President and Managing Director
For the past 169 years, Cunard Line has stood for rich naval history and tradition, more than earning its tagline, “the most famous ocean liners in the world.” With the legendary Queen Mary 2 continuing her transatlantic service to high public demand, and the new Queen Elizabeth slated to launch in October 2010, this cruise line proves that even in trying economic times, traveling by sea is always in style. Over the course of his eight years within the Carnival UK family, Cunard Line President and Managing Director Peter Shanks has overseen the launch of the QM2, retired the iconic Queen Elizabeth 2, and is now gearing up for the maiden voyage of their latest luxury liner. Elite Traveler got his take on travel, technology and the importance of tradition.
ET: Growing up, were you always interested in working in the travel industry?
Peter Shanks: I took my first job at 17 in New York, before coming back to the UK to go to college and get my first “proper” job at 21. I was bitten by the travel bug early on and that’s where my strong interest in working in the travel sector stems from.
ET: How has your career trajectory led you to your current post?
Peter Shanks: I’ve always liked working for strong brands—I previously worked at Thomas Cook in the UK, which has a strong brand identity, and Cunard Line is a very strong brand as well. I also like working in sectors that are dynamic, growth-oriented and interesting, which the travel industry certainly is.
ET: How often are you traveling for work?
Peter Shanks: Our main office is based out of Southampton in England, so we’re always doing conference calls and finding other ways to stay connected to our offices worldwide. The age of the cell phone makes working in different cities much easier! I’m in the U.S. for about five to six days every two months, I’m frequently in Germany, and I go to Sydney for a week each February.
ET: Do you have any favorite hotels when you’re traveling on business?
Peter Shanks: If I could afford it every time, the Mandarin Oriental and the Waldorf Astoria in New York are both fantastic. New York is a great place to stay because it has several really special hotels with a lot of history.
ET: When you’re not traveling for work, what are some of your favorite places to visit?
Peter Shanks: I love Chamonix in France for skiing—I like going anywhere there is snow. I also have friends and family in Arizona, in Scottsdale, which is a really great place to go and just relax.
ET: You’ve worked as chief commercial officer at Carnival UK and have been with the company for eight years in total prior to taking on your current post. What changes have you seen in the travel industry during this time?
Peter Shanks: I’ve seen customers become much more demanding—they’re looking for higher standards and more flexibility. And when travel brands get it right and meet those demands, I’ve also seen an increase in customer loyalty. I’ve seen a change in the whole commercial world, in terms of monitoring how businesses are trading, people are much more on the ball than they used to be. With advances in technology, the world of international PR and media is now much more immediate, which is a positive thing. The media is a tremendous asset to have when establishing a strong brand presence.
ET: How do you meet these new changes and demands?
Peter Shanks: You have to show tremendous leadership in a business and know exactly where the brand is going. I’ve always been a big believer that people are the heart of every business. I’ve always had an open-door approach to management, and I also like to be very hands-on. In my business, it’s far more fun to be on a ship than in the office.
ET: In an age where air travel is so popular—because it’s convenient and increasingly inexpensive—what keeps travelers coming back to travel by sea? How is the experience different?
Peter Shanks: There are those people who just don’t want to fly because of the hassles, the delays and the restrictions on what you can and can’t take—and flying is no longer the experience it used to be. Therefore, if you can cruise from port to port, be totally relaxed and bring as much as you want, it’s a much more positive experience. Having said that, there are people who have to fly for the convenience, and as long as you know how to make the best of your air experience you can make it work. I think Virgin Atlantic is one brand that has put the fun back in flying. I would credit them with always looking ahead to what the customer wants and needs, and putting a bit of wow back into air travel.
ET: When looking for ways to improve upon your own brand, do you look to airlines or your competitors in the cruise industry?
Peter Shanks: We very much look at the hotel industry. Las Vegas is one city that has a number of great new hotels that are making many innovations and we keep a close eye on that. The Atlantis in Dubai is another one that comes to mind as a property that’s doing exciting things. We also look at restaurants around the world very carefully, both in terms of food offerings and service, because we pride ourselves on maintaining a very high level of dining service onboard. We tend to look outside cruising for inspiration.
ET: Cunard has long been known as the operator of “The Most Famous Ocean Liners in the World:” What about Cunard’s ships and services makes it an enduring favorite?
Peter Shanks: It’s the heritage and the history. When you travel on one of our liners you feel like you’re actually making history, especially going past Ellis Island and arriving in New York City, you feel like you’re part of over 100 years of heritage. And when you combine the element of very fine service with history, it’s a very emotional mix. That’s what’s very special about the Cunard Line. When we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Queen Elizabeth 2, we went into famous ports like Glasgow and Liverpool, and there were literally tens of thousands of people waiting to see us arrive—you just don’t see that with other ships.
ET: Cunard’s newest ship, the Queen Elizabeth, is set to launch in the fall of next year. What challenges have you faced with this development and how have you approached them?
Peter Shanks: The first challenge is that it will create substantial growth in our business at a time when the global economy is down, but our mission is to continue to offer the level of service people expect from Cunard Line throughout this time. And certainly we expect that by next fall’s launch things should be turning around. We will then have the oldest brand in cruising, but the youngest fleet in the world—it’s a very powerful dynamic.
ET: You were responsible for the launch of the Queen Mary 2 in 2004. Have you learned anything from that experience that you can carry with you as you prepare to launch another ship?
Peter Shanks: It taught me never to forget how much pride there is in Cunard. To be able to launch that ship in front of thousands of people and have Her Majesty the Queen there to launch her was an incredible and very emotional experience for everyone involved. It reminds me that we’re all here for a short time looking after a very famous and wonderful brand. It also reminded me how important the logistics of organizing such an event are, and to really stretch our leadership in terms of quality and service.
ET: Looking ahead, what’s next for Cunard Line? What are your goals for the brand?
Peter Shanks: People who travel on one of our liners for the first time are always surprised at just how good the service is, so my main goal is just to get the message across to people who are looking for a fine vacation that Cunard is a great quality brand.