It's time for a cruise

We speak to Nick Wilkinson, regional VP of business development for South Africa and the Middle East, and Eamonn Ferrin, VP & MD, UK, Ireland, Middle East & Africa, to know everything about NCL’s plans for the region.

“We know that the Middle East is a nascent market, but it's got huge growth potential,” Ferrin tells TTN. “The population is younger on average and it’s a wealthy market, well, certainly many of the countries are. These factors are very strong indicators that the cruise market should really take off in the Middle East, growing exponentially over the next few years.”

Wilkinson, who works closely with the Middle East, says, “We have tremendous support from our wholesalers in the marketplace – from Dnata, Cruise Master to Cruise Explorer and the like – but we need to open up distribution, in conjunction with our travel partners because there's only so many people talking about cruising today.

“The strategy is to create as much noise with direct agreements to as many travel partners as possible. The travel partners choose where they book – we're unbiased to the channel – but we want to get this activity with as many front-line travel agents as possible.”

In 2020, NCL is planning to hire a business development manager for the Middle East – who will be non-biased to any booking channel – and whose main objective will be to create activity with as many agents as possible, while providing them necessary training and support wherever needed.

At the same time, NCL plans to increase its investment in marketing, training, “getting our brand name and our message across”.

“We also want to host as many events as possible where travel partners bring along their key consumers, because we know that after consumers have attended an event with their travel partners, the conversion is two times higher. We present to them, as no one knows our product better than us, but then we expect customers to book with their agents,” says Wilkinson. 

In one of its key markets, NCL hosted a similar dinner with travel agents and about 1,500 potential consumers, and the result was a phenomenal number of conversions for agents.

NCL will also have 12 ship visits between November 2019 and April 2020, covering Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Aqaba, Kuwait and Bahrain. These 12 visits are divided between Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Spirit, which will have been completely refurbished under the Norwegian “Edge” programme when it visits the region. “While the ship visits to the Middle East ports are somewhat fortuitous, I think they give us a great opportunity to not just familiarise the trade with our products but welcome the actual consumer on board our vessels as well.”

Between the ship visits, the new business development manager, ramped up marketing spend and increased calendar of events bringing agents and consumers together, NCL aims to create a natural demand for cruising in the region by getting travellers interested in cruising, at the same time providing travel agents with ready business opportunities.

“All we want to do is to increase the overall demand of cruising and grow our business,” says Wilkinson.

However, whenever there is talk of opening up distribution, there's always a fear of companies trying to take business away from travel partners, “but this just is not the case. In fact, it is the reverse of that, as we're actually trying to grow our business together. The aim is to increase the number of people taking a cruise and this will automatically result in an increase in business for travel agents and operators.”

Ferrin reiterates, “We are a great cruise company, but we will never focus on packaging for the local market, this is where our travel partners come in. They are the travel experts, they know the airlines, the visa requirements, the hotels, their local media and customer etc. This is why we are perfect partners; we complement each other – our travel partners and us. We both win when we work together.”

But the partnership is not without its challenges.

“At a macro level, it is sometimes hard to get people to try a cruise if they have never taken one before but our statistics prove that once they have done it, they become repeat customers. They just love the product and keep coming back,” says Ferrin.

“We believe that today less than 1 per cent of Middle Eastern travellers take a cruise every year, which compares to circa 5 to 6 per cent of US travellers and about 2 per cent of European travellers.” 

Every market has its cultural eccentricities – the Middle East’s is a tendency to book late and this is creating the usual frustrations. By the time the Middle East travel agents send their enquiries, the Haven suites, superior suites and the balcony cabins may well all be sold out, with only inside cabins remaining, says Ferrin, but this is not the kind of cruise experience holidaymakers from the Middle East desire. Booking in advance is the only way to get around this problem.

“The travel partners in the region like the biggest, fanciest, newest ships but you also want to make sure that your consumers get the right experience, not just the newest vessel,” says Wilkinson.

Ferrin adds, “Our brand DNA is freestyle cruising – the freedom to choose, for instance between 27 different dining options on the Norwegian Bliss, and the Norwegian Encore. The freedom to dress as you like, eat when you want and who you want to eat with. The freedom to choose between many entertainment options, some of which, by the way, could set you back by $150 on Broadway or West End.

“Talk about value for money.”