Q&A with Walter Littlejohn

Walter Littlejohn, Crystal, Crystal Cruises

Walter Littlejohn is the vice president & managing director of Crystal River Cruises.

What makes Crystal different to other brands?

When we came to the market place, what was most important to us was to be consistent with the experience that we offered on the river ship, making that consistent with the ocean liners. We took all of the elements of what makes the ocean liners fantastic and found ways to take those elements and squeeze them onto a river ship.

We basically started with a blank sheet of paper. The easy option would have been to take the typical river cruise ship model and add Crystal touches to it. That would have probably cost a lot less money, too. But, it’s key for us to offer the Crystal experience. We want a guest on a river ship to feel as if they are on one of our ocean liners.

The end result of that is basically about 30 points of differentiation between us and what the industry, in general, does.

Can you give me an example?

It starts with service, where our crew to guest ratio is twice that of the average. For example, the Crystal Mozart carries 154 guests with 92 crew members, so we can deliver six-star Crystal service.

All of our employees are Crystal employees – we don’t outsource any of our operations. Everything is run in house. We are one of only three cruise lines to do that.

Our on board experience is at a different level, as we’ve been perfecting this model for 28 years. We cruise in some of the richest regions in the world, so that gives us the chance to bring food on board fresh; there’s nothing pre-prepared or frozen.

Rather than doing banquet-style preparation of the cuisine, we say, it’s your vacation, so we make the doors open for dinner from 7-9pm and guests can eat anytime they want. Only when they have placed their order do we fire up the preparation for that meal. Our galleys are three to four times bigger than the average. Our ships were designed to offer this.

How much of a challenge was it to bring the ocean experience to the river?

We knew what we had to do and what positions and equipment we needed on board. It was nothing new to us. We realised we had to do the same but on a smaller scale. After all, scaling down is easier than scaling up.

Nonetheless, the river cruise business is very different to the ocean cruise business – your supplier base is different, for example – so we had some initial learning there.

Detail is king. You can have the most impressive, beautiful ship, but if the walls don’t have fine art work, what good is it? If you give the guest one bar of soap and not soap and shower gel, what good is it? If you give them the ability to deliver laundry services but yet they don’t have the proper sized laundry bag, it doesn’t work.

The guest experience is made up of thousands of touch points. At each one, you have to deliver beyond what is expected. We’ve learnt what those touch points are, so we have designed it all to minimise failures and maximise successes.

How important are agents to your work?

Agents are a huge part of what we do – they deliver 96 per cent of our business. With the river cruise experience, consumers, by and large, don’t know Crystal is in this space. We rely on our travel partners to convert people who may have had an idea of cruising to try Crystal.

They also share with consumers the fact that there is a true luxury choice in river cruising. A lot of our initial research came from our guests who were telling us they had a proclivity to try river cruising but they weren’t familiar with any of the brands.

We are relying on the trade to let luxury travellers know, yes you can go on a luxury river cruise in Europe.

Will that 96 per cent figure change?

I’m not sure. I think as we grow it will be in that range. As time goes on, we do have more interest from guests booking with us directly, but we are a complex sale. For example, on our ocean liners, they are doing something different every 2-3 weeks, and that’s not something that can be easily translated through mass media. Communicating that we are all inclusive can also be hard, so that has to come through the agent.

How is the cruise market changing in terms of demographics?

What we’re seeing with river cruises is that we have a younger average age than our ocean liners, by about three years. It’s 61 on the ocean and 58 on river ships. There’s a group of people who have reached a point in life where they have the ability to travel more and they want a certain level of experience. They want to treat themselves, and our brand fits well with that.

On the ocean side, we realise that we can attract more of those people by patterning our itineraries so they fit better with their work schedules. If you look at our 2020 deployment, we have more shorter cruises – seven nights, 10 nights, and so on – so those who have commitments can still join us for a vacation. We haven’t created that in lieu of the longer cruises, however. Rather, we have taken the shorter cruises and combined them in a way so you don’t repeat any ports. We’re speaking to two markets there – those with work commitments and those who have lots of time on their hands. Everyone is happy at the end of the day.

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