Safe sailings are possible during this COVID-19 era, as some lines have proven, particularly in Europe. Since July, small-ship Ponant has safely operated 50-plus sailings from France, Iceland, Croatia and Norway, but who's taking these cruises? Navin Sawhney, Ponant's CEO of the Americas, reports that half the guests have been past guests but, in an encouraging sign, the other half have been totally new to cruise or new-to-brand: “That inspires confidence as we look further ahead.”
Ponant partnered with Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire (IHU) of Marseilles, France, on its new health/safety protocols, and Sawhney says “that’s helping make the environment ‘COVID-safe’ as people return to cruising. He also stresses that it’s not simply about crafting protocols—and putting them in a booklet or on a website—but practicing and implementing them during actual sailings with guests onboard.
This week, Ponant has four ships operating cruises—Le Bougainville, Le Champlain, Le Jacques-Cartier (delivered a few months ago) and Le Lyrial—with Sawhney citing "pent-up demand for cruising."
While there have been blips industry-wide, he also believes “the cruise industry is doing some incredible work in partnership with scientific and medical experts in the fields of epidemiology and infectious diseases,” Sawhney says, citing as one example, CLIA’s (Cruise Lines International Association) adoption last week of mandatory core elements of health/safety protocols for all lines.
“I think it’s a very positive step, a first step on which to continuously build,” he says, hoping that “it will inspire confidence for guests to return to cruising,” as well as “dispelling myths or images that people conjure up about travel in general or cruising.”
Obviously, there is a long road ahead, Sawhney adds, citing not only the U.S. port closures but that “Australia and New Zealand are today both closed to cruising.” One positive sign on the horizon? “We hope to resume our schedule in the Seychelles in mid-November with one of the Explorer ships,” he says.
As cruises resume throughout the industry, Sawhney also sees the vital role that professional travels advisors play in gaining a thorough understanding of their cruise partners’ new and evolving health/safety protocols and in sharing that knowledge with clients. “Being transparent and sharing the information is important,” he says, adding that, then, clients feel more comfortable, understand the process and can the relax and enjoy the cruise.
For example, the protocols limit capacity in certain venues such as the theater on Ponant’s ships, so instead of a naturalist presentation in the theater once on a particular day, it could be twice daily to spread out the guests. “We’ve adapted our programming that way,” Sawhney said, also noting that for dining in the restaurant, “we’ll tell you when to come down for dinner,” avoiding crowds gathering or too many people at once in the venue.
Also, with a small ship that travels to off-the-beaten-path places and offers Zodiac excursions, guests can commune up close to nature, wildlife and marine life. In some cases, civilization is nowhere in sight. That has appeal for those wanting to cruise but to avoid unnecessary human contact beyond the ship’s bubble of safety.
The polar capabilities of Le Commandant Charcot will allow it to sail to the geographic North Pole // Photo by Ponant
In May 2021, the new Le Commandant Charcot, the line’s first hybrid electric-LNG (liquefied natural gas) polar exploration cruise vessel, will begin service.
Changes in travel are simply part of life, with Sawhney citing this example: “We formerly walked right up to an airplane and boarded,” he says, remembering that pre-security era. Now, air travelers contend with time-consuming security processes that have burgeoned over time.
Sawhney stresses: "Yet that doesn’t stop us from traveling and enjoying all that’s tremendous to discover in the world.”
A Big Week
The top news last week centered on the cruise industry's actions to restart cruising from U.S. ports—with health/safety recommendations submitted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by both CLIA and the Healthy Sail Panel, a joint Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings effort.
Cruise ships of CLIA member lines are shown above in the Port of Venice, but for now, ships are not permitted by the CDC to sail from U.S. ports. Photo by Susan J. Young
The industry hopes that the CDC will soon lift its "No Sail Order," now in place through September 30, but that government agency has sizable recommendations and public comments to sort through prior to any resumption of cruising from U.S. ports.
But last week, Travel Agent did a number of stories on the topic, such as CLIA’s top executives providing their “take” on when cruises might restart and how long it would take to gear up. Top leaders of the "Big Four" global cruise companies also provided their perspective about what the CLIA action meant and what they envision for a restart.
Executives from several consortia, host or franchise groups also sounded off about the initiatives. And looking at the big picture about why the return of cruising is so important to the travel industry as a whole were Virtuoso chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch and World Travel & Tourism Council president and CEO Gloria Guevara.
Every week that goes by with no cruising impacts both destinations and ports, too. With a cruise season that runs from September through May/early June, the Port of San Diego says each home-ported, roundtrip cruise has a positive economic impact of $2 million, while a single, in-transit call (one stop during the course of a cruise), generates nearly $600,000 in positive economic impact.
Cruise ships are shown above docked at the Port of San Diego; Photo by the Port of San Diego.
Thus far, 49 calls are cancelled for the Port of San Diego’s 2020-2021 season and that equates to an estimated $75 million loss in the region. For the 2019-2020 season, 26 cruise calls have been canceled as a result of COVID-19, resulting in a $41 million loss of economic activity for the region.
In total, the San Diego region has lost $116 million in what would have been positive economic impact, and that's no small change. And that's just one of many U.S. ports feeling the pain of a loss of positive economic impact.
Keeping the Faith
Also feeling the impact are travel advisors, working to tap into the cruise sales opportunities that do exist. One idea for staying in touch with customers? "We feel that it is a good idea to mail luxury brochures with a note that says, 'Dreaming of Travel? Call us,'" says Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., Fort Worth, TX, a Virtuoso agency. "We've sent Micato and Regent Seven Seas Cruises brochures and I've had some good success with 2021 bookings."
Other advisors are spending time building their brand expertise. Those wishing to dive more deeply into luxury, for example, can check out the specialist courses offered by Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Ponant, Crystal Cruises and others at www.travelagentuniversity.com.
To stay "in the know," advisors also can tune into a new Viking TV information program Tuesday (September 29) at 2 p.m. Eastern time on the line's virtual content hub. It will feature a chat with designer Richard Riveire, who will preview the design of the new vessel, Viking Mississippi, which will sail on the Mississippi River starting in late 2022.
Confidence in Cruising
Moving forward, will Americans have confidence in travel and in cruising? For the past six months, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) has participated in the "2020 Back to Normal Barometer" study, measuring public opinion on travel. ASTA said those survey results revealed that 73 percent of travelers who have taken a cruise within the past year are ready to go on a cruise now.
A Holland America ship is shown in Sydney Harbor // Photo by Holland America Line
Survey respondents categorized as “hesitant” to cruise also were asked: “Assuming you had the necessary assurances that it was safe to resume normal activities, how quickly would you next take a cruise?”
The good news for cruise selling advisors is that nearly 70 percent said within the next three months. It's a good indication that once cruising restarts from U.S. ports, advisors should see pent-up demand.