Cruise tourism is now more resilient, more focused on solving common challenges and landside innovation

Grant Holmes, VP Global Cruise & Superyachts at Inchcape, moderated two panel discussions at the recent Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum held in Thessaloniki, Greece. Event topics ranged from the role of small cruise ships in post-pandemic cruising and vital measures to enhance itinerary appeal and satisfaction, to sustainability and environmental awareness strategies. Here Holmes shares his thoughts on the proceedings and key insights that emerged as the industry navigates a new paradigm.

Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum 2
Grant Holmes, VP Global Cruise & Superyachts at
Inchcape (Photo: Posidonia Exhibitions SA)

This was the first time the Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum was held in Thessaloniki, which was a refreshing change because it is a really vibrant and beautiful port city. Looking out to sea from the regenerated waterfront stretching from the Concert Hall all the way to the iconic White Tower, you can see the peaks of Mount Olympus in the distance. The gods were certainly looking down on us.

The Port of Thessaloniki itself, Greece’s largest export port and one of the largest in the Eastern Mediterranean, was recently privatised, with the result that cruise calls have shot up from six in 2022 to an astonishing 67 scheduled this year involving 13 cruise lines and 21 ships.

All the delegates were invited to visit the port where significant infrastructure improvements have been made to the cruise terminals, including pier works and smart new fenders. It is a work in progress but they are gung-ho to grow the business even more.

Sumptuous venue
The forum itself was held in the Makedonia Palace Hotel, undoubtedly the best in town. The event was very popular, with lots of government and local municipal officials in attendance, including the city’s mayor, Konstantinos Zervas. From our own consultancy work, I also recognized other tourism officials from elsewhere in Greece, especially the South Aegean. They mixed jovially with the many cruise line executives who had flown in for what turned out to be a fascinating meet-up.

The State of the Industry session on Day 1, which as the headline act was full to the gunnels, kicked off with speeches from politicians and a lively keynote address by Pierfrancesco Vago, MSC Cruises Executive Chairman and CLIA Global Chair. Having the luxury of being handed over by Vago, I in no way wanted to steal his thunder. So, with the panel already comfortably seated, I did a quick talk just to frame the session.

Look ahead, not back
I must say that these days people tend to dwell too much on the nightmare we have been through. I try to get everyone looking in the right direction; forwards from where we are right now. To summarise recent cruise-industry history, 2019 was a boom year, 2020 was the year of crisis, 2021 was the year of restart, 2022 was the year of transition, 2023 is year of recovery and, provided that there are no Black Swans, 2024 will be a year of Prolific Growth.

We are certainly not ‘going back to normal’, as many suggest. The truth could not be more different. I like to quote Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said: “You can never step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” What did he mean? The river is never the same, nor is the man (or woman, of course) the same. I venture that we are not ‘returning’ to anything; we are in fact on the cusp of a new Golden Age, embracing a new river and a new cruising paradigm. And far from being the same people, we are much more resilient, wiser for the experience and knowledgeable overall.

The panel discussion certainly packed punch with a distinguished line-up featuring TUI’s Wybcke Meier, Celestyal Cruises CEO Chris Theophilides, Piraeus Port Authority Chairman Yu Zeng Gang, CLIA Director General for Europe Marie-Caroline Laurent and Figen Ayan, President of the MedCruise ports association.

Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum 1
(From left) Panellists Yu Zeng Gang, Piraeus Port Authority Chairman, Chris Theophilides, CEO of Celestyal Cruises, TUI CEO Wybcke Meier, Marie-Caroline Laurent, CLIA Director General for Europe, and Figen Ayan, President of the MedCruise ports association discuss the state of the industry at the Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum in Thessaloniki, Greece. (Photo: Posidonia Exhibitions SA)

The wind is in our sails
They went deep in the first round focusing on the status of the industry in the Med. With many European destinations experiencing very high arrival numbers in the second half of 2022, will 2023 be the same in the Med as 2019? Will it fully recover? The upbeat consensus was a resounding “Yes”. The Eastern Med is already a few steps ahead thanks to the fact it was the first region to kick-start cruising and the carefully orchestrated health gateways worked as intended.

