The Most Innovative People in Cruise Travel of 2020

Our annual “Innovators in Cruise” cover story typically recognizes cruise industry leaders and key team members who’ve soared in developing over-the-top innovation to make the passenger’s cruise experience extraordinary. But nothing about 2020 was typical, so we’ve adapted this year’s approach. Instead, here’s a narrative of how the cruising year unfolded, highlights — good and bad — in the journey back to sailing, and just a few call-outs (not our usual longer list) for “Innovation Achievers,” examples of those people who excelled in a nonconventional year. 

The Coming Storm: January/February 

While the COVID-19 virus had surfaced in Wuhan, China in late 2019, for Americans and Canadians, it seemed nothing much to worry about. Cruising was in full swing in the Caribbean, travel advisors were excited about sales for the 2020 Alaskan and European seasons and new ships such as Sky Princess from Port Everglades, FL, Carnival Panorama from Long Beach, CA, and American Harmony on the Mississippi were creating consumer excitement. 

But storm clouds were brewing as China became a virus epicenter. Cruise lines cancelled voyages from Shanghai and Hong Kong. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, while Alex Azar, secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, declared a public health emergency but also described the risk as “low” for the American public. 

Not surprisingly, the first COVID-19 cases began to occur on ships sailing in Asia. Diamond Princess was quarantined off the Japanese coast, hundreds of the ship’s passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19, and Jan Swartz, group president of Princess Cruises and Carnival Australia, headed to Japan to deal with the situation. Scientific best practices and medical testing options were a “learning curve” at this early stage. Passengers who were U.S. citizens were flown to military bases in California and Texas for quarantine.

Ship outbreaks (resulting in some deaths) fueled shoreside fears. Japan and other countries refused docking permission for Holland America Line’s Westerdam, despite no confirmed virus cases onboard. Eventually guests disembarked in Cambodia. As February ended, though, many Americans still considered the virus an Asian issue. 

A Global Pandemic: March/April

In March, the world changed. New virus cases developed in other countries including the U.S. Both the U.S. State Department and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam issued a warning/advisory to avoid cruise ship travel. Cruise lines began cancelling voyages.

On March 11, WHO officially declared a global pandemic with 118,000 COVID-19 cases in 110 countries and territories. A few days later, U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. Canada closed its ports to cruise ships of more than 500 passengers through July 1. Then on March 13, the CDC issued a “No Sail Order” for ships carrying 250 passengers or more traveling in U.S. waters and to/from U.S. ports. 

In mid-March, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) also announced a 30-day “voluntary pause” in cruise ship operations globally by CLIA member lines. Cruise lines were faced with the enormous task of getting tens of thousands of passengers and crew members off ships. That proved difficult, and at times, seemingly impossible. Ports and borders were closed. Countries and cities instituted quarantine/isolation requirements. Ships were turned away from ports even if sick passengers or crew needed treatment.

For example, Holland America’s Zaandam was denied permission to dock in Argentina and Chile and not initially permitted to transit the Panama Canal to return to the U.S. In a creative solution, Holland America Line sent Rotterdam to meet Zaandam in the Pacific Ocean off Panama’s coast. Rotterdam brought medical supplies, COVID-19 testing kits and additional crew members. Sick guests remained on Zaandam and healthy ones were transferred onto Rotterdam. Panama eventually reconsidered, granting permission for a canal transit. 

But Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, didn’t want guests/crew coming ashore, so Orlando Ashford, Holland America’s former president, wrote a passionate op-ed piece published in South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel. Pleading for docking permission and asking people to not give into fear, Ashford asked: “What happened to compassion and help thy neighbor?” Ultimately, the ships are permitted to dock and disembark guests at Port Everglades, FL.

Massive industry-wide repatriation of guests/crew members to their homes started in March and continued through the spring/summer. Travel Agent gives highly deserved “Innovation Achievers” status to thousands of cruise line employees, crew members and outside vendor staffers who worked to get tens of thousands of guests and crew from all lines home safely, despite a climate of global fear and formidable travel barriers. 

