Bogus agent admits revenge attack on NCL

A penniless ex-nurse was able to set up a bogus travel agency to book and take eight luxury cruises for herself worth £55,000 in five months, a court heard.

She devised the scheme to take revenge on Norwegian Cruise Line after she was bumped off a cruise which she had paid for after losing her passport in Rome.

Kay Hooper, 58, booked penthouse accommodation on all-inclusive deals and spent up to 10 days a time cruising in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Bermuda and Canada after setting up a bogus business called Travel Connections at her rented home.

Hooper was able to book the trips without even paying a deposit because she told NCL her business was part of the Freedom Travel Group, a subsidiary of Thomas Cook.

She planned to carry on the scam and had booked a total of 54 cruises costing more than £300,000 in total running throughout this year and into 2017.

The cruise line only realised what was going on after she had been on eight cruises in various parts of the world between April and September 2015.

Hooper is a retired nurse who was living on a £270 NHS pension, and various benefits. She has no savings and was living with her husband in a rented house in Torrington, Devon.

She admitted fraud when appearing at Exeter Crown Court and was jailed for 20 months, suspended for two years, given a six month curfew and ordered to pay a £100 victim surcharge, the North Devon Journal reported.

Recorder Mr Timothy Rose made no order for compensation after being told the cruise company is suing Hooper in the civil courts for the £55,493.05 cost of the cruises and £113,827.25 in unpaid deposits for the cancelled trips.

He told her: “You turned yourself into a form of fictitious travel agency and directed your attention against a particular company with which you had previously been a customer.

“You told the police this was because of the way you had been treated when you had problems on a cruise and felt you had been abandoned without help in Rome, although you did receive £750 compensation for this.

“These were quite greedy offences, as is apparent from the fact you took luxury holidays which you did not pay for in penthouse state rooms. There is no doubt at all this was a sustained piece of dishonesty.

“It was moderately sophisticated and required some computer literacy to set it up, but you were bound to be found out in the end.”

The judge said he was suspending the sentence because of Hooper’s previous unblemished record, poor health, and family responsibilities.

Michael Brown, for the prosecution, said Hooper used an online form to obtain an Abta number in February 2015 and used it to book the eight cruises on ships including the Norwegian Spirit, Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Star.

She also booked further trips for herself or members of her family, but all were cancelled when the cruise company uncovered the scam in October. NCL discovered the fraud after chasing payment for the holidays.

Brown said: “This extraordinary behaviour and fraudulent activity went on over a period to time. It was a sophisticated, planned, and arguably calculated fraud.”

Richard Crabb, for the defence, said Hooper suffers from ill health and has been treated for anxiety and depression. She believed sunshine would help her recover.

He said the scheme was always going to come to light and Hooper is now being sued by the cruise company and has offered to repay it at a rate of £50 a month out of her pension and benefits.

He said she is a principal carer for her 87-year-old mother, who spends four days a week at her house.


Interview: Jo Rzymowska on her first six months at Celebrity Cruises

The line’s new UK chief talks to TTG about how the brand has evolved, why prices could soon be on the rise and shopping with agents in Borough Market

Celebrity Cruises UK&Ireland managing director Jo Rzymowska outside the O2 Arena

Jo Rzymowska must be one of the cruise industry’s most recognised figures in the trade. From beginning her career at International Leisure Group in 1982, she has spent the past 30 years climbing the travel ladder, working in sales-related roles for a variety of well-known names – Thomas Cook, Disney and Universal Studios to name a few – strengthening and developing her relationship with agents.

It is perhaps no surprise then that six months into her new role as the UK head of Celebrity Cruises, Rzymowska is just as passionate about the trade, and keen to explain why – now more than ever – agents remain so integral to Celebrity and the cruise industry at large.

“We want to do as much as we can with our partners. We want them to experience the brand and understand what Celebrity is about,” she says.

This renewed focus on the trade has of course been aided by RCL Cruises Ltd’s decision to market three of its lines, Royal Caribbean International, Azamara and Celebrity, separately – a move that came into force in January.

”We’ve gone from a small team of five people to 100, who wake up every morning and think ‘Celebrity’ all day”

“The key benefit now is that it has allowed us to go narrower and deeper,” Rzymowska explains. “We’ve gone from a small team of five people to 100, who wake up every morning and think ‘Celebrity’ all day, and we have a dedicated sales team of 20 who are out there on the road.”

It is, Rzymowska adds, all part of a strategy to grow the Celebrity brand in the UK, which, she concedes, still remains “relatively unknown in Britain”.

One way of achieving this is by dividing the sales team up to focus on three distinct areas: “We have one dedicated team working with the consortia, one with Thomas Cook and Tui, and one for the cruise specialists. The needs for these three audiences are different, but they are all very important groups.”

In particular, Rzymowska believes it is pivotal that agents – and customers – fully understand what Celebrity has to offer, and the elements that keep it unique from other lines. Which explains why Celebrity has been cropping up in a number of surprising locations recently – and why head of sales Michael English was to be found recently food shopping with agents in London’s famous Borough Market.

“We don’t want to be a mass-market brand. We’ve created a dedicated team specifically focused on London and the south-east – the most affluent area in the UK – because we want to be targeting the right customer to travel with us, and we’re doing a lot of work with our key travel partners to build on this.”

Spreading the word

This work includes huge advertising campaigns in commuter spaces such as Waterloo station, and sponsoring “experiential events”, such as the recent Polo in the Park, with the line’s travel partners invited as well.

