Many distinguished people have been awarded an OBE. Now, the cruise industry’s very own Andy Harmer is part of that pantheon. Gary Peters sits down with the UK & Ireland MD of CLIA to discuss the road ahead for cruise.
When it was revealed in June that Andy Harmer had been awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list, there was universal delight that someone who has worked so hard – not least in recent years because of we all know what – was being recognised on such a stage.
For those who know Harmer, it will come as no surprise, however, to learn that he sees the honour not as a mark of any personal endeavours, but rather the combined efforts of so many to drag the industry off its knees and back into business.
Coupled with a tough but amazing climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s been an eventful time. “It was a bit of a shock,” he says, when asked to describe his initial reaction upon hearing the news.
“I had a letter delivered to my house, but I had just got back home from the US, and therefore was jet lagged. So, I went to sleep, woke up and thought, ‘I’m sure I have a letter about an OBE’.
“It’s great for the industry, because we’ve built a really close working relationship with the government over the past couple of years. I think – and this is only my understanding – is that’s part of where the OBE comes from,” Harmer adds.
“I’m happy to share it with the real experts, the people who worked so hard over the past couple of years, on resumption [of cruises], but also developing that ongoing relationship with the government – it’s very much a shared award.”
Friendly competition among cruise lines
Harmer is confident that this is not a one-way street, and that the government does also value the greater collaboration it has come to enjoy with cruise. “I think they see cruise as an important part of the UK economy,” Harmer says.
“I think one of the messages that we had over the last two years was the economic importance of cruise not just to the UK economy as a whole, but also the coastal communities that we visited.”
This economic chain of thought also feeds into the sustainability efforts in cruise and the government’s own targets, as Harmer elaborates: “[We’re] explaining the number of new initiatives and investment in alternative fuels [across the sector], and how that technology that will benefit the whole maritime sector.”
The sustainability message was also pushed at the most recent CLIA Conference, in May, and Harmer also highlights how – this year in particular – the trade fair was “such an impactful thing”.
He adds: “There were around 40 cruise lines plus destinations, technology providers, and so on, all working together, with that friendly competition. For travel agents, that’s really powerful because it shows that we are all working together for the benefit of the sector, as well as being competitive in terms of sales and commercial areas.”
Something else that agents have spoken to Harmer about in the weeks since is the range of product on show at the conference, with three ship tours – on MSC Virtuosa, P&O Cruises’ Iona and Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas – and many panel sessions covering all manner of subjects.
“The conference was never about promoting a single brand, but rather promoting cruise as a whole. We all benefit when cruising grows,” he explains.
This year also saw a number of agents – just under 50 per cent – attending their first CLIA event, which “demonstrates new talent or a lot of the people who haven’t maybe switched on to cruise before are seeing the opportunities that it offers”, says Harmer, adding: “Having the opportunity to see ships, meet all cruise lines and hear from some great speakers is a really powerful thing to take back and grow sales.”
Opportunities for travel agents
On this point, of agent and cruise line partnerships, Harmer sees a genuine bond between the two, stating: “It’s been an important relationship for as long as I’ve been in the industry and before that, too. It’s a powerful relationship that will support the cruise industry as we go to the next phase of our growth.
“We rely on that, and it has helped us through not just the challenges of the last couple of years but previous challenges, and will no doubt stand us in good stead for the years ahead,” he continues. “Talking to agents, I think they are often surprised at the level of support they get from cruise lines, such as the chance to go online for learning and support.”
CLIA has also continued to develop its own agent training tools, with a new ‘love cruise’ section on its website, offering a practical checklist of the ways in which agents can make the most of their CLIA membership.
These, alongside the resources from lines, will be necessary as the industry continues to rebuild. “Travel has always had challenges,” says Harmer. “We wouldn’t be the travel industry if we didn’t accept those challenges.
“But, if you look at this year and next, then it’s clear that this is a great opportunity for travel agents. There are many high-profile ships arriving, as well as new itineraries. Also, we should never take for granted the fact that travel more generally is opening up and becoming more easily available.”
He adds: “We have to look at the positive – there’s demand and a real willingness by holidaymakers to get away and enjoy a holiday. Of course, there’s no better way to do that than on a cruise.”