This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver examines the emergence of low cost cruise line easyCruise and their plans for the future.
Easy does it
"Together with its second vessel easyCruise unveils an exciting new look and upgraded onboard facilities. easyCruiseTwo will sail weekly itineraries along the rivers and canals of Holland and Belgium from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, Brussels, Antwerp and back. easyCruiseOne will be transformed with the new easyCruise livery and will be offering a more upscale dining experience on board".
A lot of us here at the CruiseTalk forum were more than a little bit skeptical when Mr. easyjet (Stelios Haji-Ioannou serial entrepreneur and founder of the successful low cost European airline) announced the creation of easyCruise in 2005. For those unfamiliar with the product, here is the concept: 'easyCruise one' is a small vessel with tiny basic cabins, minimal onboard service and dining facilities. There is no onboard entertainment. The ship currently cruises the French Riviera in the summer and Barbados and the surrounding Caribbean Islands in the winter. It stays in port every night until 11 pm in the Caribbean and 4 am in the Riviera, allowing passengers to enjoy the life on shore - the beach, sightseeing, shopping, dining and clubbing. It then sets sail, arriving in a new port every morning. Passengers can board & depart anywhere along the route as long as you stay on the ship at least 2 nights. The prices are per cabin, per night and are extremely cheap starting at under £20 (but food is not included).
The easyCruise product is more like an 'easyferry' because all you really get for your money is transport between close together ports. This is especially so for the French Riviera. In fact 'easy-floating-hotel' is probably an even more accurate description, as the ship is really sold as a budget accommodation. However, in the playground for the rich and famous, where there is a shortage of cheap accommodation, this is very welcome.
Many of us though that this product would mainly appeal to back-packing students, but in reality it probably attracts more budget conscious thirty and forty-something's. Although I admire Stelios for finding a new niche is an existing market, he's hardly posing a big challenge to Carnival or Royal Caribbean, as yet. Stelios is great at generating publicity, but with just two ships in the current fleet, 'easyCruise' is still a VERY small operation. He can carry a total of 270 passengers (both ships), which is less that two lifeboats full onboard the new mega-ship 'Freedom of the Seas'. It hard to imagine that he's generating big profits from this venture. However from tiny acorns, mighty oaks can grow.
Stelious has just announced the signing of a letter of intent for the construction of two 500-passenger cruise ships, plus two options. The building of these ships will allow the brand to expand its cruise operations into the Greek islands as well as other parts of Mediterranean, Caribbean, Florida and the Bahamas and Dubai. Now when was the last time that two small ships cruise ships were constructed?
Personally, I do not think the terms 'no frills' and 'cruise' are entirety compatible, just as the words 'beer' and 'non-alcoholic' aren't either. Unlike flying, all cruising is associated in the publics mind as offering comfort, luxury and pampering. Even today's ferries offer a pretty up-scale, often near cruise ship standard of décor, food and service. I think Stelios is coming to realize this and the changes to his easyCruise product represent quite a U-turn.
EasyCruise passengers are clearly demanding more extensive onboard dining, but Stelios is happy to oblige as it represents more onboard income. Food and drink will of course need to be purchased and will not be included in the fare. People (even younger ones) clearly could not tolerate orange cabins onboard an orange ship. They have also demanded more window cabins (Stelios originally sealed many up). Maybe the big lines had it right all along?
As for easyCruise two, a riverboat, once again I find myself a little skeptical. The likes of RCI, Carnival, Ocean Village and Island Escape have spent a lot of money telling the world that cruising can be fun and exciting. However, no one has spent a penny telling us that river cruising can be fun. I find it even harder to imagine younger people taking a river cruise than I do an Ocean cruise. It just sounds too sedate. However, Stelios does have an annoying habit of proving us all wrong and is not scared of modifying his products as it matures.