Sailing to success
Just ask, the answer may surprise you
fter the Foreign & Commonwealth Office of the UK issued a blanket statement in July advising against all cruising, Ellen Bettridge, the President & CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, penned 500 words about how river cruises shouldn’t be compared to ocean cruising and sent it off to The Telegraph.
“Every day, we’re close to land, every day there are 130 people versus thousands. There’s absolutely nowhere to compare. We source our food locally, we’re going to these small little local towns, we’re not going to these massive ports with thousands of people,” Bettridge tells Canadian Travel Press from Los Angeles. “And the great news is, a few days later they reversed it. One thing that Brett Tollman [the CEO of The Travel Corporation, Uniworld’s parent company] has always taught me is you’ve got to be the squeaky wheel, you’ve got to speak up and you’ve got to ask for stuff and if you don’t it doesn’t get done. So, several of us got together and spoke up and I think our voices were heard so that was pretty exciting.”
Over the last four years at the helm of the river cruise line, Bettridge has encountered many other challenges.
“The first year I got there, it was in 2016, so that was the bombings in Paris, and business was a mess. Going into 2017 things started to come back and look good, then 2018, we had low water situations,
so that meant learning, then 2019, the River Countess was hit by the MSC ship, so definitely had to learn something else, and now this year we have COVID,” she says. “I don’t know if you could ever put anybody through a better training course on what to do, without having these things actually happen to you.”
In the beginning
Bettridge was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, and moved to New York for the summer between school to be a nanny. After falling in love with the city, she decided to finish her education there but needed a job — and one with airline tickets to help her go back and forth. What followed was her first foray into the travel industry.
“I got a job at a local travel agency called Better Travelers in New York and they hired me as a Girl Friday — that was my title and I just did whatever they told me to do. They also sent me to Dallas to go to Sabre school. I did a lot of accounting work. I did the ARC report for them each week. I got to book clients, started learning about cruises, it was just so much fun.”
Although she worked with incredible mentors and phenomenal women, upon graduating from college, her parents were anxious for her to land a position with medical benefits.
“I asked them for some medical benefits because my parents were worried about me, and they couldn’t because they were just a small business, but they said you should get a job at American Express,” she recalls. “So, I literally called the office that was in Stamford, Connecticut, they said yeah come on down, we’re always looking for travel people. It sounds really easy but you just have to go out there and ask sometimes.”
Although she aced the job interview, she failed the Sabre test.
“I couldn’t book a hotel, I couldn’t book a car rental, I just knew how to do air,” she said. “The gentleman who interviewed me, he said learn that stuff and come back, and I said I really need the job now. I said just give me a chance, I’ll sign anything you want. Give me 30 days, I promise I will become the best agent you’ve ever had. And he hired me.”
The decision paid off. Over her 23-year tenure with the company, she rose up the ranks from a TC3 — the lowest travel counsellor level you can be — to the Vice President Retail Travel Business, responsible for the management of travel and financial services in twenty-eight owned locations in the US, 300 employees and 150 franchisee partners.
“I actually ended up being the gentleman who hired me’s boss, which is kind of cool, and we ended up being very good friends,” she says.
A love for travel
Throughout her career, she says she had many influential mentors, including her working mom who raised five children, and taught her to pursue what she loved. During her time at American Express, she was given an opportunity for a major career change, but it involved going from the travel side of the business to the credit card side of the company.
“This would have been a big career move, but I loved travel and I wanted to stay in travel, and I wanted to continue to see the world,” she says. “The first time I got to go to London, I got my first passport when I was 22. I went to London and it was like the whole world opened up, and I knew then I would stay in travel forever, which is what I’ve done.”
One of the career moments that stand out from that time was leveraging the sale for 25 offices that were going to be closed.
“I was actually able to sell 25 of the offices to another franchisee of American Express and knowing that I saved all those people’s jobs and all of those people’s livelihoods really made me proud and they were still part of American Express, they were just a franchisee versus an American Express owned office. So, I think that was definitely pretty amazing.”
To this day, she says her foundation as an agent helps her understand what agents are going through.
“Going from the side of being the client, and running the business that way, and really understanding an advisor, what they need to do and how they do things, as the Vice President Retail Travel Business, in that role I had responsibilities for all the owned travel businesses as well as all of the franchises,” she says. “So, I had a lot of travel agents on the team there and I had been a travel agent so I think it really helps me to understand today what it is that they have to go through, I have been in their shoes, I have walked in their shoes. So, I get it.”
