Industry making big cruise moves…

The appointment of Steve Brady to head up Helloworld's cruise business is just the latest in a series of major strategic changes in the Australasian cruise sector, as players position themselves for the industry's ever-rising tide. BRUCE PIPER investigates.

TODAY’S surprise news of the departure of Karen Deveson from her role as General Manager of Cruise at Helloworld Travel Limited is just the latest move in the fast-changing Australasian cruise sector, with cruising’s importance rising ever higher as a key part of the retail travel industry’s business mix.

Karen Deveson (right) with Ingrid Hay from New Farm Travel and Helloworld’s Renee Nightingale.

Deveson, whose move to Helloworld was announced in June last year, replaced the respected Catherine Allison who relocated back home to the UK. Deveson moved into cruise from her former role at The Travel Corporation as Managing Director for Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, and certainly hit the ground running as the cruise industry began to recover. At the time Helloworld Executive Director, Cinzia Burnes, hailed her expertise in cultivating partnerships, and that’s definitely what has happened as the cruise sector has rebounded over the last 18 months or so.

Helloworld didn’t provide any details as to where Deveson is going, only saying she will be “pursuing a new opportunity”. It’s understood she will be leaving in December, and of course, what that new opportunity is will be revealed in good time.

However the appointment of long-time Helloworld wholesale staffer Steve Brady to replace her, with the elevated title of Group General Manager Cruise, is another indication of how critically important cruising is viewed as part of Helloworld’s product mix. Brady has been with Helloworld and its predecessors for almost two decades, and his extensive experience and inside knowledge of the organisation and the wider industry has placed him in good stead for his new role.

Steve Brady from Helloworld Travel Limited.

After over 10 years with former Helloworld/Jetset Travelworld Group/Stella Travel subsidiary Travel Indochina, Brady moved into the retail space in 2015 to head up the Helloworld Associate network, and then in 2017 became General Manager of Sales, Reporting & Pricing (Wholesale), stepping up about 12 months ago to become Group General Manager Sales across all of the various Helloworld Travel brands.

Burnes confirmed to travelBulletin that Brady’s move across to cruise will see Helloworld now look to fill his Group GM Sales role, but she also clearly sees strong synergies between the roles.

“Cruise is an incredibly important area of the Helloworld business, and along with the recent acquisition of Creative Cruising, the opportunities to maximise the Group’s land content to be packaged up with cruise voyages are endless,” she said.

She added that Brady’s new role leading Helloworld’s cruise division would be wide-ranging, encompassing retail and wholesale, along with sales, marketing and operations plus commercial. “Steve will mark his 20th year with the business in June 2024, and his strategic and analytical approach along with the fantastic knowledge of the retail and wholesale landscape make him the perfect candidate for the role,” Burnes enthused.

Cinzia Burnes, Helloworld Travel Limited Executive Director and Head of Wholesale.

Helloworld’s strong focus on the sector was further emphasised last month with the launch of its new invitation-only “Platinum Club” which initially comprises three of the group’s top agencies: Hunter Travel Group, Clean Cruising and Phil Hoffmann Travel. In a back-to-the-future move, Phil Hoffmann himself was one of the three co-founders of Cruiseco more than 20 years ago, and the Platinum Club looks to reprise the wholesaler’s former unique role as a collective of top-performing cruise specialists.

FCTG getting creative with cruise…

The acquisition of Creative Cruising as part of the Express Travel Group takeover by Helloworld earlier in the year saw unprecedented consolidation in the cruise wholesale market, essentially bringing Creative into the Helloworld wholesale cruise operations alongside Cruiseco which the company acquired in November 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging.

With both key wholesale brands under one roof, there appeared to be little alternative for mainstream cruise packaging – an opportunity that Flight Centre Travel Group quickly capitalised upon with the launch of its new CruiseHQ operations. As has since emerged, the establishment of this business included the en masse departure of most of the experienced Creative Cruising team, including General Manager Caroline Hitchen whose new role heading up Flight Centre’s CruiseHQ was revealed exactly a month ago today.

Caroline Hitchen, head of FCTG’s CruiseHQ with Johanna Raeder from Oceania Cruises and Jodie Clark from Oceania Cruises/Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Prior to that, Helloworld had also launched a recruitment campaign for Hitchen’s former role, along with several other positions within Creative Cruising as it emerged that other FCTG CruiseHQ staffers would include Carina Mullen as Head of Product, Caitlyn Paris as Marketing Manager, Tina Giannopoulos as Head of Operations and Viktoryia Schliazhko as Business Development Manager – all four of them having left Creative Cruising shortly after its acquisition by Helloworld.

