Wine in the cruise industry

When we speak of wine in travel retail, we tend to imagine airport terminals and stewards’ trollies – but Patricia Langton asks, what about wine at sea?

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The Britannia

Attracting younger passengers has been the key to the rapid expansion of the cruise industry over the last five years.

In a bid to entice a younger clientele some lines go for exciting themes with water or high-tech film facilities while others are offering sophisticated gastronomic experiences – culinary centres and famous chefs are a prominent feature in 2016 – and this presents greater opportunities for wine.

P&O takes the lead 

Like many other fleets, P&O was set for expansion at the turn of the millennium. The launch of Azura and Britannia brought the total fleet up to eight ships and added 6,747 beds so there was arguably the need to broaden the appeal of its cruises.

The carrier’s passengers are primarily from the UK – just 2% come from elsewhere according to Anthony Habert, head of beverage services for parent company Carnival UK. This high British demographic was a major reason why P&O turned more attention to wine just over five years ago.

“The cruise sector was attracting more people who were not traditional cruisers – more 50, 40, 30 and even 20-year-olds – the same people that are fuelling the wine market. P&O realised that by attracting younger passengers it would be attracting the [UK’s] core wine consumer,” explains Habert.

The offer on board therefore needed to come far closer to what was offered on the UK high street and in the more interesting areas of the on-trade. It was also necessary to improve staff training and provide adequate handling and storage facilities.

In 2010 The Glass House (TGH) debuted with the launch of P&O’s cruise liner Azura. The wine bar and eatery is a collaboration between P&O and wine presenter Olly Smith and now features on four ships including Britannia since March 2015.

Olly Smith will select 50 Great Portuguese Wines 2013

Olly Smith

Smith sources wines from a handful of UK wine merchants including Corney & Barrow. James Franklin, the merchant’s associate director and head of sales, says: “Olly created a list over and above what passengers would drink and he builds the list around exciting themes. The Glass House is way ahead of the competition”.

TGH offers around 30 wines by the glass – enomatics play a pivotal role – all with food matches. This list includes a selection of wine flights each grouping three more unusual wines to “take the taste buds on tour” as Smith says.

One flight includes a Gewürztraminer from New Zealand, a Torrontés from Argentina and an Australian Moscato. Wine flights have proved to be very popular with passengers who are happy and, importantly, confident to explore alternative wines in this way. Habert says that 874 wine flights were sold in December 2015 across TGH group of wine bars.

Smith tweaks the list every six months including some of his own personal favourites – Greece is well represented and can be linked to a cruising destination and Chile has a good presence. He says: “People are hungry and thirsty to learn about esoteric wines… I say to passengers: if I know they love Sauvignon Blanc, there’s a good chance that they will go to a Croatian Malvasia.” He also heads up wine dinners and tastings and assists with staff training programmes.

TGH list prices range from around £17.50 to £22.50 and thanks to on-board prices being duty free more interesting wines can be competitively priced. You’d be hard pushed to find a premium Greek Assyrtiko in the UK on-trade for £22.50, for example, but TGH can offer such a wine at that price.

In addition to TGH wines there are 100-120 wines sold on-board P&O ships according to Habert. He says that the overall approach is to price wines competitively with the UK on-trade and offer good value for money.

While duty exemption is an advantage the cruise industry has its own challenges. He adds: “Dispensing wine on a ship is not cheap. Wine on-board is a big, complex operation with 2,500 passengers on an average ship.” There are also requirements that are specific to the on-board scenario. For example, a passenger may need a bottle that is opened one evening to be stored in good condition to be enjoyed the next day.

Habert says that P&O’s wine offering is more interesting than it was 4-5 years ago with a “good range of entry-point wines and more adventurous wines” as well as a more wines by the glass. Trends mirror the UK mainland: Prosecco sells well as does Champagne which had a “great Christmas”; Pinot Grigio, New Zealand Sauvignon and other aromatic whites lead the way for whites while French classics have made way for “modern classics” – Habert cites an Australian Shiraz – and Rioja is another popular choice.

Habert sees a good future for Prosecco on-board and aromatic whites while more entry-point fine wines are likely to be added to the P&O wine offer for the more aspirational customer and those looking for wines for a special occasion.

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