“We’re also sponsoring Kew the Music 2014 and are the official cruise partner for the O2, which allows us to have competitions for agents to come and see acts such as Michael Buble,” Rzymowska adds. “It’s about bringing the brand to the consumer, and telling them what we’re about.”

”If people want to book with us direct, of course we’ll take those bookings, but more than 80% of our business comes through the trade”

It’s also about bringing the brand to the agents: “Michael [English] took agents to Borough Market so they could taste food which had a relevance to Celebrity’s restaurants. From the 12 agents who attended the session, within a week eight had made a booking with us.”

So is Rzymowska against growing the line’s direct business then?

“It’s about having a choice,” she says. “People know I genuinely believe the trade is a great distribution channel, but we will be wherever the consumer wants us to be.

“If people want to book with us direct, of course we’ll take those bookings, but more than 80% of our business comes through the trade. This balance may change,” she concedes, “but I think the trade will always be the largest distribution channel. Especially if you’re talking about purchases that people are doing for the first time – they want that independent advice.”

Celebrity Cruises UK boss Jo Rzymowska goes 'back to the floor' at a Kuoni branch in London

Jo Rzymowska goes ‘back to the floor’ at a Kuoni branch in John Lewis, London

Beat the competition

Like a number of other lines, it seems Celebrity is also conscious of the growing number of companies looking to capitalise on the lucrative world of shore excursions, with several firms, including Attraction World, now offering commission to agents to sell separate excursions to those offered by the cruise lines.

Rzymowska admits it is an area that the Celebrity team is assessing: “We’re constantly looking at how we work with travel agents… there are opportunities we can look at,” she concedes before adding: “We have no immediate plans but we are continually evaluating.”

With the trade remaining so pivotal to sales, and so much new capacity flooding on to the market next year, such as the introduction of Royal Caribbean’s 4,180-passenger Quantum of the Seas and P&O’s 3,600-passenger Britannia, I question whether Ryzmowska is concerned the discounting wars of 2011 could again raise their ugly head.

“If we felt that the brand was being underrepresented or damaged by the way in which people were representing it, we would have that conversation,” she admits.

“But we generally get great support from our partners, and we have regular meetings with them about how we market the brand.”

Price hike plans

In fact, far from worrying about discounting, Rzymowska is more focused on how the line can start raising prices. “We want to work together to look at increasing the rate that people pay,” she says.

“It’s in both of our interests to sell the holidays at a price based on what the brand offers. We also want to look at upping the price so that it is relative to just how much we invest into the product.”

This is perhaps understandable – these “investments” are numerous, and include improvements to the line’s “suite class”, introducing dedicated dining rooms and lounges for guests in this class from April 2015 as well as providing individual butlers.

There is also a new “wellness” programme, which was launched in April this year, as part of a new partnership with the US award-winning spa Canyon Ranch, with a specific restaurant offering healthy platters “which are still tasty”, Rzymowska assures.

The line also has a target audience in mind for its cruises – affluent couples and families, and the LGBT market, with Celebrity often being awarded in the US for its gay-friendly approach. “It’s about attitude rather than age,” Rzymowska explains.

“We have got plans to grow in the UK but it’s more about making sure we get the right guest onboard the right ship and that we work with our travel partners to achieve this.”

Looks like agents can expect many more trips to Borough Market and Michael Buble concerts yet.

Royal Caribbean and Iglu top charts in Greenlight cruise search analysis

By Travolution

By Travolution

Specialist cruise travel agent and operator Royal Caribbean are leading the way in terms of profile on Google according to the latest sector analysis from Greenlight.

The search agency analysed the 2.2 million cruise-related queries on the leading search engine, finding that brand queries were by far the most popular, accounting for 59%.

‘Royal Caribbean’, the world’s second largest operator behind the owner of UK market leader P&O Cruises’ parent Carnival Corporation, accounted for 6% of searches.

The line was also the most visible advertiser for paid search on Google.

Iglu topped the ranking for natural results and also Greenlight’s integrated search league table for natural and paid search combined having gained 67% share of voice in the former.

The 12 month view of search in the cruise showed November dip following a five month period when search volumes remained fairly static at around 2.5 million queries.

A significant spike in March saw the sector leap to 3.3 million from a low of 1.5 million in February following a period of declining volumes.

While brand searches accounted for 59% of the overall total, destination related searches were 12%, generic 14% and cruise ships 15%.

In the natural search table Iglu beat and Thomas Cook into second and third place respectively, with Wikipedia and P&O Cruises making up the top 5.

Key word ‘Royal Caribbean’ was queried 135,00 times, 10% of all brand-related queries, and the UK version of review site Cruise Critic claimed 61% share of voice by ranking for 1,469 keywords.

Viva Voyage, Planet Cruise (which was bought by Iglu this year), and Iglu made up the top five most visible paid advertisers.

Royal Caribbean ships also fared well in the analysis, Independence of the Seas, which has sailed out of Southampton during the summer for the last six years.

This keyword was queried 18,100 times accounting for 5% of all cruise liner-related searches.

Analysis of destination-related searches found the ‘Caribbean cruises’, the world’s second largest destination for cruise behind Europe, accounted for 9% of searches.

‘Mediterranean cruises’ and ‘cruises from Southampton’ accounted for 5% and 3% of destination-related queries.

Of the 420 generic cruise keywords analysed ‘cruises’ accounted for 19% ‘last minute cruises 6% and ‘river cruises’ 5%.

Greenlight also assesses brand’s profile on social media. For cruise Youtube and Wikipedia claimed to the two top spots with Klout scores of 99 and 97 respectively.

They were followed by Thomas Cook, Thomson, Celebrity Cruises and P&O Cruises.

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