Positive engagement with agents and consumers has allowed us to emerge stronger than ever, says P&O Cruises president Paul Ludlow
Way, way back in March 2020 (which really does seem a lifetime ago) when we voluntarily paused operations, thinking it would just be for a few weeks, we needed an immediate and efficient way to communicate with everyone who had cruise holidays booked with us over the following months.
We had ships all over the globe on world cruises, as well as others closer to home, and our colleagues and a myriad teams in Miami were figuring out the quickest way to get our ships, guests and onboard team members back to our base in the UK.
Looking back, I reflect just what an incredible team here and in the US we are privileged to work with
The word “unprecedented” became the most over-used word and was in every piece of communication and news bulletin. Little did we know then just how “unprecedented” it really was to become.
While Covid affected every single business, employee and individual all over the world, across all sectors and industries, I often think that if there would have been a documentary filming us over the past 23 months, it would have made the most fascinating insight into the extraordinary complexities of our business.
There are very few companies in the UK or the world with the scale of P&O Cruises’ operations, with hundreds of thousands of guests; over 10,000 crew members who live all over the world; six multi-million-dollar ships (one that was due to be delivered in May 2020) and 1,500 office-based employees, all used to coming in to work every day.
In the immediate days though, before we deserted Carnival House, not knowing what was to come, I filmed the first video announcing the pause to our operations. We were one of the first industry sectors to pause and so our guests, who were looking forward to spring-time holidays, were naturally disappointed but understood the rationale. Added to this, they were watching the news and seeing the travel industry slowly grinding to a very sad halt.
As market leader, we knew it was important to have a trusted voice and for the messages and news to come from one clear internal source. Crucially, we also knew that, as it became evident we would be extending the pause, we were disappointing many guests whose holidays had been cancelled.
The local economy took a massive downturn during the period. Each time a ship comes into Southampton, it contributes over £2 million to the local economy, so our local and regional suppliers suffered crippling losses as a result. Having our ships in lay-up off the south coast was an extraordinary but heart-wrenching situation, which also required significant maintenance.
Ships are not like a car you can put in the garage for the winter; they needed manning, storing, fuelling and routine operations
Above all, our ships needed to remain compliant with environmental and all other regulations, which is always our utmost priority. We also worked with our medical team to take every precaution to protect our people on board.
Reassuring Guests and Partners
I wanted to reassure our guests and our agent partners on two key points: Firstly, we wanted to advise our guests that we would refund their money or give them an enhanced future cruise credit for their cancelled holidays.
Secondly, we needed to let them know that we were working with the countries we visit and with the relevant authorities to put in place a stringent framework of protocols so that guests could re-book their holidays and have the confidence to travel with us in the future.
I felt very strongly that I wanted to communicate, on a very personal level, how sorry we were for the disruption and to provide the background for the changes and also for the delay in getting refunds processed. The scale of that task was unlike anything we had tackled before and all the processes we had in place were inadequate for remote working and dealing with those vast numbers of guests and booking changes.
Somehow though, through closer collaboration than we had ever seen before and through the power of Zoom, we worked it out and soon had teams set up to deal with the issues we faced.
The first video was soon followed by another and then another, and became a regular cycle of updates. Not only did they include news of the extensions to the pause but also policy and guidance changes and the inevitable refund updates.
With each video we grew views and engagement, and we saw increased support from the audience
Each time we put out videos on our social media channels (which started with me filming during lockdown from my kitchen with the camera balanced on a pile of recipe books, then became rather more sophisticated as I got more proficient and realised the power of an Amazon tripod!), we saw increased engagement and positive sentiment from our guests and travel agent partners.
Facts Not Speculation
P&O Cruises has a hugely loyal guest base and for that we have always been grateful, but never more so than during the past two years. We wanted to ensure that we avoided speculation and that we put out the facts as soon as we had them. We wanted to explain that there were differences in protocols for cruise versus land-based holidays and explain the rationale for this.
We saw that our guests were hungry for news and our agents looked forward to the business updates.
From an industry perspective it was vital that we took ownership of the news agenda from a wider travel angle as well, and this certainly aided our conversations and meetings with government departments, ministers and NGOs.
I also felt personal responsibility for our crew members from around the world, whether at home or on board. The videos enabled us to keep in touch with them and keep them updated on our return to service and latest protocols.
Video also allowed them to maintain a critical lifeline to our business and avoid feeling isolated. While the majority were at home, some were on board as essential manning on our ships in a very different environment to their usual one, which is centred round our guests. Some were desperate to get home but their country had closed the borders, so we worked on their behalf to negotiate with governments for their safe return.
Honesty and Transparency
Honesty, transparency and authenticity were our bywords for all our communication with guests, agents, employees and crew members. Every organisation and corporate manual says this but we held ourselves to account on this and we saw the rewards when guests appreciated that we maintained a regular and direct presence, even when we had less than positive news to tell.
Putting up the most senior face from the business to create trust and, more importantly, maintaining this as we go back to business as usual will be key to sustaining confidence and loyalty from guests, agents and our people.
Business as usual, whatever that looks like, cannot come soon enough. We have all learnt valuable lessons over the past two years, both personally and professionally. Despite the sadness, the grief and the hardship, for P&O Cruises we have emerged as a tighter, closer, stronger and more fearless organisation.
We appreciate even more the talent within the business and we’re so very grateful to our travel agent partners who have stuck by us
As we return to the office and as we see bookings pick up, demand increase and confidence being restored, we also appreciate, more than ever before, the restorative powers of a holiday with family, with friends or even alone, taking joy from the world we have to explore.