Celebrating 15 Years: Cruise Industry Presidents Panel Kicks Off Cruise360

A 15-year celebration, a sustainability/environmental discussion, and trends in cruising from a Presidents Panel of cruise line executives were highlights of the first day at Cruise Lines International Association’s Cruise360 at the Broward County Convention Center, Port Everglades, FL.

Approximately 1,300 travel advisors gathered for conference seminars, training sessions, networking, meetings with suppliers and the conference’s first general session. The keynote address – solely focused on sustainability and environmental protection and the task ahead for travel agents in that regard -- was given by Adam Goldstein, vice chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., and CLIA’s global chairman. See our story posted earlier today here.

Goldstein urged agents to get educated on environmental/sustainability issues, as he believes consumers will increasingly ask U.S. travel agents about that topic as a part of the future cruise vacation sales discussions.

$68 Billion in New Ships

“The global cruise industry is poised for growth of an unprecedented scale, with $68 billion worth of new ships entering the market in the next eight years,” Charles Sylvia, CLIA’s vice president of membership and trade relations, told the agents in kicking off the conference's first general session.

Sylvia also introduced Kelly Craighead, the new president and CEO of CLIA, who spoke very briefly. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be here, because this is one of the most magnificent events that CLIA supports,” said Craighead, adding that she wanted to relay “how grateful I am that you’re here” and looked forward to seeing the agents during the next 15 years of Cruise360 as well.

A Cruise Presidents Panel, moderated by Becky Powell, CEO of Protravel International, featured: Christine Duffy, president, Carnival Cruise Line; Roberto Fusaro, president, MSC Cruises USA; Tom McAlpin, Virgin Voyages; Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and CEO, Celebrity Cruises, Andy Stuart, president, Norwegian Cruise Line; and Tom Wolber, president and CEO, Crystal Cruises.

Here are some highlights of the discussion.

2019 Potential

“Well actually, 2019 had a bit of a rocky start as the whole government shut down, and put some jitters into the market, but since then it has picked up quite a bit,” said Wolber, who said now Crystal is seeing the booking window extended and that “2020 and 2021 bookings are doing extremely well.”

Oceangoing bookings this year now are improving, but Crystal sees the 2019 bookings a bit closer in than what it typically sees, he said, but the “expedition product is off the chart…and river is booking quite well.”

For 2019, Norwegian Cruise Line (as stated on its last earnings call) is better booked than at any time in its history, according to Stuart, who thanked the agents for that. And that’s in most markets, he said, adding he was “cautiously optimistic” for the year.

Virgin Voyages doesn’t launch until early next year, but “2019 is a very exciting year for us,” said McAlpin: “We’re off to a great start. A lot of pent-up demand, great volume in bookings at great rates.”

He said the line is focusing on operational readiness, gaining more exposure and filling its ships “not only with the right volume, but with the right rates.”

Celebrity Cruises also turned into this year in a better booked position than in the past, said Lutoff-Perlo, who thanked agents, noting “we’re very optimistic about 2020 and 2021.” She talked about the recent launch of Celebrity Edge and said “we have Flora coming out” going to the Galapagos. Celebrity also is seeing much interest in the Celebrity Apex.

“It has been a wonderful Wave Season so thank you to all of you,” MSC’s Fusaro told the crowd, adding that his line will be introducing MSC Grandiosa later this year. In April, Fusaro said the line will open its new, private island 65 miles west of Miami.

Duffy focused on the line’s new Carnival Panorama coming to the West Coast later this year, and the new Mardi Gras, which will have the first roller coaster on a cruise ship and an Emeril Lagasse restaurant.

But she said, most notably, Adolfo Perez, the line’s senior vice president of sales and trade marketing and his team have created the new WUATA program, designed to promote the value of a travel agent, which garnered instant cheers and loud applause from the Cruise360 audience.

“We want to provide great content that you can use with your customers to remind everyone of the value and importance of using a travel advisor,” said Duffy, noting that with all the brands present on the stage and collectively, with all the new ships coming, “it’s more important than ever to support the agency community.”

