Still Cruising

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Cruises International is nearly 25 years old, with CEO George Argyropoulos making the move from Greece and starting the company in 1992, with the sole purpose of marketing and selling cruise holidays, conferences and incentives. In Greece he had worked for a cruise line and saw a gap in the South African market. The rest, as he told editor Dylan Rogers over coffee in Johannesburg, is history.   According to Argyropoulos, there’s a Greek saying that goes something along the lines of, ‘the hair of a woman can pull a ship’, and that’s how the CEO of Cruises International ended up in South Africa. Thankfully, his – or her – timing was spot-on, with South Africa’s engagement with the rest of the world opening up. Argyropoulos managed to sign up Royal Caribbean as his biggest client and today they are one of nine brands represented in South Africa by Cruises International, along with the likes of Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Ama Waterways. “Each one has a distinct role to play in our portfolio, with everything from mass-marketed family-oriented to specialised river cruising and ultra-luxury cruises,” says Argyropoulos. “In total we have 60 or 70 ships that we market. On a seven-night cruise they have about 50 turnarounds a year.” Cruises International is purely a cruise marketing and sales company for the brands in question, and doesn’t get involved in operational or crewing issues. What frustrates Argyropoulos is the lack of enthusiasm to sell cruising in the South African market. “What the trade needs is training on how easy and profitable it is to sell a cruise, and how beneficial it is to their clients,” he says. “1.2 million South Africans go overseas on holiday each year and we don’t even have 0.1% of that market. In the US it is 13%, the UK 8%, and Germany about 4%. You can’t compare it directly, because South Africa has challenges such as visas, income distribution, exchange rates, long flights etc. But I believe that we could grow it to 1.2% or even 1.5%.” Argyropoulos isn’t convinced that the South African culture doesn’t embrace cruising, but rather that it requires buy-in from all sectors of the travel trade. “We work almost exclusively through professional conference organisers and incentive houses,” says Argyropoulos. “They seem to have taken enthusiastically to offering cruises as incentive destinations more than the leisure agents. It’s a different skill set and more specialised. For leisure clients, price is an issue, and we also find that cruises need to be requested by the consumer rather than being offered as an option.” Speaking of cost, it’s something else that Argyropoulos likes to clear up, particularly in these austere times when the rand finds itself under increasing pressure. “You can fly to Europe and do a seven-night cruise for R20,000 ($1,500) to R25,000 ($1,800) per person, with all the meals, accommodation and activities included,” he says. “That’s exceptionally good value for money. You’ll be in places like Venice, Rome, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Athens. If you compare seeing these places on a land-based tour, the costs are horrendous.” “90-95% of your costs are fully disclosed up front. It’s convenient, with a single location providing meals and entertainment, meeting rooms, conference facilities, tea breaks, and accommodation. Cruises offer freedom of choice, but also containment and control over cost.” According to Argyropoulos, 37% of his business from the South African market is MICE business, and about 90% of that MICE business is from the incentives sector. “It’s a good percentage and we’re happy with the numbers,” says Argyropoulos. “I’d love to see much more conferencing, but I understand that a one or two-day conference doesn’t justify flying to Europe. But, in areas like Seychelles or Mauritius, you could compete on a three or four-night cruise.” Speaking of the rest of Africa, Cruises International also has a presence in Mauritius, Kenya and Nigeria, and Argyropoulos has some interesting thoughts on the continent’s biggest economy. “Nigerians have a higher propensity to cruise than South Africans,” he says. “The market is still small, but it’s growing fast and the potential is amazing. Hopefully one day we can call at Lagos with one our ships.” You wouldn’t bet against Argyropoulos. Still cruising after all these years…