Interview: Ben Bouldin says Royal Caribbean is riding high amid strong wave period

Royal Caribbean is riding high – not just in terms of its strongest wave season in years but on other fronts too, according to Ben Bouldin, vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he explains why.

Bouldin on… wave/demand

Wave has started really strongly. Demand in the first week of January was greater than it was in the same week last year, even further ahead than 2022 and well ahead of 2019.

Trade sales were a bit slow the week after Christmas, largely based on travel agencies wanting to give their staff a decent holiday, but we’ve seen the trade coming back incredibly strongly since then – particularly retail. Hays, Barrhead and many others have performed very well.

Our wave campaign started on January 3. We waited until after Christmas to unveil our offers, which include kids sailing for £99, drinks packages and other flash sales throughout the month, offering things like additional onboard spend – and they are driving bookings.

MoreRoyal Caribbean vice-president praises role of trade in selling Icon of the Seas

Oasis of the Seas out of Barcelona is doing very well, as is Odyssey of the Seas from Rome. We’ve also seen a strong uptick for Anthem of the Seas in her final year sailing from Southampton.

Independence of the Seas, which comes back to the UK in 2025, has got off to a phenomenal start. I’m not having to spend time thinking about her or promoting her at all as she’s selling herself really nicely. Customers and agents love her.

There is also lots of demand for the Caribbean, both in terms of last‑minute bookings for sailings in Q1 and for next winter, with people keen to visit [private island] Perfect Day and the new Hideaway Beach.

Bouldin on… recent leadership changes

Despite recent leadership changes, our sales team is in great shape. It’s fully resourced with up to 16 people now dedicated to the UK market, with Ruth Gardiner looking after key accounts, Kelly Ashby looking after the south, Sophie Wilson the north and Luke Vanderhoeven in charge of field sales. Nicki Lewis will look after our sales team in the interim, for Q1 at least, but you can expect that to change in Q2. My intention is to have one replacement for the two members of the team that have left [sales director Stuart Byron and head of sales Torey Kings-Hodkin].

Bouldin on… Icon of the Seas

Icon of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, will launch later this month, named by footballing icon Lionel Messi. It combines the best of every class of ship that we’ve ever produced. Every single one of the best features we have across the fleet is incorporated, creating a vacation experience like no other and that everyone in the family will love.

There is just so much to get your head around about it. And having had a chance to see a lot of the ship already and test the slides in the waterpark and see the infinity pool at the back, I can say with every confidence that Icon is going to be incredible. It also has over 40 dining, bar and nightlife venues – that’s like going out in a town; it’s extraordinary!

The next ship in this class, Star of the Seas, will launch in 2025 and is already on sale, and the third ship will enter service in 2026. Could that be in Europe, maybe? I will be working hard to make a strong case for it.

Bouldin on… trends

The average age of Royal Caribbean’s UK guests has come down from 49 in 2019 to 44 last year, due to the number of families with kids that are now coming on our ships.

In fact, the number of guests cruising as families has grown by 46% globally since 2019, and by 13% in the UK. That’s in just a four-year period.

The average duration of cruise is coming down but that’s driven in part by us changing the itineraries. In 2025, our average sailing will be seven days.

We also have more people doing our three and four-night cruises in North America. In fact, 55% more guests are booking itineraries that feature our private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day, than at the same time last year in 2023.

Long-haul cruising is definitely back for Brits – 33% more UK bookings are for the Caribbean in 2024 than they were this time last year, and 29% more bookings are for Alaska. Flying availability is better – and long-haul is less impacted. Most people in the regions accept they have to connect through London.

That said, I’d love to put charters in, but the challenge is availability and pricing of aircraft, so we’ve had to take more commitments and fewer full charters.

But I’m delighted to say we’ve negotiated really strong air rates – 90% of our flight seats are significantly cheaper than general sales. Guests and travel agents love to make the most of our airfares.

Bouldin on… EMEA and competition

The key priority for our market is to focus on yield and growing our business profitably – and that means getting the right guests for our product. We need to demonstrate that as a market, we are ready for the likes of new ships coming online all around Europe, and ready when the exchange rates are more beneficial – and maybe ready for ‘Icon 3’ in 2026.

The inherent value of a cruise is astonishing compared with a land-based holiday. Despite the bullish outlook of the big three package tour operators [Jet2holidays, Tui and easyJet holidays], demonstrated by their increases in their Atol licences, we are extremely well‑positioned to continue on our growth trajectory and well-placed to convert interest in our product.

Even if the big-three land operators end up dropping their prices [to fill unsold capacity], a cruise will still look like great value. A land-based holiday and what you get for the price is just not comparable – you’ve only got to look at the ads on TV after Christmas and see that it’s been dominated by cruise lines.

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