INTERNATIONAL. A vision of a bright future for the cruise market emerged from today’s TFWA Hainan Special Edition workshop, Travel in a post-pandemic world.

In discussion with Tax Free World Association (TFWA) Managing Director John Rimmer, the audience heard perspectives on the restart of travel, and in particular the maritime retail market, from James Prescott, Managing Director of cruise concessionaire Harding Retail, and Sarah Mathews, TripAdvisor Asia Pacific Group Head of Destination Marketing.

Panellists James Prescott and Sarah Mathews were bullish about the future of travel, and particularly the cruise industry, during todays TFWA Hainan Special Edition workshop

Opening the session, Mathews delivered an engaging presentation about the changing requirements of future travellers in the face of the pandemic, using data generated through the TripAdvisor website and the company’s own research.

A major trend she identified was that travelling consumers are doing more research ahead of travelling than they have done in the past (69%), which she said could have positive implications for brands and retailers, as well as other players in the travel ecosystem.

On the subject of travel shopping, a survey of TripAdvisor users revealed that 76% now save money to buy new items such as apparel and electronics before a trip.

This chart reveals the split of hotels that TripAdvisor users are searching for between domestic and international locations, hinting at a gradual recovery for cross-border travel (click to enlarge)

On the prospects for a resurgence of the cruise industry, Mathews said: “I think that all travel is going to rebound. I think it’s just going to staggered based on the regional challenges we are all facing.

“We’ve already seen in some of our research that there is real interest in getting back to cruising. It’s different age groups – there are lots of different types of people who want to do it. So I do think it [the cruise market] will come back.”

“I genuinely don’t think that there is an environment, not on the high street, nor an airport, nor online that can replicate the retail opportunity of the cruise market” – Harding Retail Managing Director James Prescott

Harding’s Prescott was asked for his take on the current barriers standing in the way of a travel industry revival. He said that the quickly changing rules and regulations with regards to reaching and returning from destinations by air, “is just putting people off travelling – it’s too much hassle, it’s too uncertain, it’s too unknown.

“With cruises you know exactly where you stand. There is no shortage of people prepared to go through those small hoops to get back on the ships. This is a supply issue at the moment rather than a demand issue.”

Recent TripAdvisor research emphasises that people are saving to spend in retail ahead of their trip (click to enlarge)

Continuing on the same theme, he emphasised the safe environment cruise ships are becoming known for in the COVID-shaped world: “Generally speaking, our crew are arriving to the ships between two and four weeks early so that they are tested, vaccinated and fully quarantined to give the guests the added reassurance that everybody you interact with is completely COVID-free.

“Passengers get tested at the port, you get tested onboard, you get tested if you get off the ship and back on, and tested when you leave. It really is an incredible experience with how contained an environment it is. And I would say the cruise industry has always excelled at those safety and security measures.”

People are now putting more time into pre-travel research, according to a TripAdvisor survey (click to enlarge)

Prescott was asked if changes had been made in retail environments to ensure passenger safety on cruise ships. He replied: “We have the normal protocols that you would expect with social distancing, masks, sanitisation, etc. The cleanliness [on cruise ships] was always to an exceptional standard.

“This is more about giving guests reassurance about those protocols for the volume of passengers on board a ship. The duration they’re on board always tended to mean that you never had hugely congested shops in the first place. You always had time and space to shop. Although there are some noticeable physical changes it hasn’t at all damaged the retail experience.”

Prescott also gave his perspective on how relationships between brands, retailers and cruise lines have been affected by the pandemic. He said: “The cruise industry at the beginning of the crisis was absolutely decimated but the brands and our cruise partners stood united. There were a lot of common sense discussions about how we collectively get through this.

“We have emerged from this in a really strong and solid position with solid contracts with very sensible partners. I genuinely think that this crisis has sped up the alignment of objectives, because if you really want to step change the retail performance, you have to change the model that goes behind that to enable it.

James Prescott highlighted Antarctica voyages by Hurtigruten Expedition Cruises as an example of the unique experiences available to cruise goers 

“And that has absolutely happened. We only have a few ships back in the water, but the retail revenue performance already on them is increased five, or ten or 15%, which I think shows the pent-up demand and the potential that is there if you get it right. On the whole, as we emerge, I would say we are stronger than when we went into the crisis.”

Prescott also responded to the suggestion that there would necessarily be a more risk averse approach to product assortment in cruise retail.

“I strongly disagree with that,” he said. “Of course, there was a lot of inventory in the system when we went into this [COVID-19 crisis], and particularly on cruise ships. It’s not like an airport that only had five or ten or 20% of its passenger numbers, sailing stopped completely. So all of that merchandise became suspended at a point in time.

James Prescott said that watches and jewellery remain key categories in cruise retail 

“There’s been a lot of activity in the background to make sure that when we restart, passengers don’t see two-year-old retail, the same physical proposition in front of them.

“I think in the future, cruise retail will be more diverse than before. This is not about giving people the top 50 products, at X% tax free off the local high street, that is just not what cruise retail is about.”

Earlier, Prescott had ended his own presentation by issuing rallying call on behalf of the cruise industry: “I genuinely don’t think that there is an environment, not on the high street, nor an airport, nor online that can replicate the retail opportunity of the cruise market.

“We have such a rich seam of data and a physical environment that lends itself and conveys itself to happy people that you have for quite a long time in incredible environments. There really is a better future for cruise than there ever was pre-COVID.”