LATTE chats with Ellen Bettridge, President & CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection about her new ship, SS Joie de Vivre, relocating across the country and courting millennials with the new U by Uniworld brand.
- Tell us about your role within Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
I’m the global CEO, so I oversee all the markets. We’re based out of LA – the US is our largest market, followed by Australia and the UK, so I spend my time between those three places, growing the Uniworld brand and thinking about what’s next.
- Tell us about your career progression. What attracted you to the river cruise industry after specialising in ocean cruising with Azamara Club Cruises and Silversea since 2012?
I spent my entire career at American Express, almost 23 years there in the travel business, selling travel. I was the frontline travel agent, and then I ran the retail travel business for American Express for the United States. I was then recruited into ocean, which was fantastic. I enjoyed my time over at Silversea and at Azamara, but then I was called to come over to really lead the entire business [at Uniworld] and have an opportunity to run the operations as well as sales and marketing. It was a chance to really spread my wings and learn some more. It was an amazing opportunity to go over to Uniworld, a brand I used to sell back in the day, and I was a fan of it then, so it was a wonderful opportunity to come over and actually lead for this organisation.
I moved my family, we were living in Florida and we moved over to Los Angeles, so it was a big deal, but at the same time, I am very fortunate that I have an incredibly supportive husband. My kids looked at it as a great adventure. My youngest is 15 years old, so she’s waiting to meet the Kardashians I think, but she couldn’t wait to move to LA. Thank goodness I think she’s that adventurous type just like me, and my other daughter just graduated from college so no worries there.
- What have been some of the highlights of your career?
I’m about to launch my first ship, the SS Joie de Vivre (27 March can’t come quickly enough)! We’re also launching U by Uniworld, a new brand that targets millennials, so 18- to 40-year-olds, who might not be sure whether a traditional river cruise is for them. We’ll be renovating two of our existing vessels – River Baroness and River Ambassador – to make the decor a touch more contemporary; more fun, but at the same time, elegant
I was quite honoured to be asked to be the president of Silversea Cruises, which I did for several years, and that was a wonderful experience, and then when I went over to Azamara, probably the biggest highlight there was to having the opportunity to work with my operations team, with the renovations of Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest. Now, I am so blessed that I’m here at Uniworld. We’re about to launch a new ship, SS Joie de Vivre – this is the first ship launch of my own, so that’s very exciting. We’re also launching a new brand. It’s called U by Uniworld, and it’s targeted at millennials, for people between the ages 18 and 40. We’ll be creating a vacation experience for people who want to possibly try river cruising and be really be immersed in the destination, but haven’t had the opportunity or thought maybe river cruising wasn’t the thing for them. We’ll be renovating two of our existing vessels – River Baroness and River Ambassador – to make the decor a touch more contemporary; more fun, but at the same time, elegant.
- How do you define luxury? What is Uniworld doing to redefine it?
I used to not like the word luxury. I think how Uniworld is defining it, though, is really through the details. It’s through the tiny touches, looking at every little aspect, and treating each customer as an individual in order to make their vacation perfect. It’s identifying that someone likes to have a latte every morning on deck at 6am, and for our team to anticipate the needs of our customer. Luxury is having things done for you, feeling pampered and feeling special. You love it when someone notices something about you, and they then react on it. I think our crew on board does a phenomenal job of anticipating those customers needs, and those tiny noticeable touches.
- What does a Uniworld guest value?
I think a Uniworld guest values what they are getting out of the destination. When they’re on board, it’s as though they are part of that destination. The ambience on board is similar to what they would experience during the day; when you’re on the Maria Theresa, floating down the Danube, you know you’re in the heart of where Maria Theresa ruled. By the way, it happens to be her 300th birthday this year. Then you go off during the day to see opulent abbeys and houses, seeing how the lifestyle was, but then you come back, and you’re still experiencing it. It doesn’t stop. I think that experience is a big part of what the customers value. You’re eating the regional dishes, drinking the local wine, and you’re feeling a part of the destination, a part of the history.
- What do you hope for Uniworld’s future?
I am hoping that our U by Uniworld project is wildly successful, to the point that we need to add more ships. I look at where can we go next. What is the next river, what is the next place that we can take people to? How do we take that destination experience and amp it up? It’s about taking the time to figure out what the customers want by really listening to their needs. And continuing to make sure that we’re different. I don’t want to be like everyone else; I want to be unique. I want people to say, “Uniworld is in a class of their own. They don’t have competitors.”
- How important do you think technology is to the guest experience?
On board we of course have Wi-Fi included, as it’s very important for guests be connected. But we’re taking that one step further in 2017 and launching Wi-Fi hotspots, so guests will have the opportunity to purchase a wireless hotspot to take with them off the ship. In Europe, sometimes in these little villages, it’s really difficult to get Wi-Fi, so we’ll have these little devices that they can take with them when they’re off touring and they can still stay connected. We know it’s very important to them.
- What developments make SS Joie de Vivre unique? What can guests look forward to aboard this new river vessel?
She will be a celebration of all things French! Amazing French food, beautiful French wine and more. We’re going to bring France to our guests while we’re cruising along the Seine down to Honfleur. It’s a charming fishing village, practically untouched, so we’re thrilled to share this destination with our guests. In a real move away from other river cruises, we have deliberately made her slightly smaller than other ships so that we can park right next to the Eiffel Tower and turn around right there.
She really is special. She’s going to be very unique to the rivers, because she a different look, with glossy light-coloured wood throughout, almost like a yacht, and very bright and light colours. She is also going to be a celebration of all things French! Amazing French food, amazing French wine, French experiences – her itinerary is going from Paris to up to Honfleur. This fishing village is just stunning, the most adorable place that looks like it’s frozen in time, and then she has the chance to go by the beaches of Normandy, to experience a part of history. So I think her itinerary is going to make her unique, but I also think it’s the way she looks and feels, and the fact that she’s going to bring France to our passengers. She will also be ‘parked’ right in front of the Eiffel Tower. We made her slightly smaller than the other Super Ships so she can actually turn around right in front of the Eiffel Tower.
27 March cannot get here soon enough.
- Where do you go to recharge? Which destinations are still on your bucket list?
I go home! I love my children and my husband, and having time with them. We always travel together, as you can imagine. It’s also finding where the next place is to go – we actually have our next vacation planned for April, I’m going to be in Europe for the Joie de Vivre, and then I have other business meetings, and then after that my family will join me in Budapest. And we’re going to board the Maria Theresa, and because I’m new in my role, my family has not had the chance to go on the ship yet, so this will be their first opportunity to see the ship, and understand why I love my job, and why I’m so passionate about it.
I would love to head back over to Vietnam. I also spent some time in Venice years ago, and I’m really excited to say I’m going back there again this summer; it’s definitely at the top of my list. But my favourite place is always where I’ve just been, so right now, Australia.
- What’s the best coffee experience you’ve ever had?
Well, at home, I drink a skinny latte from Starbucks every day, so drinking coffee anywhere in Australia has been amazing. It’s not at all bitter and so delicious.