Saga failed to modernise during years of private equity ownership, and must urgently change, according to the firm’s boss.
Euan Sutherland, who joined the firm for the over-50s market in January last year, admitted the company lost its way in how it engaged with older customers.
His comments came as the chief executive of the 70-year-old company unveiled a rebrand in the hope of changing perceptions of older generations.
Sutherland said this morning: “I think for the last, probably 10 years, maybe longer than that, we have not modernised as a brand.
Our customers have moved on with their lives and are contemporary to 2021. We’ve fallen behind. So part of what we’re trying to correct is the perception of the word Saga and the brand.Euan Sutherland
“I think it was because of private equity ownership, which was just optimising for that year and not investing in the future. As a business it suffered from different ownership structures for periods of time.”
He hopes to address the issues with the rebrand under which the company wants to see older generations as “experienced” rather than just “old”.
The company also wants to tap into the huge extra wealth gained by retirees who saved the most cash during the pandemic as the economy shut down.
But the company must first emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has left its two cruise ships tied up at Tilbury Docks for much of the crisis and only took to the sea recently as restrictions eased.
During that time, the ships needed to be continually serviced, ensuring long periods without moving did not cause lasting damage.
Sutherland said: “These ships are like aircraft – they’re not meant to stop. They’re meant to pose for the day and move on. So, we had to keep them functioning, including things like getting barnacles taken off the boat.”
Bookings have been strong since restrictions were eased and around 70 per cent of customers who had booked travel during the pandemic retained their bookings, after some had had dates moved four times.
The company did not become embroiled in some of the scandals facing the travel sector with refunds failing to be paid and investigations by the Competition and Markets Authority.
But Sutherland admitted travel restrictions implemented by the Government did not help.
He said: “I don’t think the red, amber, green policy helped.
“It was totally confusing. I think our customers gave up for a while, going, ‘I just don’t know how to navigate it’. It was admin heavy and confusing. As we come out of that now I think we’re in a much better place.”
There remain concerns that perception of the cruise industry is weak, with the first outbreaks of Covid taking place on board ships.
But Saga’s boss pointed out his ships cater for just under 1,000 guests, where others have up to 5,000 people on board.
I think there’s a perception issue potentially from non-cruisers, but from cruise guests there’s no problem, so there’s a real polarisation.
Those who are booking are taking longer and more exotic trips and spending more money.
Sutherland said the country’s shift to staycations is unlikely to continue, with people keener to get away than stay in the UK.
He said: “I don’t see that the staycation is going to be a major thing. The feedback from our customers is that they can’t wait to get away.”