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Richard Vogel, former CEO of Pullmantur Cruceros, reflects on the past, present and future

Richard J. Vogel: still a market for a Spanish-centric cruise line
The past year has been a time of upheaval and transition for Richard J. Vogel, former CEO and president of Pullmantur Cruceros which saw shareholders Cruises Investment Holding and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. file to reorganise their jv under Spanish insolvency laws last June.

The insolvency process is still ongoing although almost all staff have been laid off and Vogel himself was relieved of his duties and responsibilities by the administrator in May.

‘It was a very intense time, even before the insolvency started, when like all other cruise lines, we were managing the difficulties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,’ Vogel told Seatrade in an exclusive interview from Madrid.

In early 2020, Pullmantur was operating three ships: Monarch, Sovereign and Horizon.

Role change

Vogel described his role as the pandemic unfolded as ‘a 24/7 job’ moving from one crisis meeting to the next….and then as the shareholders decided on the  insolvency route, my duties became completely different.’

For Vogel this was ‘absolutely new to me’.

In his 25 year career in the cruise industry he had always been involved in start-ups or reorganisations or expansion of brands, ‘but never involved in an insolvency process and all the uncertainty that brings such as whether and how the company can continue, against a backdrop of the pandemic paralysing the entire tourism industry.’

Vogel describes it as ‘a painful’ experience and said, ‘what hurt me most was the awareness that only by making substantial savings, including laying off more than 95% of the workforce, was there any chance of surviving the crisis without being able to give a guarantee.’

It also meant, ‘you can't always communicate as transparently and openly as the employees were used to.’

Happier times

Recounting happier times, Vogel reminded 2019 reported the best results in 15 years for Pullmantur Cruceros as it recorded a 5% YoY increase in turnover and carried over 400,000 cruise passengers.

‘We were back on our road to profitability, had good plans to replace the old tonnage and we were very optimistic about the future of the company.’

Vogel is 100% convinced there is still a market for a real Spanish/Spanish-speaking cruise line, dedicated to the needs and requirements of Spanish and Latin American guests. ‘Don’t forget we were the only cruise line homeporting in Colombia and market leader in that region.'

Key takeaways

Focussing on the key positives from his time at the helm of Pullmantur, which he joined in 2016,  Vogel reiterated the 2019 trading results: ‘We were so proud of what we had achieved and also satisfied that is what we had promised to reach three years prior when I joined the company.’

Another positive takeaway: the employees, noted Vogel, ‘both shoreside and the crew on board our ships.

‘A lot of employees in Madrid were a bit sceptical when they heard a German will be leading the company — which to this day I don’t know why! — but they understood very fast my philosophy of leadership, and that my goals are also their goals.

‘I learned a lot from them and I wanted to learn from them, at the end of the day we were one team and we were focused on our business by enjoying the Spanish culture.’

He singled out the crew – ‘many of them long-serving employees on board our ships, local, engaged and always friendly and fully committed to our Spanish DNA.’

Outlook for cruise market

So what do the short- and medium-term future look like for the cruise market? 

‘It is good to see that cruising is coming back. More and more ships are resuming sailing or will start soon. It’s also good to see how robust the cruise industry is taking on the challenges and developing solutions in the COVID age.

‘Just consider all the health protocols that have had to be redeveloped. The implementation of the protocols is exemplary, and also helps the whole tourism industry.’

Asked when he thinks the cruise industry will be back to pre-pandemic levels, Vogel quipped he is not a clairvoyant and stressed it depends on how quickly vaccinations can be administered everywhere, but also on how quickly economic recovery takes place in source markets.

‘The hunger for travel is undoubtedly there and I think in 2023, at the latest, the cruise industry will have fully recovered.’

Future plans

And what about the future for Vogel?

‘At the moment I don't have any concrete plans. I have to take care of some personal matters first, which is not always easy when you don't fully speak the language,' he said.

'I'm going to take some vacation and review what’s next and if there is an interesting project related to the cruise and tourism industry I am happy to contribute or support with my experience let’s see, as it is still too early to be a pensioner.'