Travel Weekly had the great pleasure to be aboard the inaugural voyage of Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) brand new flagship, the Prima. Departing from (the utterly incredible) Iceland, the ship finished in port in Amsterdam. On board, TW chatted with NCL Australia’s director of sales Damian Borg (left in lead image) and VP and MD of NCL APAC Ben Angell (right in lead image)….
NCL’s new marketing strategy appears to be take the brand more upmarket, improve yield, be less price driven. How do you think that will play out in the Australian market?
Angell: Yes, I think it’s 100 per cent of the right strategy. If you look at all the research out of the pandemic, you see that there’s an increasing emphasis around value and spending your time and your money wisely. I think it’s [COVID] reframed people’s spending habits. And, I think as a brand, we’ve already started to do it successfully. So, you say how will it work in Australia? We’ve been doing this for six years, almost seven years now. And with every new build that we’ve launched, we’ve elevated the product. Every ship we’ve renovated, we’ve elevated the product. So, we’ve been doing it, we’ve been doing it successfully. We’re seeing guests respond exceptionally well to it. And guest sentiment continues to improve year after year now. And I feel like we’re only just starting to really hit our stride in Australia and New Zealand.
You touched on some pandemic research there. Have you done any research on Aussie cruise passengers and their travel habits? Be it cruising or otherwise?
Angell: That’s a very good question. And there’s two things. So, one of the things that I’m most proud of as a business is that we launched a programme called Work For Wellness and that was designed to engage and support our cruise community. And as part of that we instigated some research to understand the impact of the pandemic on people’s behaviours and thinking. And one of the most interesting things out of it is the importance that people place on holidays as part of their mental health. And one of the other key trends was around mindfulness and the role of mindfulness and going on holidays and having a holiday experience that’s more mindful, is an increasing trend. So, there’s definitely changes in behaviours that are going to come out in the last two-and-a half-years. And I think, as a brand, we’re in a very good position to deliver on that.
On that, there’s a lot of pressure on the cruise companies generally to be more green, more ethical. From ocean awareness to even the fuels they use. What are customers demanding in that space?
Angell: So, we’ve just relaunched our Sail And Sustain program recently. And that’s our overarching environmental, social governance; essentially, we’ve made a number of commitments, so I won’t go into it line by line, but it’s a commitment to the future and a record of what we’ve done to date. NCL is known as being a pioneer in the industry. And the way that I look forward is that the future of this industry is going to continue to pioneer, but we’re going to continue to pioneer in new in new ways. I think environmental social wellness is going to be one of the reasons.
Looking at the new pride of the fleet, the Prima, a tour of the luxury suites, The Haven, are stunning, but it also feels quite family-friendly, too. Most noticeable by the racetrack and (quite frightening) slides on the top deck?
Borg: What we are having to constantly educate our partners on is the multiple vacation experiences you can have on the one ship. The Prima is a great example of that and the ability to cater for specific markets. There’s the luxury of The Haven right through to the quite affordable cabins for families with young kids. So, I think we really offer a full spectrum of experiences for our guests.
Angell: [NCL CEO Harry Sommer] summed it up perfectly, that we’re looking to become, and we believe we have become, the best global vacation choice. So, it’s not just about being a good cruise experience, we’re trying to create an overarching experience that is unrivalled on land or sea. And that’s driving a lot of the decisions that ultimately do create a ship that can cater for just about every demographic equally well.
The Prima will primarily be based in the northern hemisphere. New York, I believe? Is that a deterrent for Aussie travellers, the added cost of having to fly to a European/US port over picking up a ship in Australia?
Borg: Not at all. Forty per cent of what we sell is overseas and a significant proportion of that is Northern Europe. I’d say Aussies are exceptionally comfortable with travelling like that. Take Iceland, as an example, it’s a bucket list destination for many, many Aussies. The guest sentiment towards these northern Europe destinations remains phenomenal.
Angell: I think the last two years, the pandemic, have been a boon for the cruise industry. People have seen the problems associated with flying – reduced capacity, lost luggage, all the problems of checking in. That’s why we’re seeing business. That’s why we’ve succeeded. And we’re seeing some, some really positive results across our business as early as July last year. [During the pandemic] we didn’t stop advertising and marketing, we invested heavily in that. From a trade perspective, we had a load of initiatives in market.
On that, who would you say was NCL’s biggest competitor in the Australian market? And by that I don’t even necessarily mean another cruise company?
Borg: You know what, at the moment, it’s probably Harvey Norman!
Angell: I think in most Australians’ minds a holiday, and an overseas holiday even, is more of a right than anything else that people do. I think most Australians put money aside for an overseas holiday regardless of what other purchases they might be looking to make. So, I think our main competitors are often confused as being local deployed ships and locally deployed brands like Royal Caribbean or Carnival. But our focus is on positioning ourselves as the best holiday choice for Australians and New Zealanders wishing to take an overseas cruise holiday.
How are you working with local travel partners?
Borg: Yes, they’re tasked and provided tools to work in any way, shape or form we can with our partners. So, whether that be cooperatively, through advertising, if they’re running campaigns with our brand, we can run some additional value-add initiatives on top of what’s in market at the time.
And they’re made to look exclusive?
Borg: We don’t do a lot of exclusive pricing as such. It’s very difficult in a global market to do that. But what we can do is, is utilise our current funding a lot more creatively. I think gone are the days where we just want to put an ad in the newspaper or an ad on radio, that can be largely immeasurable…
…that doesn’t work anymore?
Borg: No, it does work. We need that presence and we need to keep it out there. But what I’d like to do is what if we spoke to a customer and kind of divested or split that investment two parts – one is to find the ad itself, the other is to create a value add. And that value add might be some onboard credit or some amenities that they can utilise on board and give them a truly unique and exclusive value proposition to take them on. Because at the end of the day, that person is selling the same product that you’re selling yourself. And we’ve seen agents come to us with some really creative ideas where we’ve done more direct mail campaigns with agents in the last 18 months than we’ve ever done. And what I love about that is we’re not the best known brand in the Australian marketplace because of that competitiveness in the domestic cruise market. So I want to get my brand, my physical brand, in front of the consumers as often as I can. So we’ve coordinated direct mail outs and, let me tell you, there’s times where we’ve sat in the office stuffing envelopes, stamped addressed and sent them out on behalf of our partners and they love it. Let me tell you, particularly after two years of lockdowns, the consumer gets a brochure in the mail for a product like this and they start dreaming, then they start calling, so we’ll do more of that a lot more of that.
The other thing is there’s more savings in people’s bank accounts today and there’s a truckload of annual leave that’s accumulated during lockdown. So, at some point, there’s going to be some initiative. And I think the best travel campaign anyone can run at the moment is “take your leave!”
And we want to be ready for that. But at the same time I don’t see us as competing in the domestic market.
Are cruisers cruise loyal or brand loyal?
Borg: There is definitely a greater loyalty among flight cruisers than there is domestic cruisers. And because we’re specialising in flight cruise we would naturally see that.
Is there still a prejudice against cruising from Aussie travellers? Be it COVID, etc?
Borg: We have one of the highest cruise penetrations in the world; Australians love to cruise. Australians love to fly, so we’re really in that sweet spot.