With nine new businesses rolled out in the last year alone, it's no wonder that London-based Easygroup - headed by "serial entrepreneur" Stelios Haji-Ioannou - is taking things slow with its bargain cruise line, Easycruises. The one-ship line is waiting to see how the inaugural season will g before making any decisions on whether to add more ships to its lineup or expand its itinerary to include ports of call outside the Mediterranean., said James Rothnie, director of corporate affairs for easyGroup.

"We're deliberately taking it slow and keeping it small," Rothnie said. "But I think what gave Stelios the courage to venture into the cruise business is that the older easyGroup companies (like EASYJET and EASYCAR) are quite well established and profitable. Moving into a more profitable position has given us courage to launch the other businesses."

That said, the inaugural sailing set for next month is already sold out, Rothnie said, with the line's target market - young, budget-conscious but happy-go-lucky people in their 20s, 30s and 40s - responding very well with solid bookings. ''We're encouraged for the summer," Rothnie noted. "What's interesting is that 13 percent of our bookings have been from U.S. nationals, and that's encouraging to us. We're well-known in Europe but only a bit known in the U.S., so to see solid bookings corning from Americans is a good thing." So far, the average age of the easyCruise passenger is 37, and nobody under the age of 18 is allowed onboard. This, Rothnie said, is because there's a bit of a party atmosphere on the ship.

''People who really get into lines like Cunard or luxury lines are not going to be the mainstay of our passenger base," Rothnie said. "We feel like we're fulfilling a niche in the market for people who have responded to the Easy brand. We're minimalist, and it stands for innovation and value for money. We think easyCruise fits in well on that level."

EasyCruise was formed with the idea that passengers would appreciate a low-cost line – double ccupancy cabins start at 59 pounds - that emphasized the ports the ship called in rather than the ship itself. This bucks the ever-growing trend that the ship is just as much of a draw as the itinerary - but Rothnie, who noted that passengers can join and leave the ship when they please, claims that easyCruise is fulfilling a demand in the marketplace. "It's subject to a two-night stay and you can stay for up to 14 nights," Rothnie said. "But in the end it's all about the ports.

 We like to think of ourselves as a floating hotel that moves." With such cheap ticket prices - with everything, including meals, on a pay-as-you-go basis - being cost effective takes on a whole new meaning. "It's not as though three-star meals are included three times a day," Rothnie said. "Here, meals become a discretionary spend for passengers, bringing our costs lower." Provisioning isn't really an issue either, Rothnie said, because the ship - called easyCruiseOne - will be putting into port every day.

"Of course, we'll be able to develop patterns as we go along," Rothnie noted.

A Relative Bargain?

While it's true that easyCruise offers definite bang for the buck on ticket prices, the question still remains as to whether passengers are really getting a bargain on a cruise line that stops in some of the most expensive cities in Europe. Are bargain-minded passengers what the line is going to ultimately attract? As Rothnie said, it all depends and remains to be seen as the line matures and gets a couple of seasons under its belt.

"Whether or not it's a bargain is up to the customer to decide," Rothnie noted, adding that passengers still have the option of eating onboard rather than ashore. "EasyCruise is, in our opinion, a way for our customers to afford those cities in the end ... for a lot of people it would be impossible to see those cities otherwise, and it does represent a great value if you consider the cost of staying at a hotel on shore."

The ship, Rothnie said, leaves port by 4 a.m. and is in the next destination by lunchtime, where guests can disembark and spend the day and night shoreside.

Administration, Etc.

Haji-Ioannou, who is referred to simply as Stelios, has been vociferous in his desire to pit the various business arms of easyGroup against the might of corporate giants who already have massive market shares throughout various business lines. So it was somewhat of a surprise to read in press reports that easyCruise was already shopping around for a strategic partnership and was in talks with Carnival Corporation for such an alliance.

But Rothnie denied it, though he did note that an alliance - not necessarily with Carnival - could happen at some point. "If you look at our mission statement, that's part of the exit strategy: to license our brand to reputable partners or licensees." Indeed, a big part of Stelios' vision is creating business lines to franchise or take public rather than holding the company close - Easyjet, for one, is traded on the London stock exchange. No word yet as to when - or if - easyCruise would go public, and a spokesperson for Carnival also said that talks weren't going on.

EasyCruise has also already lost one key executive at the line, Rothnie confirmed. George Karageorgiou, who was a top-level project manager for easyCruise, has left the company. "He worked down i  Athens and his main responsibility was working for Stellamar, easyGroup's oil-tanker business," Rothnie said, noting that the office closed after that business was divested earlier this year.

It appears as though the departure was all in the name of running a lean, well-oiled machine, though Karageorgiou worked with Stelios for more than a decade. "We've got limited staffing onboard the ship that are directly employed by easyCruise," Rothnie noted, adding that V-SHIPS handles management, while onboard catering and hotel operations are handled by Eis Maritimo, in Barcelona. "They are the real experts in the business," Rothnie said. It remains to be seen whether easyCruise can stay afloat in an increasingly competitive, diverse industry.

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