stars. It’s all about offering British passengers the chance to travel the world while enjoying their home comforts. Until recently, the timing seemed perfect.
Last year, two million British passengers took a cruise for the first time. The milestone – which will become a high watermark for the industry after the months-long cancellation of cruises because of Covid-19 – is going to rely on the collective genius of cruise lines to not only bring past guests back, but get the elusive first-timers on board, too. For P&O Cruises and Iona, the launch has been peppered with brand partnerships aimed at drawing in new crowds, the biggest reveal of all being Gary Barlow as a brand ambassador.
“It creates excitement for the sector, undoubtedly,” Ludlow says. “The cruise industry moves at a pace like no other. People are innovating, people are evolving in a way which continues to create incredible consumer excitement. The growth that the sector has seen in the
past ten years has been like no other sector in the UK holiday market. And I think with the new ships that are coming online over the next three to five years, that growth will continue.”
However, while innovation is crucial for the future of the industry, it goes hand in hand with offering a value proposition that few others can compete with, according to the P&O boss.
“The value that guests get from a cruise holiday is like no other. And, because guests can trust us, they keep coming back. In the uncertain world that we live, people need certainty. And they want to go on holiday and trust that they’re going to get the return from their holiday that they need. And that’s why they choose P&O Cruises.”
However, with the company’s inventory growing 55 per cent over the next five years – Iona will be followed by a sister ship in 2022 – one thing is clear: P&O will need the support of the trade to achieve that ambition, particularly after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
“The brand won’t be successful without front-line travel agents,” says Alex Delamere-White, vice president of sales & marketing at P&O Cruises. “So we
need these travel agents to be advocates for the holiday.”
Trade engagement has been a key component of travel brand sales strategies in recent years. Companies have become ever more inventive in their courtship of travel agents, from incentives to schemes that act as clubs – with benefits piling up the more agents engage, and ultimately sell. For P&O Cruises, that takes the form of Shine.
Delamere-White explains: “It [Shine] is a programme where agents can become ambassadors of our brand. It has exceeded our expectations. Shine now has 14,500 members, which is incredible. Agents are all being rewarded and recognised.
“We measure engagement by how many travel agents are registering their select price bookings. In 2019 it was 85 per cent. That means nine in ten bookings made by a travel agent are being rewarded. That has completely exceeded our expectations.”
It will be crucial that P&O – and the wider industry – continues to engage agents as we pass through this crisis. The key to success for companies like P&O is to maintain the strength of their brand.
Ludlow adds: “We have absolute clarity of who we are as a brand. We are the best of British. If you want to come on holiday with us, you absolutely know what you’re going to get and you know that you can count on it, because you can put your trust in P&O Cruises.
“When the world is difficult, that’s when really strong brands can prosper. And that’s why I believe we’ve prospered, because we’ve got a rock solid brand that people trust.”
In 180 years of history – through world wars and Brexit – this could be P&O’s toughest challenge yet.