Photo copyright by Susan J. Young

Experiential Travel

Powell said that, on the travel agency side, advisors have seen more consumer desire for experiential travel, deeper experiences and connecting with the local communities. She asked what the presidents were seeing and what were their brands doing to meet this trend. 

Because of Celebrity’s international mix of guests, “it’s even more important that we continue to push the envelope” on the experiential side, said Lutoff-Perlo. One way to do that? She says the line has spent much time developing new land options, including Private Journeys, as well as Discovery Journeys, which operate with no more than 24 guests, as well as the regular excursions.

“What we’re learning and seeing more and more is that people want that choice,” said Lutoff-Perlo. But she says it’s more than just having experiences. “Now, people care about what those experiences help you become – how they change you,” she stressed.

As MSC Cruises is an international brand, it tries to provide guests with new destinations, such as its new private island, which “will focus on the natural environment,” said Fusaro, “so guests can spend a full day at the beach, just relaxing, just contacting with nature, and being so close to Miami will allow us to stay until midnight.” 

And in Havana, Fusaro said, the overnight stay provides the opportunity for authentic experiences and connecting with the local culture and people ashore.

Partnerships Rule

Powell asked the cruise executives about partnerships, noting that “in the cruise industry, they’ve become huge,” whether that’s a celebrity restauranteur or a brand-name retailer and tying the brand to a shipboard program.

“What do you see as the value of these programs, and are they attracting new customers?” she asked.

With so many cruise brands in the marketplace, “each brand really does have its distinct value proposition,” said Duffy, noting that the partnerships Carnival works on really are a way to reflect its brand and what it means.

One example? She cited the appointment of Shaquille O’Neal as Carnival’s “chief fun officer” plus Guy Fieri's onboard eateries. 

Concurring with Duffy, Stuart said “we try to use the partnerships to tell the story of the brand.” Among the examples he cited as working very well are Margaritaville and Michael Mondavi with wine. “No day should start without Starbucks,” he added, noting that Norwegian has Starbucks across the fleet so “now I can cruise,” to the chuckles of the agent audience.

He urged agents to look at the partnerships out there and how they can connect that to their business. Partnering for a cause or to recognize people can also be very beneficial. Stuart said that in Norwegian’s program to recognize teachers, based on stories people told about teachers, “almost 50,000 teachers have been nominated, and we have 1.4 million votes for teachers so far.”

“We all do things like this,” he said, so when cruise lines announce those, “how do you jump onboard? How do you drive creative demand through the partnerships that the industry is putting together? It’s a huge opportunity.”

Lutoff-Perlo agreed “it’s really a way to reinforce what your brand proposition is.” Celebrity recently announced two new partnerships, one with Daniel Boulud on the restaurant side and another with the American Ballet Theatre for ballet performances on its ships.

She said the ballet performances would begin first on those ships that have just gone through the Celebrity Revolution, the fleet modernization program now under way.

Itinerary Planning & Deployment

McAlpin says his line’s “sailors,” or guests, have shown concern over the increased size of ships, so Scarlet Lady and two sister ships will only carry 2,750 passengers. “That also allows us to do some different things with itineraries,” he said. For example, “we’re very excited about going to Havana,” he said.

He also said the line will be going to Bimini in the Bahamas, a more intimate island that's not far from Miami but not visited by big lines. Potential cruisers also told Virgin Voyages that they are interested in a shorter experience. “We think we are going to bring a lot of new passengers into the industry, as they wanted a shorter cruise” to test it out; so Virgin will offer a series of four- and five-night cruises on the first ship.

Experiences, too, matter to potential customers, he said, “so we’ve committed to each of our itineraries that they will either have a late-night stay or an overnight stay.” In Bimini, he says guests can enjoy the beaches and watersports, but also a curated Virgin Voyages Beach Club experience, an oasis to get away, but in a fun, cool, hip way. Virgin will bring in local DJs.

MSC is also excited about taking guests to Havana, as well as its new private island destination, according to Fusaro. He also stressed, however, that guests also continue to want new, “more involved” experiences in the popular destinations that many cruise lines frequent.

