Interview with Olga Piqueras – Managing Director of Intercruises Shoreside & Port Services.

Virginia López (Cruises News Media Group): The cruise industry was going through an important phase of expansion, but is now facing an unprecedented stop – did you ever imagine we would be in the current situation?

Olga Piqueras: No and I don’t think anyone in the cruise industry was expecting to be in this situation. At Intercruises, our teams regularly participate in crisis management training and we have handled many different types of incidents, from ships quarantined due to norovirus, to terrorist attacks and the effects of severe weather, such as hurricanes. While all this experience definitely helped in our response to the current situation, we never expected to face a crisis on this global scale.

Intercruises has global operations; how many employees, countries and business areas have been affected?

Our entire business has been affected and the impact mirrors the spread of the virus, starting in Asia, where we suddenly found our team in China on lockdown and ships being diverted to different ports for unplanned calls. Our teams around the world worked around the clock; cancelling existing arrangements, working with cruise lines and ports to plan alternative itineraries, making new arrangements and supporting repatriation efforts. There are countless examples of where our teams went above and beyond to support cruise lines and their guests in different destinations – Singapore, Mumbai, Palma, Barcelona, Marseille, Southampton, Lisbon, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego and many more. In terms of the impact on business areas, all ground handling operations stopped, apart from those supporting repatriation efforts. Only now (July 2020) have we had ground operations to support some small cruises in Europe. In contrast, our Port Operations Team has been very busy over the last few months, supporting vessels and crew – organising provisions, lay ups, medical services and crew repatriation.

The cruise lines have been dealing with many difficulties, which includes getting port permission for lay ups and crew repatriation. How difficult has this been for Intercruises?

This is part of what Intercruises does and we have central and local Port Operations teams made up of port agency and logistics specialists. While the rapidly and constantly changing situation made these sorts of operations more challenging, our teams successfully supported lay-ups and repatriations in many destinations. This was only made possible through our strong local relationships and it is important to remember that stakeholders from across the industry – cruise lines, port agents, government authorities, port authorities – all worked together to make these operations possible.

Being one of the main suppliers to cruise lines worldwide, how has Intercruises contributed to the development of new protocols, both onboard and ashore?

Our focus is ashore, although we have been involved in discussions regarding onboard protocols. We are fortunate to be part of the TUI Group and so have access to experts in different areas, such as travel Health & Safety and Crisis Management. These experts are sharing knowledge and new best practices across the TUI Group – Hotels, Airlines, Tours – and with their help we have created a number of new guidelines, protocols and recommendations for all areas of our operations. These have been shared with the cruise lines, port authorities and our different destination partners, including venues and transportation companies.

What will excursions look like during COVID-19 and after the pandemic?

There are obvious changes that will be required depending on the location, such as masks and social distancing, which means that due to operations practicality some excursions will be more common, such as panoramic bus tours and small group walking excursions. Beyond this, we expect many of the emerging trends we saw prior to COVID-19 to have accelerated. This includes more independent tour options and experiences that immerse guests in the local culture and community. The lockdown will have also increased the popularity of activities in natural settings and away from cities, so we expect to see more hiking, kayaking and excursions taking place in rural areas. Additionally, we have planned for an increase in the uptake of wellness experiences, such as yoga, tai chi, massages and spa treatments.

Do you think that destinations should take advantage of this stop and reformulate their strategies for cruise tourism?

All cruise industry stakeholders should be taking advantage of this stop. Waiting for things to return to how they were before COVID-19 is not a logical nor realistic approach and the organizations that prosper will be those that endeavour to understand how the industry is changing and embrace those changes. 

How is Intercruises taking advantage of this stop?

Other than Health & Safety standards and processes, which all companies will be looking at, our focus is on two main areas; digitalisation and sustainability, with the overall objectives of enhancing service quality, destination sustainability and the cruise guests’ experience ashore. The initiatives in these areas are not new, but due to the ‘stop’ they have been accelerated and are evolving in line with how we believe the industry is changing. A range of different projects include new audio-guiding technology, a transportation management system and a tool that will evaluate all our shore excursions based on sustainable principles. It is important that while we fight this virus to return to sailing, we do not lose focus on shaping a more sustainable cruise industry. 

The cruise lines are announcing a gradual return to operations and Europe is apparently the first continent to start. Do you think Spain will have cruises this summer?

In France in early July, Intercruises handled its first guest-facing operations since March, working with four different vessels. Operations were completed without incident and this would suggest that cruises out of Spain are possible. Yet as I say this (end of July 2020), some countries are advising against travel to Spain following several outbreaks. We are in a volatile situation that can change from one day to the next, meaning it is impossible to answer this question with any certainty.  

How do you see the future? When could the industry come back to the figures we had in 2019?

The entire travel industry has had a difficult 2020, but I would argue that cruise has been the most impacted, both in terms of the ongoing suspension of operations and how the industry has been portrayed in the mainstream press. In the immediate future I expect the return of the cruise industry to continue through domestic or scenic cruises, such as the TUI Cruises ‘Blue Cruise’. This should inspire confidence in destinations and guests, enabling a greater amount of ships to start operating. I don’t know when we will return to 2019 figures, but I do know that the cruise industry is resilient, accustomed to overcoming challenges, and that people will always want to cruise.