We talk to Herve Bellaiche, PONANT’s chief sales and marketing officer, to find out how the French cruise company plans to crack the UK market.

Exactly how important is the UK market to you?

“So far we have been mainly concentrating on our key French and American markets. We haven’t really invested in the UK market which is key for us – we’ve always been around but have recently changed our strategy. We have the right assets in terms of ships and destinations to meet the needs of UK guests, and a lot of experience working with English-speaking people – currently 40 per cent of our business comes from the US and 20 per cent from Australia, but only one per cent comes from the UK. We have just started pricing in sterling instead of euros, and have also been working with a local team dedicated to the UK market who will meet the trade and be our advocates. Our Quintessential collection launching in 2019 consists of eight cruises specifically for English-speaking guests. We still want to keep our French DNA which we are proud of, but we are open to the international market.”

What time frame are you giving yourselves to achieve your aims?

“Three years. We are tackling it right now strategically, with the investment to make it happen. By then we need to be looking at 10 per cent of the market share.”

What do your growth plans look like?

“We currently have five ships, increasing to 12 by 2021. These seven new ships are all contracted and deposits paid. Each will be all-balcony ships, making us number one in the small ship luxury expedition sector. With this ambition we cannot stay at one per cent market share in the UK.”

What are you doing with your trade partners here in the UK?

“We will be having face-to-face discussions and training with travel agents so they can understand our specific values. We have 30 years of maritime history, uniquely we were created by people with a high level of maritime experience – plus the flag is European. All our captains own shares in the company. No brochure can convey this; we need to explain, train and show. In the long term, we will also have more fam trips and ship visits to get people on board to experience the product. We are not going to reinvent the wheel, we just need to explain what is different. The average commission per booking is more than £1000, so there’s a definite incentive. 60 per cent of passengers are repeats; if clients book their next cruise on the ship, the agent still gets the commission. Compared to most other cruise lines, our ships have the same design and hardware. This is due to the fact that we sold all our former ships – since 2010 we have invested in more than one billion pounds to build a new, harmonious fleet.”

What are your design plans for the new ships?

“In 1988, ships being built were big. Our designers and engineers were more concerned about a smaller size, the destination, innovation and ecology – they were the first, by chance, to combine expedition and luxury. They wanted the destination to be the destination, not the ship. We now own this model. Our new tropical expedition ships will be even more open to the sea. As well as size and destination we are also investing in innovation – it took three years of development and 20 engineers to create a transparent still of the Blue Eye sensory underwater lounge.”

What challenges are you facing in the UK market?

“Brand awareness. But we are confident that, in the long term, we are going to achieve our targets. We have the right product, itineraries and assets – nothing is refraining us. But it’s going to take time to build a brand in a crowded market. We also don’t discount or do deals; we are not going to compromise on this, as we don’t think that is what luxury is about.”

PONANT is currently sponsoring the British Library’s new exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages (27 April – 28 August 2018), and is curating its own Cook Collection, a selection of 13 voyages which sail the same waters as Cook and his fellow 18th century explorers.