Even as Fred.Olsen Cruises was pausing its seafaring operations due to Covid-19, its team on dry land knew that it was important to find a way to stay connected with its customers and to bring some positivity into their lives at a time when all the news seemed so negative.
But the team also wanted to make Fred.Olsen Cruises appear accessible and engaging at a time when other companies were becoming increasingly hard to reach, building brand reassurance and consumer confidence.
‘It was such a scary time for everybody, not least for our guests who are very much in the more vulnerable category,’ explains public relations executive Ellie Barker. ‘So many of them were shielding, and some were obviously shielding and alone. We thought what can we do to bring a little bit of sunshine at a time when everything was so doom and gloom.’
If their guests could not go on their planned cruises, the answer was for Fred.Olsen to create cruises that could be enjoyed in the comfort of their homes – a virtual cruise. ‘We had two audiences: existing guests and new people too,’ says Barker. ‘We had those who were affected by cruises that were cancelled; we wanted to compensate for the fact that we could not offer them their holiday. But there were also people who either hadn’t cruised with us for a while, or who simply followed us on social media, who were also sat at home.’
Fred.Olsen created a new area on its website, known as The Bridge, to share information about its new calendar virtual cruises. ‘It is a dedicated resource, like a weekly hub, where we create and share content and information. It also allows us to store it because social media moves on so quickly,’ says Barker. ‘But Facebook has really been the main driver of virtual cruising, for sure, as many of our guests were already on the platform but a large number also have neighbours or relatives within their bubble who were also on it and would let them know.’
It has prompted the cruise liner to increase its social media activity on Facebook from around three posts per week to at least two or three a day. The approach has also changed. Whereas prior to the pandemic, social media was primarily used as a marketing tool now it is used as a conversational platform. To ensure that visitors feel like real guests rather than a number, there is always a member of the team on hand to respond to posts, comments or messages – during evenings and weekends as well – who offers his or her name when interacting.
Every Monday morning since early April 2020, Fred.Olsen has issued an itinerary for that week’s virtual cruise on both The Bridge and its Facebook page. Its first ‘cruise’ on 9 April took in the highlights of Norway, with video footage of the fjords, an ‘on board’ lecture from marine conservation charity ORCA, explorations of Olden and a celebration of the best of Bergen. And within six weeks the virtual cruisers had visited destinations including the Canary Islands, Micronesia, Iceland and Greenland, the UK and the Mediterranean.
But, more importantly, traffic to Fred.Olsen’s consumer website increased by 252 per cent over that period against 2019, with more than 31,800 unique visits to The Bridge and an 11 per cent increase in bookings. As not everybody has Facebook, Fred.Olsen linked the virtual cruising programme to its email marketing strategy, by creating a weekly newsletter that encapsulates highlights from the most recent virtual cruise
Barker explains that each virtual cruise features elements from a real-life cruise, so there may be a quiz one day or a focus on a particular city or sight, by sharing imagery on the day that the ship would have reached that destination. There have also been virtual ukulele lessons and showtime performances.
Each Wednesday there is a ‘Walk a mile with a smile’, a daily staple of Fred.Olsen cruises when guests are encouraged to walk four laps of its ships. Four laps equal one mile. ‘It gives people an idea of the kind of things that are available every day on our cruises. [Walk a mile with a smile] will be familiar to those who have travelled with us. It’s something we do on board, so we try to tie that into everything,’ she explains.
‘You log in and see if there is something that you fancy. It is all very relaxed. And obviously you don’t have to log in at a certain time to enjoy these elements, because once they are there, they’re there. That’s the beauty of these cruises.’
The virtual cruises have also involved performers who work on the cruises. ‘It’s about trying to keep it all familiar. Guests would think ‘Oh, I recognise them from the ship’ or ‘I’ll find this lecture interesting as I’ve been to one of their talks on board before’,’ adds Barker. ‘We also have done Saturday night showtime performances, so our ‘guests’ can have a glass of wine and a nice dinner and watch a performance as though it was happening on the ships.
‘What we’ve found is that we’re just putting this content out there – we’re the orchestrator – which is generating comments and posts. People are talking to each other. They are having their own conversations, reminiscing, and sharing memories which has been lovely to see. Particularly at the start of the pandemic, we had some really heart-warming comments where people would say that they had lost their wife or their husband, but the virtual cruise reminded them of their last holiday and happier times. Or people who say how lonely they have felt through lockdown and how these cruises have given them comfort and the ability to talk to other people online.
‘But we’ve also changed our approach in how we interact with guests on social media. Instead of a corporate sign off, we have a member of the team personally sign off – so it might be Ian, or Holly or Alisha who actually have a conversation with our guests. It’s made a big difference. It is much more personal.’
While Fred.Olsen Cruises has always been proud of the way it conducts itself as a company, with one of the highest repeat rates in the UK cruise industry, with many customers booking two or three, even four, cruises a year, the virtual cruises have also been educational. ‘We’ve learned so much through all of this,’ says Barker. ‘It has really reinforced that we are a people-driven business, that our guests are at the heart of everything we do and that they will stay that way.
‘The pandemic has created two types of companies: those who were open and honest and easy to reach and those who put their shutters up and didn’t want to say anything. Virtual cruising has been just one element of our approach. Our cancellations, our refund policies… we’ve been very proactive. Our managing director has been issuing videos on social media, speaking directly to our guests.’
Such an approach has paid dividends. The virtual cruises have helped to secure future bookings, with more than £700,000 booked within the first six months – including £64,000 from one virtual Mediterranean cruise.
The success of the virtual cruising programme, and prolonged lockdowns around the world, have created a unique challenge for Fred.Olsen’s social media team. Initially, the cruises were destination-focused.
‘But then we went through all the main destinations, and we were still very much in virtual cruising mode, so we did a focus on the ships – you could have a cruise on a specific ship – and sea days [when the ships are sailing between destinations]. We’d focus on the things you can do onboard our ships,’ explains Barker.
‘But now we’ve evolved it again slightly, so that we are looking ahead at this time next year and focusing on where the ships will be. So guests who have cruises booked can imagine ‘This time next year, I’ll be in Morocco,’ for example. It’s about getting excited about future travel than reminiscing on travels that have already happened. We’re constantly evolving and trying to find new ways to keep people engaged and interested. It’s a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge.’