Simon Calder: The man who pays his way
Is this the age of the easyCruise? Not if you are too young or too old
Saturday 28 February 2004
Stelios Haji-Ioannou was 37 on Valentine's Day, which puts him squarely in the target market for his latest venture. The founder of easyJet has bought a cruise ship that once belonged to the now-defunct Renaissance line. From next summer, easyCruise will offer trips around the Mediterranean, calling at the Balearic islands, Corsica, Sardinia and the south of France. In accordance with easy practice, prices depend on demand but are expected to start at £29 per person per night. And no need to tip the chambermaid, because - it's you. To keep the price low, you clean your own cabin.
An artist's impression of what the first easyCruise vessel will look like - once daubed with many gallons of orange paint - adorns the wall of a former piano factory in north London, where the easyGroup resides.
Rumours abound that the genial entrepreneur plans to name the vessel Queen Mary 3; I reckon easyCruise 1 is more likely, because Stelios's vision for the ship is at odds with existing cruise lines. His line will have little to offer older travellers or children.
"Hell is other people," wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, which suggests he was not one of the world's most joyful travellers. Within the confines of a cruise ship you might empathise with him. The philosopher's line appears in his play No Exit. But Stelios's new ship shows signals that some will interpret as No Entry.
"We intend to open a new market of 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds," says a youthful-looking Stelios. Many existing cruise lines would welcome this potentially lucrative market - but only in addition to existing customers.
Shipping companies are focusing increasingly on children, in addition to the older travellers who have both the time and the money to drift happily around in luxurious circles. Yet Stelios says: "I don't believe we have space for all the target audiences." The easyCruise boss plans to appeal to a "self-selecting clientele"; anyone too young or too old is supposed to de-select themselves.
So what is the deterrent for children? "Current cruise ships have extensive facilities for kids," says Stelios. "We will not have facilities for kids, so very few families will choose to cruise with us."
The average age of a British cruise customer is slowly falling, but is still on the wrong (in Stelios's judgement) side of 50. To restrain over-fifties from disposing of their excess time and money in his direction, the easyCruise boss warns that his ship will offer only a self-service buffet, and "will not employ the entertainers that you would find on a high-cost ship".
Perhaps he should call the venture Club 20-49.
* When a musician is too old to rock'n'roll, and almost too old for an easyCruise, what can he do for an encore? Start an airline. That, at least, is what Aden Murcutt, the former rock drummer known as the "Wild Man of Three Bridges" is planning. He has hung up his hi-hat and snared the job as chief executive of Flyblu, based in Birmingham.
The new airline was launched at the NEC yesterday as a transatlantic carrier aiming to put the frills, and the fun, back into flying. "We're not cheaper," says Mr Murcutt. "It's not a fare fight - it's over how much you get for your fare. We've given everyone half an upgrade."
From this summer, a Boeing 767 will link Birmingham with Sanford (serving Orlando and central Florida) and Clearwater-St Petersburg (for the Gulf coast). The economy cabin has a 38-inch seat pitch, which far exceeds the usual economy offering. Indeed, the legroom matches premium economy on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Mr Murcutt has pitched Flyblu's prices to match those in Virgin Atlantic's ordinary economy cabin, "give or take £5 or £10".
Flyblu will offer high-quality in-flight entertainment, free wine, beer and spirits. Most US airlines have started charging for alcohol on transatlantic services. Since American Airlines applied a $5 (£3) flat fee for any booze in economy, it loads 30 per cent fewer drinks on each flight.
The last music industry figure to try this sort of caper was Richard Branson, who 20 years ago this month was devising plans for his own airline. "During the Seventies," the Virgin boss says, "what was offered in the air was an absolutely miserable experience - which was why we decided to change things."
A generation on, Aden Murcutt is planning to rattle the existing airlines. "We want to square up to the fact that the world has moved on."
Flyblu: 0845 835 9258; www.flyblu.com
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