(12 p.m. BST) -- P&O Cruises was set for a bumper 2020, with the launch of the 5,200-passenger Iona slated for May and the announcement in January of a new partnership with Gary Barlow lined up for the mega ship.
When Iona debuts, it will mark the largest ever vessel built for the UK market and the first new ship for P&O Cruises since Britannia launched in 2015.
Since the big Gary Barlow reveal (that he’s to be the line’s new ambassador and musical director) in January, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced cruise lines around the world to pause operations and driven shipyards to either slow or suspend work on new ships -- including Iona.
Although the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, where Iona is being built, has continued work, social distancing measures have slowed progress, impacting the ship’s final outfitting and delivery date.
On April 23, P&O Cruises announced an extension of its global fleet suspension for a third time -- through July 31, 2020 -- and revealed the naming of Iona, a July 4 celebration called Ionafest, has been postponed.
P&O Cruises’ President Paul Ludlow talks exclusively to Cruise Critic to reveal more about plans for Iona, how the line plans to return to service and what future bookings look like for the UK’s most popular cruise line.
Do you envisage taking a phased approach to bringing the P&O Cruises fleet back into service?
We are working through the evolving advice as well as restrictions in ports of call around the world as we consider how we phase our ships back into service.
We want to return to sailing as soon as we possibly can but it is clear that in light of the ongoing government and global guidelines and worldwide restrictions it is not viable for us to resume operations at the moment.
Pending a little more clarity on the longer-term impact of Covid-19 and timing on the world’s return to normality we are working hard, given what we know currently, on a plan for future itineraries.
What does this all mean for new ship Iona, which was originally due to launch in May?
Iona’s final outfitting will continue and she will be delivered to us before too long. Once we know the exact schedule then we can look at the cruises.
Regarding the maiden season in Norway – again at the moment we are looking at the current guidelines for travel and talking to the various ports of call and will update when we can.
What can you tell us about Ionafest, which was planned to take place on July 4?
The temporary slowdown of work by Meyer Werft in Germany has affected Iona’s final outfitting and date for delivery. We are all so sorry for the disappointment this will cause to our guests who had booked Iona’s maiden voyage, her first Norwegian Fjords sailings and Ionafest on July 4.
Once we have more clarity on Iona’s delivery date then we will know the date of the maiden voyage and we hope to reschedule Ionafest at a later date.
Are there any plans to adjust P&O’s policy on how FCC can be used, for example if it can be used against existing future bookings?
All guests with a holiday booked up to and including July 31 this year will automatically receive a 125% Future Cruise Credit (FCC). FCCs may be used for any sailing up to the end of March 2022 (subject to availability) with bookings to be made before the end of December 2021. Guests looking for a specific date, itinerary or ship should book early as there is limited availability.
100% of the money paid by guests will be bonded by ABTA and ATOL (for fly cruises) so guests can be secure in the knowledge that their monies are protected.
If guests would like to use their FCC for a second cabin to bring friends or family with them, this is perfectly possible. If guests would like to gift their FCC to a friend or relative, they should simply contact either their travel agent or us, if they booked direct. Guests may also now use their FCC to upgrade an existing booking. We are delighted to be offering this range of choice in response to our guests letting us know the different ways they would prefer to use their FCC.
What does the future of cruising look like?
Cruising, like many businesses, will incorporate changes and learnings from the past months into future ways of working. We are taking advice from all the relevant authorities on keeping to any new guidelines, whether they be temporary or more permanent. These may include more stringent health declarations, perhaps fewer guests or social distancing. There may even be necessary dining or itinerary changes.
Our teams are working hard to consider a variety of potential options whilst incorporating these with our desire to give our guests the most amazing and memorable holidays with P&O Cruises.
What do 2021 bookings look like?
We are seeing many guests due to sail during our pause this year switching to the same holiday at the same time next year. With these bookings adding to existing 2021 bookings plus guests, eager to experience our latest ship Iona, availability in 2021 will become increasingly limited. So if guests have a preference for a specific time of year, ship or itinerary we recommend they book it soon.
How are you working with P&O Cruises Food Heroes and other celebrity partners to raise morale during these times? Are any at home videos or messages being shared?
We know our loyal guests and partners alike are missing sailing. I've seen many of our guests work to recreate a favourite P&O Cruises dish or cocktail on social media and others really going for it and putting on their formal wear in the process!
During our pause, our partners have been keen to give our guests the flavour of a P&O Cruises holiday. Olly Smith has been providing virtual wine recommendations, Eric Lanlard hosting online cookery demonstrations and Jonathan Wilkes letting guests know they are missed and the exciting future shows in store.
Do you have a message that you would like to share to reassure customers about future cruises?
We are so sorry not to be able to give many of our guests their summer holiday this year but the global situation and continued lockdown make it impossible to reintroduce sailings for the next few months.
We know our guests are eager to return to a P&O Cruises holiday and when the time is right we look forward to welcoming them on board.