It’s one thing to be a cruise line leader who appreciates crew members and how much they do to serve passengers. It’s quite another to have personally served guests as a cruise ship waiter, seagoing restaurant manager and a ship's hotel director.
But that's precisely the unique perspective Christopher Prelog, the new president and CEO, Windstar Cruises, brings to the job, complementing his high-level management experience in cruise and hospitality industry posts with Hilton Hotels, Seabourn and Windstar.
Born and raised in Austria, Prelog spent six years working on the front lines onboard Seabourn Legend (now Star Legend). Travel Agent asked Prelog if those years of shipboard service will endear him to Windstar crew members? “Yes, I do believe that," he tells us, explaining that he knows "how they work, how they relate [to each other and guests] and I understand the responsibility that the captain has and how much work he or she has."
When the line begins sailing once again, Prelog plans to dive deep into the onboard experience to make both crew operations and the passenger vacation experience the best they can be. As Windstar's former vice president of fleet operations and COO, he's also eagerly awaiting the November delivery of Star Breeze, the first re-imagined ship that's part of the $250 million Star Plus Class initiative. Star Pride and Star Legend will follow in 2021.
The ships are being split in two and "stretched" with the addition of a new mid-section. The result? “Our guests will enjoy the new suites and additional deck space,” says Prelog, who also points out that the “the pool is larger, and so is the WorldSpa by Windstar and the fitness center.”
A rendering of the new pool area for the Star-class ships is shown above: // Photo by Windstar Cruises
“If luxury means being served your favorite drink—without even having to ask for it—by a waiter who knows your name, getting connected with locals on bespoke experiences in port or not having to wait in line because you're among such a small number of passengers, then yes, absolutely," Prelog emphasizes.
But if luxury to a guest means caviar, black-tie attire and butler service, he's adamant "that's not, nor has ever been, Windstar Cruises." Instead, he says, the line's small-ship luxury experience is best characterized by exceptional service, an intimate, casual ambiance, innovative dining with regional specialties and calls at smaller ports and less visited destinations.
From Prelog's perspective, "it's more descriptive to refer to us as a boutique cruise line with a personalized approach. It’s casual luxury."
As for current bookings for 2021 and beyond, "we are already seeing strong first-to-brand-bookings for 2021 and 2022. These people are telling us they have cruised on larger ships previously and want to sail on our smaller yachts now.” Windstar's yachts—both motorized sailing ships and the Star-class vessels—carry 148 to 342 guests.
Prelog believes ship size can be a differentiator in a pandemic era in which guests want fewer people onboard, as well as to travel to remote spots without crowds. “The world's largest cruise ship's lifeboat holds 370 people... just think about that,” he says. So, “the lifeboat has more capacity than any one Windstar ship. It's a stunning comparison.”
What’s trending in regions for bookings right now? Prelog mentions that Italy—the first country to be hit with coronavirus after China—has moved “from being globally exiled to finding its new normal, which can perhaps account for the uptick in interest."
Consumers seeking a romantic cruise often choose a voyage to Tahiti. // Photo by Windstar Cruises.
In addition, interest in Windstar's Tahiti cruises remains solid, thanks in great part to the “romance” quotient: “Most guests book these itineraries quite far in advance, leading to a boat-load of interest” right now, he reports, "particularly with a year of cancelled honeymoons and anniversary trips.”
Prelog also says Iceland remains hot for the cruise industry. Windstar’s 312-passenger yacht circumnavigates the island nation in a week, visiting remote fjords and small fishing villages. “This cruise always sells out quickly, most likely because of the value of small ship cruising in Iceland—the third-most expensive country in the world,” says Prelog.
Elsewhere, Windstar's new seven-day "Scenic Alaska" cruise is attracting families, as it's situated in the midst of summer break and involves a shorter time away from work for adults than Windstar’s other lengthier sailings. Prelog also cites Greece as a bucket-list destination for people eager to travel once again.
Windstar's guests on the Signature Expeditions program are shown above heading out in Zodiacs. // Photo by Windstar Cruises
Asked about any expansion of the Signature Expeditions program, begun in Alaska a few years ago, Prelog says: “We had hoped to roll the program out in other destinations by now—like Australia and New Zealand—but 2020 had other plans. While we currently only offer Signature Expeditions in Alaska, we do hope to expand this program in the future in other regions.”
As early as today, Windstar plans to debut an updated Travel Assurance Booking Policy, so customers can cancel up to 48 hours prior to departure on 2021 sailings.
“Right now, people want to know what will happen when and if these long-awaited travel plans change -- because we've all made adjustments in 2020,” Prelog explains. "Clients need to believe that their investment in the future trip is safe, if if they can get their money back when they need to, or if they can effortlessly adjust their cruise to a future date."
Will It or Won’t It?
The big news looming this week is an expected decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Will it let the “No Sail Order” expire at midnight on October 31—allowing cruise lines to sail once again from U.S. ports? Or, will it extend that order yet again?
If the industry is "greenlighted," it still could take 30 to 60 days to re-start cruises, top cruise company executives have said. That said, some lines are “standing up” (a maritime term for readying a ship to sail) ships now.
Bahamas Paradise's Grand Classica, shown at the Port of Palm Beach, is set to resume sailing in December. // Photo by Susan J. Young
So, if the order is lifted, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line will begin voyages on Grand Classica from the Port of Palm Beach to Grand Bahama Island, starting after December 18.
One positive is that consumers seem increasingly ready to travel. Results of a survey released last week by Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. revealed that nearly 95 percent of those surveyed plan on taking a vacation in 2020 or 2021.
Travel advisors hope the CDC's "No Sail Order" is lifted sometime this week, allowing them to take advantage of that strong demand. "If airlines and hotels can operate, so can cruise ships," emphasizes Christy Scannell, travel designer and franchise owner, Dream Vacations, San Diego, CA.
"Cruise lines have always exceeded safety and sanitation standards, and now they intend to take it up a notch with even more protocols," she says, noting that cruises not only provide "much-needed relaxation for guests but also a massive influx to the American economy, including to travel agents like me."
Ahoy, Caribbean and Bahamas
As 2021 approaches, the Caribbean and the Bahamas are expected to be popular with U.S. cruisers seeking to travel close to home. At last week's 2020 Avoya Conference (Part One), top cruise industry sales executives cited those destinations plus private island experiences and Mexico as top selling destinations, with the Galapagos and Europe coming in strongly for one premium line.
Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian Cruise Line's private island, is shown in the photo above. // Photo by Susan J. Young
Travel advisors gearing up for a rush of bookings when cruise travel opens up from U.S. ports should check out Travel Agent University to become specialists in cruise brands or destinations visited by cruise lines. Among the options are courses for Crystal Cruises and the Dominican Republic.
Advocating and Learning
During last week's 2020 Avoya Travel conference, Jeff Anderson, Avoya's co-president, also talked about his company's advocacy efforts for split commission. The goal is to push travel suppliers including cruise lines to pay travel advisors a first commission payment at the time of a deposited booking, and then the second payment as usual, per the supplier’s policy, when the booking is full paid/voyage departed.
In addition, at that conference (Part One was last week; Part Two in December), top cruise line sales executives explained to advisors what their brands have learned during this unusual year. "I think what we’ve learned is patience,” said Vicki Freed, senior vice president, sales, trade support and service, Royal Caribbean International. “We’re always going, going, going, and we’ve had to stop as we’ve had no other choice.”
In addition, “even though we’ve always had a strong relationship, we’ve become more engaged with the trade this year than ever before,” said Freed. She also said people have had to become more technologically focused in learning to work via Zoom, Meet Up and other applications. "And for people who are not good at this, we've had to learn it," she added.
So, now, “we need to be the best version of ourselves each and every minute because we don’t know what’s going to be thrown at us,” Athanasiou stressed, adding that pre-COVID, the brand’s nimbleness was (using a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 the highest) a three or a four, but now she sees that as an eight or a nine.
“Being a better communicator” is something Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president, sales, trade support and service, Celebrity Cruises, cited, as well as "really being smart,” so, not just figuring out when is the CDC going to do this or that, but “what you can do to be better off today than you are tomorrow.”
Adolfo Perez, senior vice president global sales and trade marketing, Carnival Cruise Line.
“I’ve learned how much stronger we are together,” stressed Adolfo Perez, senior vice president global sales and trade marketing, Carnival Cruise Line, who talked about the industry's non-competitiveness on health, safety and security. He also said the line appreciates the trade more than ever in this pandemic.
"Right now many of the brands right now are not doing a lot of marketing and what do we need right now more than ever is your network out there talking about our products whether it be to past guests, to guests with FCCs to some other prospects," Perez told the Avoya Travel conference's virtual audience.
More Cruise Industry Moves
Cruise lines, too, are learning, adapting and being proactive to enhance health and safety at sea—and assure the industry's record can instill confidence from government authorities and the public.
Last week, MSC Cruises said it would install a next generation air sanitation system on MSC Seashore, while Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection plans to use a self-disinfecting coating on all its river vessels.
And, in the latest removal of ships from the cruise industry's North American fleet, Princess Cruises officially transferred Golden Princess and sped up the planned transfer of Star Princess to P&O Cruises Australia.
Stay tuned here this week for any news from the CDC about lifting or extending the "No Sail Order."