The Voice of the Cruise Industry

‘We’re here to stay’: Fred Olsen’s river cruise future

river cruise, cruising, Fred Olsen, Brabant,
photo_camera Brabant in Budapest, Hungary

Keith Norman is a little over three months into his crucial new role at Fred Olsen Cruise Lines. However, this is a man – and a company – with big ambitions, as Gary Peters finds out.

Informal setting? Tick. Local craft drinks? Tick. Engaging company? Tick.

If an interviewer were writing a checklist for what constitutes an ideal interview, a sit-down with Keith Norman would tick just about every box.

Here is a man who knows what he wants to sell and how, yet doesn’t underestimate the challenges that need to be overcome, as Fred Olsen seeks to increase its presence in the ever-growing river market.

river cruise, Fred Olsen, Brabant,
Fred Olsen’s Keith Norman.

“We made a step into the river cruise market as we wanted to transfer what we do well in the ocean cruise sector to river,” he explains to Cruise Trade News. “We’ve learnt a lot of lessons in the first year [since Fred’s inaugural river cruise season in April 2018], but now, we want to give it real focus. We want the industry to know we are really serious about this.”

This “dedicated resource”, is, for the time being, a team of one – as Keith flies the flag as Fred Olsen’s first-ever dedicated river sales manager. He explains that the team will grow over the coming months and years, but for now he is “supported by a lot of shared resource in the company”.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity,” he adds. “We are here to stay, so there will be an opportunity for me personally to really make it happen. I bring some ideas and thoughts that might be a little different – my background is not cruise, it’s sales. I hope I can bring some fresh ideas to the table.

“On the face of it, there’s a perception that all river ships are the very similar, so it’s about us educating people and telling them ‘we do this and this is the Fred experience’. It’s a challenge, but we will get there.”

British traditions

The “Fred experience”, also known as ‘feel the real’ at Fred HQ, is expressed through its river ship, the 156-guest Brabant, which in 2019 has an expanded programme of 33 sailings, ranging from between five and 25 nights. Itineraries include Düsseldorf to Amsterdam; Düsseldorf to Nuremberg; Nuremberg to Budapest; and Hirsova to Düsseldorf, among others.

The ship stays true to the British style of the line’s ocean-going cruise ships, as, Norman says, this is what its guests have told Fred they want – English spoken throughout the ship, all transactions done in pounds sterling and British-inspired cuisine. They also want more immersive experiences – quite the buzz word in the industry at the moment.

“We want to ignite all the senses,” Norman says. “It’s a ‘deeper dive’ cruise – we really allow guests to ‘dive’ into a destination. We look at itineraries in a different way; we don’t just go port to port. With river ships, it’s a bit more cultural and people want to learn about the destinations.”

Brabant, river cruise, Fred Olsen,
Fred Olsen’s river ship, Brabant.

Growing the fleet

Which brings the conversation to the inevitable question: is Fred planning to grow its fleet of river ships? “Yes, we have plans,” says Norman. Can he expand on that? “That [bringing in new ships] will be decided by the board and the directors.

“However, I am pretty certain the fleet will grow. Commercially, it will work. It has to be done in the right way though, with the right ships to represent our brand. It also has to be done with the right destinations, so we need to explore what works for our guests.”

Of course, a (potentially) bigger fleet could also mean new destinations for Fred river cruise guests to enjoy – Russia, the Nile? “Everything is on the table, so to speak,” explains Norman. “What we have to develop first is our key areas and what’s right for us. No decision is made lightly – we look at all the factors and how we can deliver the Fred Olsen experience for our guests.”

And this is where travel agents come in. River cruising, as many have stated, is experiencing unprecedented growth and is constantly evolving. That undoubtedly is changing how river cruise lines are working with their agent partners.

“What we are seeing is that some of our partners are now segmenting river within their businesses,” says Norman. “You’ll have a dedicated river manager, for example.”

Norman also has plans to attract new-to-cruise passengers. He adds: “We are seeing new to cruise for our river product and yes there will be those who will say ‘I love Fred’s ocean cruises, I’ll try river’, but it is a different holiday. Our experience, on the whole, is that it is a different guest.”

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