Sunday, 26 February 2012

Every man has his price: or, Fred. Olsen, the 2012 Olympics and a PR disaster

I've never been on a cruise: in fact, I haven't been abroad at all for nearly ten years. This year was going to be different: after much discussion and planning, I was going to be part of a family group celebrating two significant birthdays earlier in the year, and joining the Braemar, one of the four small cruise ships of long-established family firm Fred. Olsen, on a week's cruise round the Norwegian fjords at the end of August. The trip was booked over a year in advance. I can't say that the idea of cruises altogether appeals to me (the idea of a big brash boat certainly doesn't), but the smaller ships and the reputation of this company together with the attraction of seeing the fjords from the sea were enough to overcome my reservations, and I was looking forward to it.

Imagine my surprise last week on receiving a letter saying that the ship would now be unavailable in July/August due to "recently finalised commitments in respect of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games". No details, but a phone call elicited the information that the ship had been chartered by LOGOC. (I could have scooped the world on this, incidentally, as my letter arrived before any announcement was made, and the whole summer programme was still available to book on the company's website!) The letter explained that the party booking was being automatically transferred to a later date, giving only a week to decide whether or not to accept the new date, and as compensation for the inconvenience a credit of £100 a head to spend on board.

Obviously if an unforeseen event takes place, such as damage to a ship or an epidemic on board, changes in plan are understandable. Some of us no doubt remember a cruise ship being commandeered for service in the South Atlantic during the Falklands conflict in 1982, but that was an unexpected emergency. We have known about the Olympic Games coming to London in 2012 for nearly seven years. Just how incompetent is the committee not to have made its arrangements earlier than this? A total of seven cruises are apparently affected, some cancelled and some rescheduled, meaning that thousands have to be refunded and much good will lost. One has to ask how much money was offered or how much pressure was brought to bear on Fred. Olsen to make such a step worthwhile, taking into account the loss of loyal customers and potentially of future customers (I'm a bit younger than their target market), not to speak of the dent this hitherto well-thought-of firm will take to its reputation, for the sake of a one-off event.

I can't decide who has annoyed me more - Fred. Olsen for putting profit before customers and for letting so many people down, or LOGOC for being so cavalier and arrogant, and for leaving their arrangements so late in the day when they have had plenty of time to plan. It's like being hit in the face with a smelly wet fish - yet another reminder, if we needed any, that if someone with more power, money and influence than you comes along you will just be biffed out of the way as a minor inconvenience.

Obviously we will not now be sailing round the Norwegian fjords at the end of August. We have a prior commitment which clashes with the new date offered, and unlike Fred. Olsen I was brought up to honour prior commitments. Added to that there are such considerations as work, and last but not least the fact that the new dates offered do not fall within the school holidays (and nor does anything else which we could transfer our booking to). It's an early lesson for my disappointed son that the profit motive always comes first.

I am a bit surprised at how little attention this has received in the press, not because I expect people to be interested in my scuppered holiday plans, of course, but because of the behaviour of the committee. Although Fred. Olsen seem to be saying as little as possible about this matter (no announcement on their website, for instance - possibly they are rather ashamed of what they have done?) it appears that the Braemar is going to be docked in London and used as a floating hotel for Olympic workers, while only recently LOGOC released many previously block booked hotel rooms which it had reserved for this purpose. Who is paying the cruise company's costs and compensation? I hate to think that it might just possibly be me, if this is coming from the public purse!

We are usually more likely to be found having a couple of days in a B&B in Portland, Dorset - but we can't go there either this year, due to the wretched Olympics!

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