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BLOG: Nadine Heubel on the Cruise Retail Experience

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In this blog article Seatrade Cruise's retail ambassador Nadine Heubel takes a look at how the retail sector is moving from being the ‘stepchild’ of the cruise industry to a significant income stream for cruise brands.

When I came to Miami in 2016 to head up Heinemann Americas, my new job came with a specific remit: developing our international cruise business. What I learned in this capacity would only reinforce a notion I had only suspected initially – the cruise industry is ripe for a retail renaissance, with the seeds of growth already beginning to sprout.

I didn’t start with such a rosy outlook, however. While I had been a guest on numerous cruise ships prior to this role, doing business within the cruise industry itself was an entirely new and exciting challenge for me. This led to a literal learning journey to deepen my familiarity within the sector. In order to fully immerse myself into the business I was tasked with understanding, I started to cruise regularly. As a relative outsider, it was a great time to do so: the sector was booming, and the major cruise lines were launching new ships at an almost frenetic pace. I was fortunate enough to cruise on many of these new ships, including Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge, Royal Caribbean International’s Symphony of the Seas, CCL’s Carnival Horizon, NCL’s Norwegian Encore, Princess Cruises’ Sky Princess and MSC Meraviglia.

The experience I had onboard each and every one was spectacular, featuring mind-blowing innovations from dining, entertainment, sports & leisure to the cabin interiors themselves, all of them distinctly differentiated and tailored to their respective guest target group. However, this superb brand alignment seemed to evaporate when it came to retail. While well executed (new shop designs, updated assortments, enhanced visual merchandising, friendly and knowledgeable sales staff) and operated through different business models (in-house or concessions), the retail experience was barely differentiated between the ships of the different brands, and this felt like a missed opportunity. Dishearteningly, while the guest experience across the other areas of the ship were incorporating digital innovations, the retail experience was still 100% physical.

This sense of disconnect continued when I visited Seatrade Cruise Global for the first time. A fascinating show, I was blown away by the quality of conference speakers (the State of the Global Cruise Industry Keynote is always a highlight) and the number of participating destination countries, ports, shipyards, technical suppliers, etc. It seemed every company (both industry giants and up-and-coming mavericks) from every sector involved in the booming cruise industry was present… except for retail.

With all these experiences in mind, even after speaking to the team at CLIA at length, I couldn’t shake the feeling that retail was somehow the unwanted stepchild of the cruise industry. While a productive conversation, I didn’t come away with additional insights that would change my perspective on the priority of retail within the sector.

However, over the last few years, I have been deeply encouraged by the changes I have seen unfolding across the cruise industry. The forced break we all experienced by the onset of COVID 19 brought about the shift in perspective the sector deeply needed, allowing all players involved to align on priorities and press the reset button on retail – the “stepchild” mindset was replaced with one of possibility and growth.

Indeed, retail is quickly becoming an integral part of the guest experience on many of the newly launched ships since cruising resumed. To list a few notable examples: Harding Retail’s cooperation with Virgin Voyages, MSC launching the first-ever department store at sea on MSC World Europa later this year, Starboard’s announcement that onboard cruise retail is effectively vacation retail, and my former team at Heinemann Americas launching retail tech solutions to enhance guest experience.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and most importantly, this development would not be possible without the commitment and dedication from the cruise line retail teams. After personally experiencing inspiring conversations with the teams at Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Holland America Group over the last two years and hearing of many more, my key takeaway is this: cruise lines across the sector now understand just how critical it is to integrate 21st century retail into the modern cruise experience, and they are working around the clock to transform retail into a truly immersive and holistic guest experience.

However, I think we can take things even further. The retail sector deserves a seat at the (cruise industry) table and personally, I would love to see our topics being as well-represented as those of other sectors like entertainment, ports and destinations, etc.

It is with this spirit that I am excited to announce I have joined the Seatrade Cruise Ambassador Team as its first-ever Retail Ambassador – I am convinced that Seatrade Cruise is uniquely positioned to help facilitate the elevation of cruise retail to its deserved level of recognition. If supported and executed well, retail revenue is poised to become a truly significant income stream for the cruise lines and all their stakeholders.

I am looking forward to engaging conversations, relevant calls to actions and measurable positive results, to an inspiring journey together with all of you, and most importantly, to continue transforming retail from an unwanted stepchild to a beloved family member of the cruise industry.

Retail is expected to be a topic of conversation at this year’s Seatrade Cruise Global taking place on 27-30 March 2023 at the Broward County Convention Center, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. Register your interest for the show here.