Ships Cruise On, Passengers Still Travel, P&O Says

February 25, 2009

Will you still cruise this year? It seems like it, according to a poll commissioned by Carnival U.K. in which 72 percent of the more than 2,000 participants say they'll spend at least the same amount this year on travel -- despite the "credit crunch."

The company, an arm of the vast Carnival Corporation, operates U.K. lines Cunard, Ocean Village and P&O and also markets global cruise lines, such as Holland America, Seabourn, Costa, Carnival and Princess. Its survey, unveiled last night at Carnival U.K.'s annual
"Cruise Report 2009" event, noted that "there is also good news for the holiday industry in how the British prioritise their day-to-day spending. Only buying quality food (33 percent) and saving or investing money (27 percent) were more important than taking holiday trips."

Recapping highlights of the year just passed, some interesting tidbits were offered about Carnival U.K.'s various lines:

Did you know that QE2's final voyage cruise from Southampton to Dubai sold out in 36 minutes? Interestingly, in light of a ferocious rumour mill about the ship's future as a floating hotel in Dubai, Carnival U.K. executives at last night's dinner -- who included David Dingle, chief executive officer; Nigel Esdale, P&O's managing director; and Peter Shanks, chief commercial director -- were quite candid in discussing how they chose the buyer (beyond the financial offer) and what plans will be carried out.

Speaking of QE2's future, Cunard president Carol Marlow, who was not on hand, noted in the actual report that "once the owners have completed the two-year rebuild, we fully expect to be offering pre- and post-voyage trips to the ship when one of our current fleet calls in Dubai..."

Costa, one of the few cruise lines to offer voyages to Mauritius, says that the region has been a huge hit with honeymooners. One reason is that cruises are some of the more affordable and romantic ways to travel to that remote and gorgeous place.

P&O -- which, interestingly, has created cruise experiences that appeal to particular styles of cruisers (rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy, employed by most lines) -- is gearing up for the launch of its newest ship -- Azura -- next spring. This ship will join a fleet in which, for instance, Oceana is geared to first-timers, Artemis and Arcadia are adult-orientated, and Ventura is family-friendly. Azura, which is designed similarly to Ventura but will have its own distinctive onboard features and amenities, will adopt a "back to the feature" vibe. That means? Azura will offer contemporary, cutting-edge cruise features and amenities (such as a bounteous cabin-with-veranda ratio, boutique restaurants and an adventurous wine bar) but will also capture the essence of P&O's traditions in service and style.

It was very interesting to see that Brits actually flocked to Carnival, the brash, American "fun ship" line that's best known for its neon and glitz (not to mention a party-hearty onboard atmosphere), last year. The line based its new Carnival Splendor in Dover for a series of cruises (and also christened the ship there). Thirty percent of the passengers who cruised on Carnival Splendor, according to the cruise line, hailed from the U.K.

Intrigued by Alaska? Princess, an American cruise line with British influences, is definitely benefitting from an increase in interest by U.K. travellers about that exotic part of the world. (We suspect, too, that publicity generated by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a vice presidential running mate in last year's presidential election, raised the popularity of "the gold rush" state.) All sorts of options are available -- from port-intensive, two-week cruises to shipboard-land tour combinations. And, numerous Brits have cottoned onto the line, regardless of where it sails; Peter Shanks noted last night that interest is organic. That means that there's little flat-out marketing and advertising of the line around here -- passengers are attracted via word of mouth. We suspect that will only grow this year, as the cruise line will home port Grand Princess -- a bigger, spiffier ship -- in Southampton this summer.

P&O made much of the fact that Azura was designed with cabins for solo travellers, but journalists, on-hand last night, were pretty skeptical at the idea that there are just 18 of these (out of a total of about 1,500 cabins). But let's put this into context: Azura is the first new ship in more than a decade to make any accommodation at all for travellers who, occupying staterooms alone in the "double occupancy" era, have been penalized with pricey surcharges. In this case, the 18 cabins, all of which are designed for just one traveller (each with a bed that's slightly more generous than a twin, less roomy than a full double), will not require surcharges. It's a start, and P&O gets kudos for making the effort (though we anticipate the cabins will be wildly popular; plan to reserve well in advance).

And saving the best for last, Seabourn -- Carnival Corporation's ultra-upscale line -- will debut the first, genuinely fresh and innovative, new luxury design in nearly a decade when Seabourn Odyssey is unveiled this summer. Oddly, in many cases, ships in luxury fleets are actually older and less amenity-laden (with some exceptions, like Regent Seven Seas' Mariner and Voyager) than many big-ship styles (meaning cramped spas, cabins that don't have balconies and less space for alternative dining). So, Odyssey is exciting, featuring the biggest luxury cruise ship spa, a cabins-with-balconies ratio of 90 percent and a maiden voyage in which all passengers will serve as godmothers. Rooms onboard for the maiden voyage are still available, by the way.

As is an online cruise publication, we have to admit we love this comment by P&O's Nigel Esdale: "Our research tells us that people go online to do most of their pre-booking research...the brochure is becoming almost just a timetable." We say -- save a few trees, and go online, instead!

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief