Has Thomson trumped P&O?
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Has Thomson trumped P&O?

When David Selby, head of Thomson Cruises, disclosed last week that Thomson might move one of its own ships into the Island Cruises brand, we wonder if this was a move to capture market share away from P&O's Ocean Village, which is to close its doors at the end of the 2010 season?
If so, there will be two former Holland America ships under a more formal Thomson Cruises banner and two former Royal Caribbean ships under a more casual Island Cruises brand, which they started up with Royal Caribbean in 2001.

Thomson Cruises

Thomson Cruises is actually a revival of a brand that was around in the 1970s, when it was owned by Lord Thomson, chartering ships such as the Ithaka and Calypso (the former Southern Cross). Phased out after four years because of a spike in fuel costs, the cruise line then rose again like a phoenix in the 1990s.
This is when it was revived to compete with Airtours' own operation, with ships such as the Sapphire and the Emerald chartered from Louis, the Island Breeze from Premier, and the famed Topaz, chartered in Greece, and also took space charters with Norwegian Cruise Line in the Caribbean.

One interesting experiment that Thomson tried (but did not continue) was to make the Topaz an all-inclusive ship. This was reminiscent of her days with the Greek Line, when as the Queen Anna Maria, she had operated "Bacchus Cruises" from New York that included all drinks. But Thomson Cruises then gradually moved over to using mainly Louis ships for its cruise operations.

Within recent years, starting in 2003, it has moved into using more modern 1980s-built tonnage, starting with the 1,254-berth Thomson Spirit, the former Nieuw Amsterdam and briefly the Patriot for a revived US Lines. Within two years, her sister ship Noordam had joined her as the Thomson Celebration.

Yet another well-respected ex American-market ship to move into the Thomson orbit was the Song of America, which after operating as Airtours' Sunbird since 1999, became the 1,450-berth Thomson Destiny in 2005. Both the Spirit and the Destiny are managed and owned by Louis, while the Celebration is chartered from Holland America and managed by Columbia Ship Management.

Island Cruises

Island Cruises actually got its start in the late 1990s as First Choice Cruises, using smaller chartered ships such as the Bolero and then the Ausonia. In 2001, it developed into a joint venture with Royal Caribbean, adopting the name Island Cruises and bringing in the 1,504-berth Island Escape, ex-Viking Serenade, from Royal Caribbean in 2002. Adding the 1,506-berth Island Star, ex-Horizon, in 2006, this ship would remain with Island for but three seasons.

In 2008, after First Choice Holidays had been acquired by TUI Travel, and with both the Royal Caribbean and Celebrity brands showing strong growth in the UK, the partners decided to dissolve their joint venture. While the Island Star was assigned to Royal Caribbean subsidiary Pullmantur Cruises in Spain, the Island Escape was transferred to the Thomson Cruises operation, although for now retaining the Island Cruises branding, and certain Island staff were moved into Thomson.

Not so many months later, however, it transpires that the usage of the Island Cruises name may not be temporary after all, as Thomson decides whether to bring it back to a two-ship casual brand.

P&O and Ocean Village

Have P&O really turned their back on the crowd that used to (and still do for now) take cruises for those "who don't do cruising" or are they going to have to retain that market in some other way? The newbuildings coming into the Carnival UK fleet are both more traditional ships, in P&O's Azura and sister company Cunard's Queen Elizabeth.

One idea that was mooted in the 1990s, when both Airtours and Thomson had given P&O a run for the money in the UK fly/cruise market, was to base a "Grand" class ship in the Mediterranean to take some of this business back using newer and more attractive tonnage. Today of course, P&O has that hardware in the Ventura, and it would not be totally inconceivable that she could become a 3,000-berth Ocean Village-style ship to preserve P&O's share in the casual market.

The other is whether P&O might rethink their decision to abandon the Ocean Village concept altogether now that Thomson have apparently decided to retain, and possibly grow, Island Cruises.

Fred. Olsen Cruises

In the background to all this, we have the other UK-based cruise line, Fred. Olsen Cruises. Having expanded over recent years from just the Black Prince to a five-ship brand with the addition of the 1,747-berth Balmoral in 2008 and the lengthening of both her and the 975-berth Braemar in the same year, Fred Olsen's berth capacity now totals 4,800 beds. After the retirement of the 440-berth Black Prince later this year, however, this will drop to 4,370.

By way of comparison, Thomson Cruises, with the addition of the Island Escape, now offers a total of 5,460 berths in its four main line ships, taking third place after P&O and Cunard in the UK market. This is primarily because although both Fred Olsen and Thomson will have four ships of their own after the Black prince is withdrawn, the average size of the Fred Olsen ships will be about 1,090 berths compared to about 1,365 for the Thomson fleet.

This could mean interesting days as Thomson comes more into view, or perhaps less if you consider it is going into additional branding. After the demise of the Airtours and First Choice cruise operations, TUI's Thomson Cruises operation is now the only UK cruise line to be operated by a fully-fledged tour operator, with all the flight and hotel synergies that implies.

(Source: By Mark Tré - Cybercruises.com)

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