As Managing Director of Bolsover Cruise Club, the past four months have been both unprecedented but also remarkable as my team have grappled with the unfolding events of this once in a lifetime crisis. As we reach, what to me now seems a mid-point in this defined period of history, I wanted to take this opportunity to reach out to our loyal clients with an update on what’s happened so far and a look into the immediate future.
As we see the first green shoots of the leisure industry opening for business in Europe, the cruise sector remains largely suspended as a result of the Covid-19 spread to many parts of the globe. The UK and Europe have shown that, with determination and sacrifice, we can largely beat the virus and so we know cruising will resume in time.
Having managed Bolsover Cruise Club as a pure retail agent for some 40 years, it was both an exciting and nervous time when, in September 2018, my daughter joined the business as Product Manager, creating a new tour operation that would go on to book many thousands of passengers by the time Covid-19 became a reality in China. Never could we have known the devastating impact this would have on this new operation. Back in February and March, whilst most people in the UK were just getting used to the news of the virus in China, we on the other hand had begun the rollercoaster ride of repatriating hundreds of our Cruise and Stay clients from Asia and then, later, being forced to cancel huge numbers of 2020 Cruise and Stay holidays.
Given our experience in Asia, as the virus moved towards Europe, I had already predicted total lockdown. However, even with this foresight, I could not have known the unprecedented effect this would have on the tens of thousands of passengers booked to travel not only on our own Cruise and Stay holidays, but predominantly our clients sailing with the major cruise lines. We have always been very agile at dealing with major events such as ships retiring with hundreds of affected clients, but this time the scale has been at a level that is impossible for me to get across to anyone, unless you are personally immersed in the crisis as we are.
As cruise upon cruise was suspended, not only were we placed into an extraordinary position of having tens of thousands of affected clients, but we were then launched into having to close our entire operation overnight and restart with each staff member working from home as we all went into lockdown. This in itself was, to say the least, a mammoth operation, but we quickly established an emergency phone system and have since maintained this seven days a week.
Without any choice on our part, almost all cruise operators decided to contact our clients directly by email wherever possible, with a link to confirm their intentions. This effectively took us immediately out of the loop, being unable to control or record what options each client had accepted. The operators in turn, also being overwhelmed by volume, were unable to provide any reporting to us, so we have largely worked blind throughout the crisis with little help from our operator partners. On top of this, many of the cruise operators changed their procedures multiple times and we were faced with a tidal wave of clients calling about future sailings that had not been cancelled, clearly anxious about their impending travel arrangements.
I paint this picture not out of a desire to court sympathy, but to try and explain why we simply have not been able to contact every client with an affected sailing personally, as would be our normal policy. The chaotic environment of unfolding events and magnitude of scale has made this impossible and is my biggest regret to date during this crisis. This does not mean my team have not been working tirelessly arranging transfers, chasing refunds and applying Future Cruise Savings etc., but we simply have been overtaken by sheer volume with everyone working from the restrictive confines of their own home. So, whilst we know everyone has been contacted by their respective cruise operator, if we have not reached out to you personally, I hope this explanation goes some way to explain why and I would like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere apologies.
I mentioned refunds earlier and this has been the hot topic throughout; indeed, the standout issue that has caused the greatest upset to clients at large. Like ourselves, cruise operators and airlines have been overwhelmed by Covid-19. I don’t need to tell you this; Which Magazine, Martin Lewis and the media generally have been ripe with stories about refunds and, at times, queries about refunds have dominated calls to our Sales Team. It remains a misconception to some clients that we hold your monies and I can only reiterate that, in the case of retail bookings, all deposit and balances go directly to the cruise operators, so they hold client’s funds. Therefore, they alone control the timing of refunds. Almost all cruise operators without exception have struggled to cope with the volume of refunds and, only now, some five months into the crisis, we are seeing some movement. If you are still awaiting a refund, then I can assure you operators are working as quickly as resources allow them to clear the backlog. However, in most cases, the Operator processes are automated, so I am afraid chasing these often has no effect. If you do need to contact our Sales Team about an outstanding refund, please remember they are not personally responsible for the delay everyone is experiencing, and they equally are just as frustrated.
With cruises cancelled for the best part of this year and no current indication as to when cruising will return to any great extent, I have had to act to reduce costs to ensure we remain strong, but equally be ready to restart fully when the time is right. So, for the time being, our Cruise Centre and retail unit at Meadowhall both remain closed and we will continue to offer a telephone service Monday to Friday from 09.00 until 17.30, Saturday 09.00 until 17.00 and Sunday 10.00 until 16.00. I apologise to those who experience delays in speaking to the Sales Team, but at times they are under significant pressure, particularly when any major changes for suspensions take place.
You will have noticed that our marketing has reduced dramatically as the majority of the team are furloughed. However, at long last we are seeing green shoots of recovery. A small number of river cruises in Europe are now operational, along with Hurtigruten, who are expecting to have 14 of their 15 ships back in operation by September. Elsewhere, we are seeing a lot of collaboration between cruise lines as they look to pave the way for the industry to restart. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines recently joined forces to assemble a panel of experts tasked with implementing new health measures, while Carnival Corporation will host a summit with the World Travel & Tourism Council to bring together specialists in science, research and clinical backgrounds to explore its Covid-19 response. It’s reassuring to see such positive developments and hopefully we will have news of more cruises for you to contemplate soon as we gradually return to normality. Regardless of how long it takes, it’s quickly becoming apparent that cruising will be the safest way to holiday when sailings resume.
As a parting message, in these most testing times, if we have not delivered you the level of service to which we are renowned, I hope you will understand the difficulties in doing so during the Covid-19 crisis. On behalf of my team, I send our sincere apologies.
Thank you for bearing with us.