Also, “no one wants to go to an overcrowded place,” he said, so he noted that MSC tries to minimize that by staggering shore excursion destination times, for example.

In the luxury cruise market, trends include later departures in ports of call and more overnights, said Wolper, who also said that Crystal is now coupling those with key signature events, such as the Tattoo in Edinburgh, the Monte Carlo Formula One race and others.

“Our luxury customers are telling us they want exclusive experiences and they want easy access to those experiences,” he stressed. “The luxury passenger does not have a whole lot of patience anymore for standing in line or shuffling through destinations shoulder to shoulder.”

Instead, they want to see things at their leisure, their choice and in an exclusive way. “Late night stays and overnights are perfect tools to do that,” Wolber said, adding that it’s akin to an entirely new product to see and experience a destination at night when the destinations are a little calmer.

In luxury, to help maintain that exclusivity, smaller size ships – rather than bigger ones – are helpful too, he said, “as it opens you up to a much larger itinerary choice that you would ever have before.”

New Technology

How does technology improve the guest experience? Lutoff-Perlo talks about how it’s impacted ship design; Celebrity Edge was designed with 3-D technology that allowed the line to really see and feel the experience, where otherwise it might have a made a mistake in how a particular space would work.

She also mentioned the new Celebrity terminal at Port Everglades and thanked Broward County for approving the rebuilding of Terminal 25. It was the first terminal in Port Everglades to use facial recognition and offers faster boarding and getting off the ship for both guests and crew. 

Lutoff-Perlo said that within her own team, there was discussion about the app for Celebrity Edge, as some people wondered how many guests would actually download the app. The result? Ninety percent do, and she said guests also love the stateroom automation on her line’s ships.

But she said technology should also be enabling, not intrusive. That was echoed by Fusaro, who stressed that technology must be at the choice of the guest and help create a new experience or make an existing experience easier.

The line’s newest ship, MSC Bellissima, is introducing a new personal assistant, Zoe, that works like Alexa or Google. “You can talk in your cabin and ask the software to do things for you…like booking a specialty restaurant, booking a shore excursion, asking how your onboard account is doing” and so on, he said. And for MSC, it’s necessary to do that in seven languages.

About 5 million people have downloaded Carnival’s app, said Duffy, “so I think what we’re all seeing is that people want enabling technology.” Now, she said the app has been made available before people get to the ship, as one of the most fun things about a cruise vacation is the planning and the anticipation.

“People are engaging a lot,” and that also helps in getting on and off the ship, so “I think we will continue to see investments in technology to enable not just the experience on the ship, but the experience before you get to the ship and eventually...after your cruise is over,” said Duffy.

“We’re putting a lot into it [guest experience technology],” said Stuart, but he noted he was being really careful because “we have a lot of guests that really struggle with it who want the simple path to everything… and they don’t want to be forced through an app.”

Technology that involves proximity and allows the line to know where guests are is powerful and “can empower our team to personalize the experience,” he said. While that technology is essentially invisible, it can make the guest’s experience better without them having to do anything. 

So Norwegian is doing things to give guests a choice – both a tech and non-tech path in trying to enhance the onboard experience.

The executives also talked about their recent investments in travel agency technology and tools they’re unveiling to help agents do their jobs in selling the product. All said they’re investing greatly in developing tools and programs that allow agents to be more efficient, effective and better brand ambassadors.

Getting a cheer from the agent audience, McAlpin said his line was sponsoring the Wi-Fi at the conference, calling Wi-Fi “a basic human right.”

More From Cruise360

The cruise line presidents also addressed individual policies and gave specific examples of sustainability and environmental protection, something Travel Agent will do in upcoming stories.

Also speaking briefly was Mark Bogen, mayor of Broward County, which includes the Greater Fort Lauderdale area and is home to Port Everglades, the world’s third-largest cruise operation and the one with the most home ported ships. He talked about new port projects that are enhancing the guest experience. 

As this was Cruise360’s 15th anniversary, CLIA gave the agents a commemorative book to showcase the conference’s first 15 years. As for this year’s show, “I have high hopes for all we will experience together and you should have high hopes as well,” Sylvia told the agents.

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