Plain sailing

William Gibbons

UK Director, Passenger Shipping Association

With more cruise lines than ever before entering the marketplace and the growing popularity of cruising with first-time and family holiday markets, Bill Gibbons, Director of the Passenger Shipping Association, examines the key initiatives in the UK cruise industry that have brought about this change.

The last five years have seen the UK cruise industry grow from being a small niche market holiday choice to a popular mainstream holiday option that is expanding faster than any other in this market.

Changes in perception by travel agents have been a significant attributing factor to the growth of the cruise industry in the UK - largely due to the training and support that is available from the agent's training arm of the PSA, PSARA. Since PSARA's formation in 1987, during a virtually static period in the UK cruise market, we have seen the industry grow from 90,000 bookings a year in the late eighties to nearly 370,000 bookings in 1995.

With a 24 per cent growth in the market in 1995 over the previous year, the UK is the fastest growing cruise market in Europe, accounting for 32 per cent of Europe's total cruise bookings. New lines entering the marketplace in recent years have had a dramatic and positive effect on the image of the industry. Tour operators like Thomson and Airtours have expanded their programmes to include cruising, bringing with them a very different product. These companies are attracting a wider range of age groups who, for reasons of individual requirement, perception or budget, had not previously thought of cruising as a holiday option. In 1995 especially, we saw an increase of 40 per cent in bookings from the 25-35 age group and prices for a cruise starting from as little as £399. Itineraries have significantly changed too, with bookings of 5-7 night cruises increasing by 50 per cent during 1994 and then accounting for 47 per cent of the whole cruise market in 1995.

Cruising is, however, an extremely different holiday choice from traditional land-based options. The multitude of destinations that a ship can visit and explore during a three, four seven or 14 day cruise is unique to the cruise market, as is the fact that a brochure price nearly always includes meals and on-board entertainment.

Cruising is a holiday of equal attraction both to travellers who are very active and to those who might wish to relax and unwind, with most ships fitted with not only sports and activity facilities but also restful recreation areas. Another unique selling point for the industry is a relatively new one: cruising has become an ideal holiday for families. Many of the mass-market ships now have excellent on-board facilities for very young children and teenagers. Larger cruise ships commonly feature a children's crèche and separate play deck, games room and gym, all supervised by trained child minders. Even smaller, more traditional ships are being refitted by their owner lines to incorporate better child activity areas and a wider range of teenager recreational facilities.

October this year, 1996, will see the launch of the industry's annual campaign, Cruise Month, during which all lines within the Passenger Shipping Association give a real push to the cruise market through incentives, promotions and competitions at point of sale with selections of leaflets and advice for first-time cruisers. A key to the success of Cruise Month is the combined support of the whole industry; the cruise lines and travel agents working together to promote the industry. Participating agents receive a Cruise Month Kit which will comprise various point of sale material announcing the campaign to the public. The whole month proves a great opportunity for agents to learn more about our industry through a potential surge of enquiries from the public - particularly first-time cruisers.

Such a huge growth in the industry in recent years is an indication that, as in North America, the UK market is supply-driven. Analysts have forecast that there will be 650,000 cruise passengers annually from UK markets by the turn of the century and about 7.5 million passengers worldwide. With such positive statistics it is hardly surprising therefore that ship owners have responded to this perceived demand by placing orders for new and different tonnage to anticipate the needs of tomorrow's cruise passengers. Last year saw the introduction of the 70,000 tonnes Oriana, the first cruise ship designed and built exclusively for the UK cruising market in more than 30 years. Other new ships currently on order, and the re-fitting of traditional ships, will provide extra capacity and add more depth to an already growing product choice.

The variety of holidays afloat is staggering, ever featuring new and exciting destinations and itineraries. A potential cruise passenger now has a choice of cruising to over 200 destinations in the world including the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, the Antarctic, Alaska, the Atlantic Islands, the Caribbean, the Far East and Malaysia. Although it is not only a question of where you go, but also about how you choose to get there. Three to six star vessels offer a wonderful choice of cabins to suit individual requirements and budgets. Ships are offered in all shapes and sizes, from the elegance of tall sailing craft to the splendid facilities aboard larger, mainstream vessels.

I feel confident that the industry can consolidate its growing position in the UK marketplace and maintain its current momentum. There is a growing desire to move forward and, as an industry, pre-empt ever-changing trends that might affect the industry, as opposed to reacting to them.

William Gibbons was appointed UK Director of the Passenger Shipping Association in April 1994. Mr Gibbons had previously been General Manager for Sealink Isle of Wight and Ferry Line Manager for Sealink's Harwich/Hook route and spent three and a half years as a Management Consultant.

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Deirdre Byrne/John Pittalis
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Tel: +44 (0)171 630 9141