The CruiseHQ team, reporting to GM Caroline Hitchen.

Flight Centre’s wholesale move was just part of its wider cruise strategy, which will also early next year see the relaunch of its dedicated Cruiseabout retail brand which disappeared some years ago as part of a consolidation strategy. To be headed up by Darren Lloyd as Brand Leader, the move is part of a concerted push to maximise Flight Centre’s share of the growing cruise sector.

Darren Lloyd, Brand Leader for Cruiseabout.

“With Darren steering this ship, we are confident we can give Australian cruise customers the modernised and refreshed retail cruise brand they have been missing for years,” enthused FCTG Leisure chief, James Kavanagh. Cruiseabout’s new structure includes a national footprint with an Australia-based call centre and online booking functionality, all serviced by specialist cruise experts, with plans for flagship high street retail locations to also roll out from 2024.

At the same time, CruiseHQ will offer a “new age business-to-business wholesale model” for cruising, promised FCTG CEO Supply, Greg Parker, who said the organisation was committed to making sure CruiseHQ is “best-to-market and promotes real value”.

It’s all part of an overarching strategy within Flight Centre’s leisure division, riding the relentless trend of cruise industry growth. Kavanagh told travelBulletin that “as cruise tourism continues to rebound faster than international arrivals, we want to own the market”.

“What’s important for us is to make sure that we’ve got the right experts that are well versed on the ships…we’re partnering with our suppliers to be able to design exclusive products which will be quite unique,” Kavanagh said.

Flight Centre’s marketing muscle will see it make the most of data mining, seeing it focus on key postcodes where strong cruise demand is apparent. Cruiseabout’s strong retail presence will be backed by the power of CruiseHQ’s in-house packaging operation, with the aim of providing “the right offering, in the right location, matching the product to customer needs”.

Others also in the cruise mix

While they’re definitely the gorillas in the cruise cabin, Helloworld and Flight Centre aren’t alone in wanting to make the most of cruise. New Zealand’s House of Travel, which operates an extensive Kiwi retail network as well as corporate agency Orbit World Travel and TravelManagers plus Hoot Holidays in Australia, is also making its presence felt in the cruise sector.

Not to be outdone by its larger publicly-listed rivals, House of Travel’s latest move has been to create a new trans-Tasman Cruise Product and Wholesale Team for its businesses in both countries. The new operation is being led by the highly respected Jeff Leckey, who has been House of Travel NZ Cruise General Manager for the last six years – a role which has seen the company become New Zealand’s leading cruise retailer.

House of Travel’s cruise chief Jeff Leckey.

House of Travel Australia CEO Joe Araullo confirmed that cruise was a firm focus for the business, with TravelManagers Australia alone seeing year-to-date sales up 150% on the prior corresponding period.

“House of Travel Group’s new cruise strategy  is an indication of its commitment to the cruise sector, and will allow us to capitalise on the combined volumes and expertise we already have,” Araullo said.

During the recent TravelManagers conference in Christchurch Araullo told travelBulletin part of the group’s strategy was the ability to boost margins by accessing nett cruise rates, with key trends including the growth of multi-generational cruise bookings, the ease of booking all-inclusive fares and the typically high value of many cruise reservations.

Also not to be underrated is Steve Labroski’s itravel, which has made a concerted play to grow in the wake of the recent industry consolidation. Intriguingly, Labroski last year recruited Josh Gordon to become itravel’s Head of Commercial, with Gordon bringing across plenty of cruise knowledge and insight from his previous role as Cruiseco Commercial Manager.

A rising tide lifts all boats…

While there’s clearly fierce competition between all of the players as they make all of their moves, the bottom line is that these canny travel businesses are simply following the current very strong trend to more and more cruising. Indeed the overall sector looks undeinably set to continue its relentless growth over the coming decade, simply based on the number of newbuild ships which are already on the order books.

The most recent estimates from Cruise Lines Industry Association Australasia, which is currently in the midst of a highly successful Cruise Month 2023 promotion, show that this year 31.5 million passengers will sail globally – up 6% on the already record pre-pandemic levels of 2019. That’s forecast to show exceptionally healthy compound annual growth of 19% through until 2028.

Cruising is indeed a delightful way to holiday, and the huge variety of product means that there is absolutely a cruise for everyone. Even the most die-hard opponents find their objections simply floating away once they actually experience life on board.

So I say to the wider travel and tourism industry: don’t miss the boat.

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