With cruising halted and cash flowing back to guests for cancelled cruises, cash burn for cruise companies became a sizable issue. Starting in March and continuing throughout the year, the “Big Three” — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — tapped into credit lines, sold common stock and preferred notes, and secured billions of dollars to bolster liquidity. 

Keith Cox, Crystal’s vice president of entertainment and enrichment, gathered top-notch global artists who’ve performed on Crystal ships to virtually perform from their homes.

On the small-ship side, Captain Dan Blanchard, owner and CEO, UnCruise Adventures, deserves “Innovation Achiever” recognition for founding the new U.S. Overnight Passenger Small-Boat Operators Coalition in March. Besides UnCruise Adventures, the group included U.S.-flagged, small-ship lines sailing in Alaskan waters, among them American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions and The Boat Company. Collectively, the group set out to educate the public, Congress and other government officials about the nature of small boats, differences needed in regulation from big-ship companies and how small-ship operations can re-ignite local economies.

Meanwhile, on the big-ship side, the CDC extended its “No Sail Order” through July 24, 2020. More furloughs and pay cuts occurred industry-wide. The industry battle cry became: “How do we get more cash in the door?” One solution was to secure more new customer cash deposits for future bookings. So, cruise lines dug deeper” to creatively engage with consumers, past guests and travel advisors. 

One of the first to go “virtual,” three Crystal Cruises’ “Innovation Achievers” launched a week-long “Crystal @ Home” program of virtual events, including “Friday Nights @ The Galaxy” and “Sunday Cooking with chef John Ashton.” Susan Robison, Crystal’s PR director, came up with the Friday-night idea after seeing one of the line’s entertainers perform on his personal Facebook page, but she says the real star was Keith Cox, Crystal’s vice president of entertainment and enrichment, who gathered top-notch global artists who’ve performed on Crystal ships to virtually perform from their homes.

More than 20 original virtual shows including the line’s 30th Anniversary Show have been produced by Cox, who worked closely with Tony-award-winning Kevin McCollum, the line’s “Crystal on Broadway” partner. The Friday Nights @ the Galaxy shows are shot and edited beforehand and then premiered on Crystal’s Facebook page every Friday night at 6 p.m. 

Jay Schneider, Royal Caribbean Group’s senior vice president of digital, above, and Nick Weir, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of entertainment, below, created Muster 2.0.

In tandem, Kari Tarnowski, Crystal’s vice president of marketing, dreamed up the weekly show, “Sunday Cooking with Chef Jon Ashton,” which is live on Facebook every Sunday at 3 p.m. Cooking ingredients to be used in episodes are noted in Crystal’s Pantry Prep Tuesday, plus Wanderlust Wednesdays showcase global destinations and Sail Away Saturdays feature guest photos.

One bright spot on the technology front? It was Royal Caribbean Group’s creation of Muster 2.0, which will replace the traditional group muster drill. “Innovation Achievers” are Nick Weir, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of entertainment, and Jay Schneider, the Royal Caribbean Group’s senior vice president of digital. Muster 2.0 is electronic, simpler, more flexible and allows social distancing, yet it still fulfills the maritime requirement for guests to visit their specific muster station. It was tested on Symphony of the Seas in early 2020, and in spring, the line filed for a U.S. patent.

In April, Viking.TV launched; it’s a new digital platform designed to keep guests and travel advisors engaged via enriching cultural content and livestreaming global video experiences. 

The Crisis Deepens: May/June

With so many cancelled voyages, cruise lines focused on plugging their cash drain by offering incentivized Future Cruise Credits (FCCs) with 10 to 25 percent more monetary value to guests in lieu of a refund. They also rounded up more cruise deposits by releasing future cruise schedules sooner than usual.

Internationally, small-ship Hurtigruten’s Finnmarken began sailing again along Norway’s coast. That said, Australia extended its cruise ship ban through September 17, and Canada extended its ban on large ships through October 31, essentially cancelling the fall New England/Canada big-ship cruise season. Troubling in this period was a continuing global debate about the best medical/scientific ways to approach the virus and inconsistent government actions — often varying city to city, state to state, country to country.