The panel attacked the next agenda item: what core challenges is the industry facing in the Med and what can we do about it? Issues here include the urgent need for an effective berthing reservation system, the lack of skilled destination multi-language guides, and destination congestion with too many ships calling to ports pretty much at the same time on the same day and time of year. There was a consensus for a more proactive interaction between cruise lines; each has its differentiators, so the barrier to constructive exchange should theoretically be quite low.

The atmosphere on these occasions can be quite tense, especially when you get 150 people or so crammed into a room. It always helps not just to sit on stage but go down onto the floor. It seems to soften up the audience, in my experience. As it was, there was not enough time to make much headway surveying the outlook for the industry – the cruise crystal ball – so I lightened the mood by asking these high rollers some quick-fire fun questions.

My second panel discussion on Day 2 was a sexy one on a topic close to my heart: the appeal of venturing into non-mainstream destinations. Large ships cannot get to new destinations beyond the marquee ports, simply because of their size, but smaller vessels operated by luxury and expedition brands can call at a much wider range of ports. Does including lesser-known destinations enhance overall itinerary appeal and guest satisfaction? What are the new exciting destinations in the Med and around the world? And what landside challenges do lines face in developing such destinations?

Immersion is key
Some destinations clearly lack the tourism sophistication and infrastructure of more popular ports, but they can offer genuine travel experiences. New trends in guest expectations include more active and engaging shore experiences, and deeper immersion in local culture. How important is it for niche lines to offer such an array of shore options?

On hand to share their insights were Michele Bosco, Holland America Group Shore Excursions and Operations Manager for Europe, Africa and Middle East, Variety Cruises Brand Director Constantine Venetopoulos, Agnes Brochet, Director of Destination Research, Development & Planning, at Silversea Cruises, and Sacha Rougier, Head of Itinerary Planning and Destination at Explora Journeys. Their combined experience in destination development and building landside programmes that work – and knowing what does not – is phenomenal.

Venetopoulos spoke publicly about Variety’s strategy for the first time. Their perspective is unique, with a polished methodology for selecting the right ship for the right destination. Silversea also does a huge amount of research into activity planning. A key learning from the panel is being willing to change or adapt marketing strategies to get the right passengers to the right places – which may sound simple but it is an art. Building engagement is what it is all about, and must play a much bigger role during the research and selection phase.

Spotlight on discovery
People obviously want to engage with destinations and interact with inhabitants versus being passive recipients of information at lectures. I have recognised this for a long time and have proposed ideas that include simulating local events like a typical wedding simulation, or alternatively getting guests involved in shooting promo videos for a certain destination that could be used as marketing collateral. There is usually a wealth of knowledge among passengers on upmarket ships – planning and producing a short film is well within their capabilities. You could also get the local tourist board involved. All this might sound obvious, but it has never been done before and for our industry it is radical. But that is what true engagement is all about.

From Bosco’s wealth of experience, we learned that among the popular new tours that Seabourn offers, culinary experiences are today trending as the most popular. This all stems from celebrity chefs on TV and the variations are infinite. This was great news for me personally as I have previously developed a concept for Greece I dubbed ‘The Mayor’s Meze’ where a smaller ship visits an island town and small groups of guests go separately to, for example, the local vegetable market, fish market, an olive farm and a winery then reconvene in a land-side kitchen to prepare a meal under the guidance of a local expert. Some help lay a long table to receive the mayor and his entourage, others taste the local ouzo and grappa, and a great time is had by all. The point is the guests learn about local customs and finish the day enriched (even if slightly tipsy).

Getting the story right
Rougier outlined another important trend: storytelling. All places and tours in a high-level programme need a backstory. There is nothing unique in trotting out the same dull and often expensive excursions as 10 years ago. But don’t do the storytelling ON the tour! It should be done in advance on the ship to entice guests to sign up for that compelling-sounding (and hopefully realistically priced) excursion.

To sum up, as Inchcape is the main port agent globally for the cruise sector, it was an honour and a pleasure to moderate both insightful sessions. It is always fun to hear the different perspectives of cruise lines especially regarding landside development, and I look forward to seeing what materialises as the next hot destinations and how operators weave the engagement trend into their tapestry of tour programmes.