We caught up with Peter Shanks, Silversea’s UK managing director, at the recent 10-year anniversary for Silversea Expeditions, to talk about how a focus on the travel experience has propelled the cruise line forward.
What makes Silversea different to other luxury brands?
Our focus is on the travel experience, so although we are a relatively small cruise line, we go to over 900 destinations worldwide, and we do it in luxury.
Of course, luxury is a very overused word, so therefore we are talking more about the travel experience, which is a mix of the destination and the service and pampering you get while on the ship.
I think it’s the destination and travel experience that we bring – that makes us different.
If you go back 10 years, it was a fairly radical thing to do. For Manfredi Lefebvre, our chairman, to have that vision, was special. We now have 10 years of experience, which is a huge asset to us and our guests.
The real success lies in the expedition team on board the ship and the actual places we can get customers to. To us, real expedition lies in how good your expedition leader is, for example, knowing the weather, where the pod of Orcas is, and getting to the right destination. That’s what we’ve been doing for 10 years, and that’s where we have the experience.
How are you working with agents?
Agents are hugely important. I’ve worked in retail and in cruise, and travel agents are particularly important when it comes to first time cruisers, or someone who has cruised but wants to understand where Silversea fits in.
Guests tend to do more research themselves online, but they will look at 20 different destinations with five cruise lines and every ship is different. So, a travel agent provides the reassurance, or they’ll make a recommendation.
Guests will say, ‘I’ve done all my research and I’ve narrowed it down to these two destinations, and ships, what do you think?’ That’s where a travel agent can be impartial and give that recommendation.
Agents still account for the majority of our business.
Will that change?
I don’t think so. The role of the agent is evolving, for example we’re seeing less done on the high street and more done by the specialist cruise call centres, but any travel agent who wants to focus on cruise can do very well.
As far as I can see over the next 5-10 years, travel agents will still play a very important part.
You’ve said you want to give Silversea a new lease of life. How?
There are two things.
First, with the investment we have in refurbishing our older ships, including the Silver Spirit, and in building the Silver Muse, Silver Dawn, and Silver Moon – that is an incredibly powerful brand with a huge reputation.
From my perspective in the UK, we also need to engage with travel agents more.
In what way?
We have to keep pace with the changing needs of the agents. You need to support them through the obvious things like training and technology, and we’ve tended – as we haven’t really been growing, up until recently – to rely upon on those specialist cruise retailers. They are excellent at what they do, but they have a very set of customers.
We now need to engage with people like Thomas Cook, Iglu, cruise.co.uk, Imagine Cruising – some new kids on the block. They all have different routes to market, so we need to make sure we work with all of them in the way they want to work with us.
It’s about developing that partnership. I want to accelerate that process.
What are the trends in cruise sector you are seeing?
I think the six-star luxury sector has done very well, as has river cruising.
The next step for the industry as a whole is there needs to be another step change in cruise being a mainstream holiday.
Look at the mainstream market – there is so much capacity coming, so there will need to be radical growth. I think it can happen, but it will need a huge effort.
The challenge we have in the six-star market is different. We are appealing to a different market. Quite often, those people won’t start by thinking of cruise, rather it is destination.
If you want to go to South America, for example, you started with that thought that it’s the destination that matters. We need to convince those people that the best way to see that destination is on a ship.
How do you meet that challenge?
We have to work harder and harder, and even closer with our travel agents, and refresh the communication and offers, as often as we can.
It’s also about being clever with marketing. Digital is beginning to play a greater role in what we are doing.
Also, partnerships, such as Silversea’s one with the Royal Geographical Society is a great example. Partnering with them, with many thousand members who are interested in exploring the world, is a big plus for us.
What’s your focus over the next few years?
The cruise market has a huge opportunity – it still represents less than 5 per cent of all the people who go on overseas holidays. The penetration is still very small, even with 2 million cruising in the UK; that’s a tiny amount of the 25-30 million who are going overseas.
Our innovation tends to be in getting our zodiacs closer to the penguins, but we all need to keep innovating and getting people talking. Then the most powerful thing becomes word of mouth.
I’ve found there are a lot of people on the brink of going cruising, and it just takes one family or couple to go, they come back and say, ‘it was awesome’, and then their friends might take a cruise.
That’s also when digital comes in, using video content and showing that people is really motivating. Our challenge is how do we keep our loyal guests happy, while finding all the first-time cruisers? That’s where the industry needs to work together.
Yes we all compete, but when it comes to talking about the cruise sector, we are very collaborative. It’s all about getting a unified message out.
You joined Silversea recently – how have you found it?
I’ve been here four months and I’ve found a tremendous sense of pride and loyalty. We are a family-run business and you really feel that.
There’s also lots of energy here, and it’s an exciting time to take it forward. I’m loving it. When you come onto the ships, you meet guests from all over the world, and I love that.