A record 20 cruise ships are being launched this year, as cruise holidays become more popular with British holidaymakers. Almost a million booked a cruise in 2002, which is an increase of five per cent on the previous year, according to the Passenger Shipping Association.
However, the challenge for the industry remains to attract more first-time cruisers. Last year, Thomson announced it was planning to launch a ship called the Thomson Spirit, in May 2003. With so many ships coming into the market, the PR team of Thomson's parent company TUI had to ensure theirs hit the headlines.
To differentiate Thomson cruises from its competitors and to refresh the stuffy image of cruise holidays.
Strategy and Plan
To tackle the perception that cruise holidays are fuddy-duddy, expensive and primarily aimed at the elderly, the PR team decided Thomson needed to create something on board that would make its ship stand out and catch the eye of journalists. Furthermore, because the majority of cruise holidays are still booked through travel agents, Thomson also needed to create a buzz among this sector.
Opting to use celebrities to endorse the Thomson Spirit, the PR team approached Linda Barker - the designer from Changing Rooms - and wine expert Jilly Goolden.
A contract was negotiated with Barker's agent, whereby she would design 20 suites for the ship and devote time for PR activity to publicise the initiative. Thomson advised Barker of the strict maritime health and safety guidelines that needed to be applied to all the fabrics and furnishings in the suites.
Former Food and Drink presenter Jilly Goolden was enlisted to help create a wine list, as she had recently been on a Thomson cruise for the BBC's Holiday programme and had also launched her own wine label.
Goolden agreed to supply the ship with her wine and also to sample other wines for a booklet called Jilly Recommends, which was placed on each of the ship's dining room tables.
Thomson placed Barker and Goolden on the front cover of the Thomson cruise brochure, which has a print run of 250,000, and a page of editorial was dedicated to each celebrity.
The two personalities also featured on a mailing that was posted out to Thomson cruise customers, and in a report in the Thomson Holidays and Lunn Poly customer magazine Real Holidays.
This interview was syndicated to regional newspapers serving areas with airports that had planes flying into Palma, where the Thomson Spirit is moored.
An exclusive double page spread was negotiated with the News of the World, featuring an interview with Barker along with 'before' and 'after' shots of the cabin.
The PR team also set up interviews with the two celebrities for a variety of trade and national press, from Travel Weekly to The Sun.
A press trip to witness the Thomson Spirit's naming ceremony in Barcelona was arranged for a range of travel trade and national journalists.
To court the travel trade, a promotion offering travel agents the chance to win a cruise trip, staying in one of Linda Barker's cabins, was launched.
The Thomson PR team is now embarking on the second phase of the campaign, which includes a week-long press trip in July.
In addition, a number of broadcasters have been approached with the story of the Thomson Spirit launch and are anticipating the ship will be featured in two programmes: Scottish Passport - a Scottish version of Wish You Were Here - and the BBC's Passport to the Sun. The filming for both programmes is scheduled to start later this summer.
Measurement and Evaluation
Media coverage so far comprises the News of the World, Travel Weekly, The Scottish Sun, the Daily Express, the Daily Star, The Observer and Travel Trade Gazette, although there was little coverage in the regional press.
More press coverage is anticipated following the July press trip, and the PR team has arranged interviews with the two celebrities for the next edition of travel magazine Cruise Traveller.
Cruise sales are up by almost 30 per cent on last year and, due to the awareness created by the ship's launch campaign, 80 per cent of Barker's suites have already been sold for the summer. Thomson claims this far exceeds the pace of normal booking activity.
Simon Veness, the travel guide author who wrote a piece on the launch for The Sun, says: 'Involving Linda Barker and Jilly Goolden was a very smart and innovative idea, and I'm surprised other cruise ships haven't done it yet.
'It's a good idea because it makes the general public - most of whom have no idea what a modern cruise holiday is like - more comfortable with the idea of cruises by giving them a well-known name they can identify with.'
Veness adds: 'Thomson couldn't provide Linda Barker for the launch because she was still in Australia filming I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, which was a shame, but they provided a sheet of quotes from her, which was the next best thing.'
Freelance travel journalist Jane Archer, who wrote for Travel Weekly, agreed the PR campaign was an 'excellent idea'. She says: 'Having a "real" person like Barker on the front of your brochure, rather than a model, helps update the image of the cruise. I can't fault the way the PR was handled.'