James Cole: On the crest of a wave

By Ged Henderson

21 Mar 2024

James Cole Panache Cruises

With the world locked down and in the grip of a pandemic there was just one direction of travel for James Cole to take – launch a business offering luxury cruises.

Some four years later, sitting in the company’s impressive Chorley headquarters, Panache Cruises’ founder is buoyant and it is little wonder.

It was a brave move that has more than paid off. From those beginnings in uncertain times, the ultra-luxury cruise specialist has more than doubled its turnover to £20m in 2023, with a record breaking 12 months.

Over that period its number of bookings doubled to more than 2,000, with their average value surpassing the £10,000 mark.

It was also a year when it was named the fastest growing business in the north of England, expanding its workforce from 31 to 55 people. The aim is to reach 100 by 2026.

There have been also been major investments, including £1m in the smart new HQ at Strawberry Fields Digital Hub and an expansion of operations in the USA from a base in Austin, Texas.

They are all part of a journey James embarked on with a single destination of travel in mind: to become the world’s biggest seller of luxury cruises by 2030. On the way to that Panache is forecasting a turnover of £60m for its UK sales alone by 2027.

James is navigating the journey with all the expertise he has gathered over more than 25 years in the industry.

He has been the driving force behind some of the UK’s largest cruise brands and during his career, which began with travel business Airtours in Helmshore, he has retailed more than £1bn of cruise holidays.

Looking back at Panache Cruises’ birth, he says: “Some people thought I was mad to set up the business during Covid, but for me it was the right time.

“A lot of people weren’t particularly happy with how they were treated by their employers. They were at home generally discontented and were looking for something else. So, we were able to find some really good people.

“Secondly there were a lot of frustrated cruise customers out there. Frustrated by how they were being dealt with in terms of customer service.

“We are here to help and we’ll speak to anyone who is interested in talking to us about cruise holidays. We’ll happily take your details and give you as much information as we can.

“During the pandemic we worked to keep people up to date with what was happening in the cruise sector. In just two months we built up a database of 12,000 people through these simple information-led messages – that gave us 12,000 potential customers before we’d sold a single cruise.” The pandemic is still having an impact on the company’s business. James explains: “Our customers are largely in the 60-70-year age bracket.

“They lost two years of travel time during the pandemic and are looking to make up for that by travelling further afield for a longer period of time.”

Panache specialises in the luxury and ultra-luxury end of the market, offering voyages on smaller, more intimate vessels, some more like billionaire’s superyachts than the tradition cruise liner. Service is, in James’ words: “phenomenal”.

The company offers 12,000 trip itineraries, visiting more than 1,000 ports of call with 25 of the world’s leading luxury cruise lines.

The vast majority of Panache Cruises’ marketing is social media and digitally led.

James says: “We are looking to attract anybody interested in cruising, not necessarily at that moment in time.

“We want to speak to them early and inform and educate them and eventually inspire them into engaging with us about a cruise.”

That engagement takes the form of one-to-one conversations with one of Panache’s “cruise connoisseurs”.

James says: “They will be right there with you from that first conversation until you return from your cruise holiday.

“We work hard to build up a personal relationship with each of our customers. It’s going back to the very foundations of the travel industry with some old-fashioned customer service.

“We make sure that when the phone rings someone answers it. My own mobile phone number and email address is available to every single one of our customers if they need to contact me for any reason.”

Again, it is an approach that is paying off. The average amount that customers spend on a Panache Cruises trip is £15,000 but that can rise to more than £100,000. The business’s top 40 customers have spent almost £5m since its launch.

However, for James, who received a prestigious national award for his contribution to the cruise industry last year, the business is about far more than its figures, impressive though they may be.

He says: “When we launched, our mission statement was simple: ‘Colleagues, customers, cruise lines – nothing is too much trouble’. Get that right and everything else should take care of itself.”

A large part of that ongoing mission is making Panache a great place to work and “doing everything possible to make sure our colleagues are fulfilled”.

The business operates flexible working and its range of employee benefits includes free lunches in the office, made by top celebrity chef Lashuan Pryce, whose clients include Premier League footballers.

There is also an enhanced pension with access to a one-to-one wealth manager and a private health care scheme.

In addition, there is a £200 holiday concession from day one of employment, and an additional £150 a year, up to a maximum of £1,500.

And team members are offered free places on ultra-luxury cruises to help familiarise them with the products they are selling.

James says he is especially proud of the company’s recent ‘best workplace in travel’ awards. He adds: “We’re looking after people for the long term. Our team is our greatest asset.”

Apprentices are playing an increasing role in the operation. James’ son Charlie is among the 12 currently in the business and there are plans to invest in more than 100 apprenticeships by 2030.

As well as developing young talent James is committed to landlocked Chorley as the home for the cruise business. The company has just signed a long-term lease at Strawberry Fields and looking around he asks: “Why wouldn’t we be based here?”

James was brought up in Astley Village, he attended Parklands High School and Runshaw College and has an MBA in business administration and management from UCLan, where he remains a very active honorary fellow.

The 49-year-old dad-of-three says: “I’m absolutely committed to staying here in Lancashire. And I’m really proud of the colleagues I have around me here. Where we are today is a testament to their huge efforts and enthusiasm. It is an absolute pleasure to work with them.

“We remain committed to looking after our colleagues, and enhancing our relationships with customers and cruise line partners.

“We had a plan when we started and we are ahead of that plan. We are here at the right time, with the right products and the right approach.”

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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