From retail to the cruise world
While speaking at ILTM in Cannes, the owner of Silversea Cruises approached Bettridge and asked if she would be interested in coming to work for the company.
“He said he was looking to hire a new president, based in the US in Florida. And I said no, I worked in Connecticut, I worked in New York. My family, I can’t move them to Florida, there’s no way,” she recalls. “I went back to my hotel room that day, called my husband and he said you’re crazy, go talk to him. So, I did, and next thing you know we’re moving to Florida.”
As the president, Americas for Silversea, she learned the cruise business and developed and implemented successful sales strategies and marketing campaigns throughout the US, Canada and Latin America. From there, she went on to serve as the Vice President, Sales and Marketing for Azamara Club Cruises, responsible for growing Azamara’s markets in the Americas, as well as for developing strategic relationships with trade and marketing partners.
“Then one day I got a phone call from Brett Tollman, and Brett said he’d love to speak with me about an opportunity. I knew the Tollmans, I knew Brett very well from all of the years of us selling Uniword and selling all the other amazing TTC brands at American Express, so I had been his client and so I went and spoke with him,” she says. “He made me an amazing job opportunity I just couldn’t pass up, the idea of being the CEO and actually run every aspect of this business globally was absolutely a dream of mine so it’s been four years now that I’m in the role, and I am still learning something new every single day, which is probably what makes it exciting.”
Day-to-day on the job
These days Bettridge is based in Los Angeles at the headquarters for Uniworld and is in constant communication with her operations headquarters in Rheinfelden, Switzerland.
“I’m responsible for the office in Australia, in Sydney, we have an office in Singapore, we have an office in London, and Toronto, so we’ve got teams all over the place,” she says. “Typically, I start my days very early in the morning, and that’s really with my operations teams, being with the time difference, we have calls at least three times a week if not more. My team knows I am always accessible, I’m just a text away, as I always say if they need something but we just generally catch up, talk, what’s going on, what’s happening, especially during the sailing season.”
Tying back to her agency roots, one of the first changes she implemented after joining the company was simplifying the number of promotions for agents.
“I think the one thing I value the most is all the things we throw at travel agents… We really try to keep it simple. You cannot ask a travel agent to remember all of these different things,” she says. “You have to keep it easy for them in order for them to be able to be successful in selling. They want to know when they are selling a product that they are selling it with confidence about what the best offer is and what is the best for their customer.”
Prior to COVID-19, she spent roughly 60% of her time on the road travelling between offices and attending work gatherings.
“I like to be visible, I like to actually look people in the eye and say hello to them and talk to them, and get to know them,” she says. “People always say I’m so lucky, I must be on the ships all the time — not really. I go on the ship for like a day at a time, do town halls, check out what is going on if there happens to be an issue or concerns, or I just happen to be in the area so it makes sense to get on the ship, and see everyone, but aside from that, it’s once a year I will host what’s called the president’s cruise, and that’s really the only time I’m on the ship for a whole year, unless we’re launching a new product.”
Although the monotony of being home is making her a little antsy, she says keeping in touch with her team makes her feel like she’s still connected and talking to people.
“There’s a silver lining too, I am home with my family, and it’s great. I’ve got two daughters. One is 25 years and the other is 19. My 19-year old just finished her freshman year of college and so she’s home now and chances are she’s going to be home for the first semester again. My 25-year old daughter lives not too far from here, but she’s just staying with us the entire time. So, I think as a family, how often would you ever get this opportunity to spend as much time with your family,” she says. “But I always say it feels like Groundhog Day, every day. I have a very set routine, I get up, my eldest daughter and I do a 2.5 mile walk in the morning, come back, shower, start my first calls, I usually start at 7:30 a.m. and then it just goes all day. All of our crew members are under SWISS contracts so they’re all at home, but being paid, so we get on calls with each group, one time we will get all of our captains together, another we will get all of our head chefs, so we’ve stayed connected and are talking to each other and I think keeping each other motivated through this for the anticipation of getting started again.”
Looking to the future, she remains hopeful to launch a ship in Portugal at some point this year. “We have a new ship as well in Italy, which is just finished. We have a new ship in Egypt that is supposed to launch in September of this year, and back in January we launched a ship in Vietnam so I’m planning to go to Vietnam for the holidays. We will see. And that’s actually going to be a vacation. So, I am very optimistic on that one.”