The three-year-old cruise agency is on the lookout for more agents to join its growing team in London. Harry Kemble reports.
It is fair to say the origins of Forever Cruises’ parent company, Lee’s Travel, are humble. Hwee Yiow Lee started the agency in Kilburn from his food shop 47 years ago.
Lee noticed that a lot of Asian students, studying in London, were wanting to buy air tickets to fly home, and he seized the opportunity to serve this market.
From behind his shop counter, Lee successfully agreed net contracts with the likes of Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.
Word quickly spread through the capital’s growing Asian communities that cheap airline fares could be bought at Lee’s Emporium.
This proactive approach has been a running theme throughout the agency’s existence.
In 2015, Lee’s Travel set up Forever Cruises to cater for growing demand for cruises as add‑ons to land stays.
The new division was led by David Tan, Lee’s Travel’s business development manager, and directors Manish Suchde and Altamash ‘Sam’ Parkar.
Tan, the nephew of Lee’s Travel’s founder, said: “When we first started, Suchde and Parkar were knowledgeable on the cruise side of things and Lee’s Travel had a background in flights. It was a perfect marriage.
“We could offer the whole experience. You would go on your cruise, and then on your [land-based] holidays. There was hardly anybody out there doing this.”
Forever Cruises turned over £6 million in 2016. In the same year the team scooped Clia’s Rising Star award. The company continued to grow last year, albeit at a slower rate, turning over £8.5 millon.
Change of approach
The three-man Forever Cruises team realised that dwindling newspaper sales meant they needed to devise another advertising strategy.
“Unless we had plans in place to go online we would have died a death,” Tan said.
A year ago, Forever Cruises switched its advertising entirely online. But that posed a new problem – a lack of staff to process orders. For nine months, Tan, Suchde and Parkar typically worked 12 hours a day for seven days a week. They eventually reduced their hours by recruiting a customer manager, product manager and digital marketing manager.
“We have managers in place responsible for what we were doing before,” said Tan. “Now we are here five or six days a week.”
In addition, Forever Cruises has a four-strong sales team, made up of homeworkers.
Parkar said the sales team are encouraged to stay at home if their commute is more than an hour and half, to boost productivity.
“Ideally, we would have a balance of people working from here in the office and working from home,” he said. “We want productivity. If you are going to travel and an hour and a half each way, then just stay at home.”
Forever Cruises is recruiting for three more sales workers, to be based in its office in China House at the Wing Yip Business Centre in Cricklewood, northwest London.
“The challenge is we do not have enough people,” Parkar added. “We need more sales people. There are a percentage of calls that are overflows and we are losing out on them.”
Sailings in Asia are Forever Cruises’ most popular, with itineraries south of China and across the Indian Ocean the firm’s top sellers.
“We are doing a lot of Sri Lanka and South America is getting big too,” said Parkar.
Alaska has been going “really well” for the agency in the last six months, Tan added.
Initially, Forever Cruises did not advertise Mediterranean sailing prices in print, because clients were “quicker” to book ex-Asia sailings.
Previously, the agency did not have enough staff to book the less-lucrative Mediterranean bookings as well but a move to Traveltek’s iSell reservation system has simplified and quickened the process, allowing it to increase its Mediterranean offering.
Forever Cruises hit the national headlines last month after reports emerged of drug‑taking and sexual antics on board its annual ‘Anchored’ party cruise sailing.
Tan and his team chartered Royal Caribbean International’s Vision of the Seas to host the six-day party itinerary from Barcelona to Cannes, Ibiza and Majorca.
Forever Cruises denies the allegations, but the publicity boosted visits to its website and has not deterred Tan from continuing the event. He said another Anchored sailing would operate next year. He declined to reveal details but said: “Plans are in place for next year. It will be bigger and better than before.”
Forever Cruises, which is not part of any consortium, is looking to open an office in Singapore, having held six months of talks with potential stakeholders.
Tan said Singapore had been chosen as it is a “main hub” for departures for Forever Cruises bookings.
“We do not know when we will be able to confirm,” he said. “The market over there is very big. We would like to have it set up as soon as possible.”
Up close and personal
Andrew Little, senior cruise consultant
The Best thing about my job is… I really enjoy finding holidays for myself so I find it easy to transfer that to other people. The worst thing is, as a homeworker, I miss the interaction with other people and the office environment.
My favourite destination is… probably Australia or Indonesia. I surf, so I especially like Bali and the east coast of Australia.
My travel background is… I have been predominantly in cruise for the last eight years. I’ve worked in Sydney for Cruise1st and I’ve worked for Infinity Holidays which is the wholesale division for Flight Centre.
Harish Mesuria, digital marketing manager
The Best thing about my job is… working with these guys. The worst thing is seeing them go to all these industry events and not always being able to go myself.
I have worked here… since November.
My last trip was… to the launch of Norwegian Bliss. It was pretty cool because I am so new to cruise. It was such a big ship, so I was surprised.
Tell me something about your job… My role is putting together the social media and basing it around advertising campaigns.
Harry’s day at forever cruises
Tucked away in a business park near London’s busy Staples Corner – a major road junction – is the Forever Cruises office. There are no obvious signs this is the home of a multimillion-pound turnover business. And if I’m honest, I’d expected a snazzy shopfront with a smart logo, given the waves the agency is making in the cruise industry.
But I soon learn that Forever Cruises tends to shun convention. The team of directors encourages its sales team to work from home; the company now advertises only online; and its top‑selling sailings are miles away from the Mediterranean, the UK’s favourite cruise destination.
In the three years since its creation, Forever Cruises has had its knockbacks, but it has always reacted accordingly.
Much of that is down to David, Manish and Sam, who are all prepared to try something new.
Their outlook is progressive and, for that, they should be applauded.