Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke with Eunice Lee Sau-yan (李秀茵) on 1 November in her office in Shui On Centre in Wan Chai, where her window offers an envious view of Victoria Harbour. The marketing director touched on topics from overcoming the Costa Concordia accident in 2012 to how the brand reaches an Asian market with its European product.
What is the background to Costa Cruise?
Costa Cruise is an Italian line, under the Carnival Group, which is the largest cruise company in the world, claiming over 52 per cent market share. It has 10 cruise brands and is the number one cruise line in Europe with 28 offices worldwide. In Asia there are three offices, the regional office in Hong Kong, which was set up in 2006, a Shanghai office opened the same year, and a new sales office just opened in Singapore in May 2013.
The regional office in Hong Kong oversees markets like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. But it excludes China, which has its own separate operation.
How did you get involved in this business?
I have 18 years of work experience in the marketing industry, starting off in the hospitality industry working on PR and loyalty programmes for different hotels.
My most remarkable experience was working for the InterContinental Group Holdings Ltd, which has a very diversified business. It is also the film distributor for Disney Movies, during my seven years of working there, I gained a comprehensive marketing experience, including setting up a new gaming division to launch and distribute Microsoft Xbox in Hong Kong over nine years ago.
I then got a job offer to work for Hong Kong Disneyland, as part of the opening team. I worked there for three years, two years before the Park’s opening, and then left after their first anniversary. I was responsible for all the brand management, advertising and media placement.
I always look for a job that gives passengers or clients happiness and a fun experience. That’s why I choose a job in hotels, Disneyland and now cruises, because we offer entertainment. [Lee's bubbly personality throughout the interview indicates she is well matched to her career choices.]
What are some of the challenges for your job at Costa Cruise?
The products and cruise holidays are new to Asia. I take this challenge as the priority. The product itself is quite new, so we do a lot of marketing campaigns on B2B and B2C channels, as our penetration in America and Europe is much bigger than in Asia.
We find the perception of cruise holidays among Asia’s consumers is the trips are boring and are mainly for retirees or honeymooners. But we want people to think of the trip as another common holiday option for all—families and kids.
The goal of our office here is to grow the Asian market, and we are focusing on key markets like Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Australia, and in the past two years we are developing a lot more in southeast Asia. And we are doing a lot of training with our preferred sales agents, including ship visits and familiarization programmes.
However, China has a separate operation, as it is quite different in terms of government regulations and customer behavior.
How will your company benefit from Hong Kong's new Kai Tak International Cruise Terminal?
It is a good opportunity, as each cruise line is looking for more infrastructure in different ports. The new Kai Tak Terminal accommodates bigger cruise ships, in terms of tonnage. It could give us more opportunity to offer itineraries out of Hong Kong as our homeport; actually our Costa Victoria [a Sky-class cruise ship] will come to Hong Kong in January and February during Chinese New Year.
What sort of cruises do you offer?
Costa Cruise currently has 15 cruises, with 13 of them for markets like the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, Dubai, the Caribbean and South America. Two others are for the Asia markets, with routes going from China to Japan and Korea. And in the winter months, there will be different itineraries going to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Who are your target audiences?
Depending on the itinerary, for example in the Singapore sailings, we have lots of 20- to 30-year-old couples with kids in mid November and December, as it is the end of the school year holiday and Christmas holiday. And we have no charge for passengers who are below 13 years old.
Many say cruises are boring, with passengers just indulging in buffets and sunbathing all day long?
No, there are different activities and facilities we offer to different passenger segments, for children we have a pirate parade, face painting, sports tournament and environmental education programmes. For adults they could join our classes on Italian cooking, yoga, dancing, carnival mask making, etc.
You have great heritage in Europe. What are your key selling points to appeal to the Asian market?
Italians are fun-loving and passionate, enjoy good coffee, wine and food. When you come on board our cruises, you will feel as if you were in Italy. We call it “Italy at sea.” Our 15 cruise ships all have different decorations, art pieces and entertainment programmes.
How do you market yourself?
We have our agency partners, we use Up Creative in Singapore, Maxus is the media agency for Southeast Asia and OgilvyPR for Hong Kong and regional media outreach. We also do road shows and invite media to experience our cruises.
Do you collaborate with other FMCG brands in terms of your marketing push?
We have worked with FMCG brands like Lee Kum Kee in Hong Kong, dairy and banking companies in Singapore to tap into the mass markets.
People in Asia have much shorter annual leave (around 10-20 days) as compared to the European counterparts (four to five weeks), how do you accommodate that?
Most of our itineraries in the Mediterranean are for seven to 12 nights only. Compared to other cruise lines, our durations are the shortest ones already, so when we deploy the Costa brand to the Asia market, we shorten itineraries to three to seven nights to tailor to our passengers in this region.
The Costa Concordia scandal in 2012 is known worldwide: 32 people died and hundreds were injured. How do you regain trust with consumers, especially for those who only heard about Costa Cruise because of that tragedy?
It had a big impact not only on our company but also the whole cruise industry. After that accident, all the cruise associations around the world have revised and tightened all the safety procedures on board. For example, in the past we need to do the emergency drill for all passengers within 24 hours after the ship's departure. But now we have it before the ship departs, and every passenger has to attend in order to collect the emergency card to get on board.
How about the global warming and tsunami news in SE Asia and Japan, does it cast a shadow over the cruise holiday business?
We offer over 130 itineraries to over 50 destinations and our cruises have advanced technologies, our ships would travel anywhere depending on the destinations, seasons and weather situations, for example Dubai is very hot, hence we only deploy our ships in the best weather from December to April.
Is cruise holiday an outdated format, as Virgin now offers space tours, which already has a long waiting list?
A cruise vacation is very special travel option and no other product can compare; you can go on a journey and go to different destinations. And we have new ships and explore new destinations every year.
Mainland and Asian consumers who go on cruises like to gamble, especially in casinos, how do you cater to that?
All of our ships have casinos; but we don’t highlight it too much. We can only open the casinos, as well as duty free [shopping], in international waters.
What are the major differences between your European customer base and the Asian ones?
In Europe, as well as in Australia, there are more frequent travellers who are used to cruise holidays. They arrange and book holidays online, so we don’t need to put so much effort in to educate them. Whereas more Asian consumers still depend on travel agents for arrangements, I would say the proportion of our business in Asia is 60 per cent from B2B and 40 per cent from B2C channels.
Without purposely setting out to do so (or so he claims) Ben Li has profiled a number of Italian brands in recent months: