One day in November, Stelios Haji-Ioannou put on a tie for the first time in as long as he could remember. The chairman of EasyCruise was heading to London's Buckingham Palace to receive knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for service to entrepreneurship.  

"I thought for the queen, I would put one on," said Stelios, who prefers to go by his first name only.

But the tie revealed where his heart is: It was orange, the trademark color of all EasyGroup companies.

The prominence of this color was not well received in at least one area of his no-frills empire. The first ship in the EasyCruise fleet, EasyCruiseOne, was painted bright orange with a blast of white letters spelling its Web address, making the ship, like his EasyJet airplanes, a traveling advertisement.  

"But people live on that dumb thing for seven days or even 14 days," Stelios said. "They sort of expect to make it their home and to be proud of it. And they are typically in very elegant surroundings or picturesque harbors. So I decided it is less important to have a livery that looks like a commercial and more important that it is more elegant."

This change in strategy is one of many that Stelios has made since entering the cruise industry. Sitting in a Greek restaurant in New York, the Cyprus-born British citizen said that EasyCruise is different than his other Easy brands.

"Of all the products we offer, it is the most emotionally charged," he said. "It is leading the way among the Easy brands in being more sophisticated and having more options and quality products."

It is also closer to his heart than the 17 other EasyGroup businesses. "I come from a Greek shipping family. I'm the son of Greek ship owner," he said. "Aviation is a business; shipping is my hobby."

Melding the two has been a challenge. EasyCruiseOne was ridiculed for having covered windows in cabins and offering only a sports-bar menu. Passengers spent more time and money onboard the ship than Stelios had predicted, and EasyCruiseOne offered few options.

"I took half a dozen risks, and half of them worked and half of them didn't," he said.

The ideas he characterized as good were staying in port overnight to allow passengers to explore the nightlife; choosing ports of call close together to reduce travel time; and keeping cabins minimalist and small.

The bad ones were addressed in a recent drydock before the 2007 season. Besides a subdued new livery, the ship has a redesigned restaurant with an international menu and revamped cabins, 60 with windows that passengers can see through.

Stelios tries to fill in gaps he sees in the market. EasyCruise's seminal moment came when he was "stuck on a P&O ship" while speaking at a marketing conference in 2002. "I was so bored," he said. "I thought that there must be a better way of doing this."

When asked what was wrong with other cruise companies, Stelios would not bash them. "You can't criticize a business model that makes so much money for their shareholders," he said.

He did, however, throw a dig at other cruise passengers.

"I would, no offense to these people, call them slightly xenophobic," he said. "They are slightly less cosmopolitan and worldly. They need a lot more hand-holding and almost appreciate being on the safety of a ship at night."

EasyCruise bookings predominantly come directly from passengers via the Internet. When asked why any travel agent would sell his product, Stelios said, "It's worth it if they're going to lose the booking altogether. If you can send them around the world on the Queen Mary 2, be my guest. But it's a different type of audience."

Stelios added that a two-week cruise in the Greek islands with suite accommodations is about $1,000, making 10% commission, "a tidy sum of money."

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI