Cruise Chatter: Cruise Leaders Talk Restart at 2020 Vision Conference

In this special edition of Cruise Chatter, Travel Agent looks at a singular topic: The views and perspective of the "Big Three" cruise companies' top leaders at the 2020 Vision Conference of Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

Approximately 900 attendees (806 registered travel advisors) listened to these leaders during the opening day of the four-day conference on Monday.

Fellowship, Friendship, Partnership

In a virtual video message to the advisors, Frank Del Rio, president and CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said there are many kinds of ships: “There are big ships, there are small ships and even spaceships. But the most important kind of ship is the one that we are all on—and that is [characterized by] fellowship, and friendship and partnership.”

Acknowledging that it certainly hasn’t been an easy year, Del Rio thanked the advisors and said the year also provided “many learnings and chances for innovations.” He stressed that the industry has come together in a big way.

“Who else has been shut down for eight months?” he said. “It is something that we must take advantage of and continue leveraging our combined resources, talent, knowledge, skills and passion to get the global cruise industry sailing again.”

Explaining to the advisors that the industry can’t succeed without them, Del Rio said: “In these unprecedented and utterly profound moments in time, everything that you are doing is not just contributing to the success of your business, or to my business, but to the success of the entire cruise industry and even to the broader hospitality space.”

Del Rio also expressed optimism for the path to a soon-and-safe resumption of sailing. “It’s around the corner,” he said. “Trust me.” He also stressed that the cruise industry’s multi-layered health/safety approach far exceeds current requirements. “As we all await the next steps, I urge you to be ready for when the time comes, when we get the green light to being operating.”

He also said it was important for advisors to keep focusing on their pre-engagement plans, so that everyone can move quickly and kick start the demand together as soon as the time is right. “Let’s continue to be patient, and more importantly, let’s be ready,” he said. Praising the leadership of World Travel Holdings and its cruise selling brands, Del Rio said that the group is “the biggest seller of our brands.” He noted that NCLH would continue investing in the business with the agency community. “We know it’s critical to your survival,” he said. “It’s critical to our survival.”

As cruise lines and travel advisors have a symbiotic relationship, he emphasized that one cannot succeed without the other. He also expressed admiration for how advisors have juggled the simultaneous demands of work and family as well as economic pressures during the pandemic. Del Rio continued: “This pandemic has been a gut check, a learning lesson and I’m glad to see that together we’re getting through it. Your contributions to our company are critical. Without you we would not have achieved the many incredible accomplishments tat we have over the last several months and years.”

He urged advisors to take a moment to take stock of their accomplishments and what’s been accomplished together – things that previously may have been thought of as impossible.  

What’s ahead? Calling the current shut-down environment “temporary,” Del Rio said: “I can see light at the end of the tunnel. I can see beyond that light that we’re going to come out of this just fine.” But he also said it will take some time and it’s not like turning on a light switch.

Most of all, he said: “Don’t forget the three most important ships that we share—friendship, fellowship and partnership

Among the Best Choices

Carnival Spirit

Carnival Cruise Line brand's Carnival Spirit. 

Arnold Donald, president and CEO, Carnival Corporation, also spoke to the advisors via a virtual video and expressed appreciation for their role in helping clients navigate the unprecedented pause in operations.

“There has never been a time where the travel advisor community has been more valuable than right now as we look to move out of the pause and begin cruising once again," Donald told the virtual audience. 

He urged advisors to be fully acquainted with the health and safety protocols that the cruise lines will be implementing, so “when we do return to service, so you can be knowledgeable and reassuring to your clients and our guests.” Donald said that, certainly for the time being at least, every vacation or travel choice will include consumers' consideration of health and safety aspects.

As those potential passengers consider a cruise, the industry’s protocols “could [even] distinguish us in the marketplace.” He said no other travel product has the 100 percent universal testing of all guests, nor the level of extensive health/safety protocols. Arnold was emphatic: “No hotel. No airline. No Airbnb. No theme park. That means that cruising is one of the best choices for a safe and healthy vacation.

Arnold too said he was “very optimistic about the future of cruising, and about our teams across Carnival Corporation. And we look forward to working with each of you on the opportunities ahead.”

Educating the Public

In a taped virtual interview session (conducted in October), David Crooks, senior vice president of product and supplier relations for World Travel Holdings, interviewed Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Group.

Crooks expressed appreciation to Fain for his role in doing videos for consumers and advisors and, specifically, in educating people about the virus, what's being done to mitigate it and how that can affect cruising going forward. “Information is critical during these challenging times,” Crooks told Fain.

“The industry is so impacted,” Fain acknowledged, but says he's incredibly lucky to be supported by the people at Royal Caribbean Group, business colleagues, travel advisors and family. Elsewhere, "there are so many people who are suffering so badly,” he stressed. “That just wears on me,” and working in isolation is tough on everyone.

But he stressed that the industry has had challenging times in the past, and he people are using their imagination and determination: “Yes, we’re going to get through this and we’re going to be prepared as soon as that happens.”

Crooks (shown at right in the photo above) talked about the spike in cases in Europe. While that while that was expected to happen during fall, is it making Fain (shown at left above) nervous about the future?

“Experts have been predicting this surge, at this time, from the very beginning," said Fain, who says "no" it doesn't make him nervous. "We’ve all been expecting it.”

That said, he pointed out the difference between the surge in number of cases and a surge in the fatality rate (currently not happening at the same level although he acknowledged it could rise). But Fain said the difference between now and earlier this year is that "our ability to deal with it does keep improving. The therapies have just been dramatic—the way the doctors have learned to treat it has just been remarkable, particularly in the older age groups, the more vulnerable."

In addition, he said testing is coming out very quickly now, and “we’re up to one and a quarter million people a day. And that’s about to triple. The vaccines are extremely promising. “

Media coverage of the virus, said Fain, is impacting the public’s mood of “Do I want to cruise or not?” So, when media reports surge, people’s wishes about cruising go down. “What’s more important is that when it goes back the other way, it goes up quickly,” he noted.

So, yes, Fain sees a difficult rest of the year from COVID point of view, but says his brands have prepared for that. At the taping date in late October, he was still optimistic, telling Crooks that cruising might start in a small way before the end of the year. Subsequently, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a "Framework for Conditional Sailing Order" in late October, but with extensive rules and directives, RCL Group has suspended all voyages from U.S. ports and most elsewhere through December 31.

But Fain told Crooks that whether it’s one date or the next, “once the flywheel starts going, and then it gathers just goes faster and faster. It’s the snowballing effect that our industry has enjoyed for 50 years.”

What matters, Fain believes, is the industry’s “tangible forward momentum," citing cruise restarts in Europe, the Red Sea and now for Royal Caribbean International in Singapore. “People still see cruising vacations as important,” Fain noted. Still, he said, he continues to feel terrible about people suffering during this time. “It’s fine to say in a few months we’re going to be back to a more normal level but that doesn’t help somebody who’s really suffering today,” he added.

Crooks asked whether a gradual start-up with fewer ships and potentially less capacity onboard would create the possibility of more consumer demand than capacity?

“That would be a nice problem to have,” Fain quipped, but realistically, he’s expecting demand to unfold a bit more slowly and then build-up over time. Possibly, if demand is strong, though, “maybe that would lead us to accelerate that process,” he added.

Fain also talked about the Healthy Sail Panel, his group’s joint effort with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and the recommendations submitted to the CDC. One factor that’s positive for cruising, he said, is that the cruise lines can control the experience and environment entirely, so while on a ship, “you’re safer than you are in your home town.”

“If we can meet that goal [of safety], and it does look like we can, then that will drive even more demand our way,” said Fain.

Noting that those who remain employed are saving a lot of money as they haven’t been going out, Crooks said “people not only want a vacation but they’ve got the finances to do so.”

Yes, "there is a lot of pent-up demand,” agreed Fain. “I think that people will desperately want to get out and to do this [a cruise],” but he also said that the company would not restart sailing until it’s prudent and can be done in a safe, healthy manner. And, “we will also do it a little slowly.”

Fain was asked about how he envisioned the cruise market in 2022 assuming that 2021 will be a gradual restart and not the typical year. Fain said he has a more optimistic view about 2021, as the therapeutics and testing processes for the virus keep getting better and a vaccine is coming along. “I’m really quite optimistic,” he said. “I don’t think I have to look as far as 2022 to get to a more normal time.” While nobody yet know the outcome, “I do think once we turn the corner, , once we reach that tipping point, it goes fairly quickly.

Fain agrees that in the restart, cruising will be different than in the past. “But I think the people who said it’s all going to be different are wrong,” he points out. Over the years, continual product innovation has always occurred, but the changes are gradual.

Symphony of the Seas Royal Caribbean Photo by Susan J Young Editorial Use Only

Royal Caribbean International's Symphony of the Seas // Photo by Susan J. Young

"The things that make the cruise so special—the socialization, going to new places, the ability to provide a level of service, the entertainment…all of those are going to remain the hallmarks of the industry," Fain emphasized.

He believes that the cruise experience a year from now will be just a little better than it is now, and a year later, it will be better still—a philosophy of continuous improvement over time.

Stressing that the travel advisor’s role is critical moving forward, even more so than in the past, Fain said he wasn’t simply saying that because because “we’re good people” but because “we think it’s in our best interest.” He says travel advisors not only create demand but are skilled at sorting out the product choices for potential guests.

“Knowledge is what drives success,” he said, noting that’s “there’s so much misinformation out there and so much crap on the web that we need travel advisors to guide people to make them understand what’s going on.”

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