Dedicated cruise stores have been tried – and closed – before, so what are the prospects for the recent flurry of cruise-only agency openings around the country? Harry Kemble reports

Four years ago, Thomas Cook announced plans to open 11 dedicated Cruise Concept Stores, hailing the move as a “specially tailored and personalised service” to its cruise customers.

Today, the 600-shop multiple has no stores dedicated to selling cruise, although it still insists every Cook store has a cruise expert, meaning the sector is “still a focus” for the company.

Rival multiple Tui trialled a cruise-only retail location in 2005 selling its own, and third-party, cruises in Liverpool shop Cruise Deals. That store did not continue after the trial, with the company deciding it was “best that customers have the choice of a cruise or beach break in one place”.

Cruise shops

Yet since January, independent cruise-only stores have opened in London, Manchester, Wales and the Suffolk town of Woodbridge.

Two – Wowcruise in Cardiff and Paramount Cruises in London – hope to grow the number of their shops over the next five years.

Meanwhile, online cruise agent Cruise1st opened its first shop in The Lowry Shopping Centre, in Manchester, in January.

It’s difficult to accurately measure the growth. Neither cruise trade body Clia nor any of the agency consortia have a breakdown of UK travel agencies solely targeting cruise customers.

Experts say the trend is due to two factors: UK ocean passenger numbers, which have surged from 1.64 million in 2014 to 1.96 million in 2017 (a rate of growth outpaced by the river cruise sector); and the number of ships being built, with more than 100 on order over the next decade.

Geoff Ridgeon, Fred Olsen Travel’s head of cruise, has helped three GoCruise franchisees set up their own shops in the past three years: in Grimsby, Falkirk and Suffolk village Stonham Aspal.

He said with other retail sectors struggling on the high street, there were opportunities for cruise agents to open in town centres and shopping malls. He added: “While a high street presence takes more initial investment, it can bring disproportionate growth.”

Cruise Ready, the store opened by Deben Travel in Woodbridge in June, took £50,000 worth of bookings in its first month.

Store manager Sarah-Anne Everitt said: “Cruise-only shops can stand alone because of how popular cruising is these days.”

George Johnson, managing director of Wowcruise, said the agency opened its store due to recent growth in the sector, driven by new ships catering for new-to-cruise passengers, holidaymakers having increased “awareness of the value of cruises”, more all-inclusive options and onboard experiences, niche ports of call and local departure ports.

Retail ‘pioneer’

Phil Nuttall lays claim to opening the first cruise-dedicated store, in 2002, when he set up Save’n’Sail in Blackpool. The shop has since changed name to The Cruise Village, and is a sister business to Nuttall’s The Travel Village store.

Managing director Nuttall, a self-proclaimed “pioneer” of the cruise-only store, said: “I took a punt and opened my first cruise store and never looked back. But I think you need to be able offer every product – that is why I opened The Travel Village.”

Ridgeon agreed that cruise-only stores needed to offer land-based holidays as well in order to thrive.

“GoCruise stores sell land-based holidays too,” he said. “We are not quite at that utopian point [where cruise-only agencies don’t need to sell land holidays] yet.”