CLIA further suspended U.S. sailings (for ships of more than 250 passengers) through September 15. In addition, the industry’s sell-off of older tonnage sent Costa Victoria to an Italian scrapyard. 

Ray of Hope: July/August

A glimmer of hope emerged as several cruise lines relaunched on a limited basis including Hapag-Lloyd CruisesEuropa 2 and Hanseatic Inspiration from Hamburg, Germany, as well as TUI Cruises and small ship lines Ponant and SeaDream Yacht Club.

On the river side, Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and Gary Murphy, owners of AmaWaterways, became “Innovation Achievers” by brokering a charter deal with a German tour operator for AmaKristina. The chartered Rhine River voyages were only for German speaking guests, but they put one AmaWaterways ship back in service, kept some crew employed, and, most importantly, provided the line with valuable pandemic-era experience in operating/adapting a vessel; the line installed plexiglass barriers at points, enhanced room service delivery and took other steps.

In a surprise move, competitors Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings joined forces in July to create the “Healthy Sail Panel,” an expert health/scientific task force co-chaired by former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, also formerly secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Scott Gottleib, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Panelists were globally recognized experts who sought out the latest scientific knowledge about the virus, learned about effective disease mitigation efforts and created health/safety protocols to help cruise lines safely return to cruising. 

Deserving “Innovation Achiever” recognition are Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean Group’s chairman and CEO, and Frank Del Rio, NCLH’s president and CEO; the dynamic duo put competition aside, took cohesive action when it was needed most, welcomed CLIA and CDC officials as observers and created a foundation of open-source “best practices” gathered over a period of months.

Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean Group’s chairman and CEO, above, and Frank Del Rio, NCLH’s president and CEO, below, created the “Healthy Sail Panel,” which developed 74 health/safety protocols for the restart of cruise operations.

Separately, Arnold Donald, president and CEO, Carnival Corporation, and Gloria Guevara, president and CEO, World Travel & Tourism Council, are “Innovation Achievers” for partnering on July 28’s virtual “Scientific Summit.” It, too, brought together scientific and medical experts for a fact-finding, open-source program about the virus, prevention, research discoveries, treatment and best practices.

As the summer progressed, older tonnage was being cut from fleets to generate cash and eliminate expenses. Carnival Corporation said it would sell at least 13 ships. For example, Holland America’s Veendam and Maasdam were sold to Seajets, while Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines smartly snatched up Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Celestyal Cruises purchased Costa neoRomantica, but other classic ships didn’t fare, as well. Sailing on their final voyages for dismantling at a Turkish “breaking yard” were Carnival Fantasy, Carnival Inspiration and Royal Caribbean International’s and Pullmantur’s former Sovereign of the Seas and Monarch of the Seas.

In July, Royal Caribbean Group acquired 100 percent of Silversea Cruises. New luxe-adventure small ship line, Atlas Ocean Voyages, set to launch in 2021, hired six more U.S. sales directors. In addition, Genting Hong Kong, parent of Crystal Cruises, Star Cruises and Dream Cruises, began negotiating with creditors, citing the cash crunch created by the pandemic. In late August, once again, the CDC extended the "No Sail Order" — this time through September 30. 

But another ray of hope emerged. MSC Cruises, which was developing health/safety protocols with input from its “Blue Ribbon COVID Expert Group,” began face-to-face talks with European government officials, community leaders and health authorities on the national, state, regional and local levels. Crisscrossing Europe to “personally engage” with authorities was Pierfrancesco Vago, MSC Cruises’ executive chairman, well deserving as a stellar “Innovation Achiever.”

Incessant in his mission, Vago met one-on-one not only with maritime officials but with safety, transport and other departmental officials of all levels as well as community leaders and business owners throughout Greece, France, Malta, Italy and other countries. Vago presented a voice of reason, confidently explained MSC Cruises’ health/safety protocols and showed precisely how big-ship cruising could restart without endangering local ports or communities. 

MSC Cruises received the appropriate permissions and in mid-August, pioneered big-ship cruising from Italy with MSC Grandiosa. Since restarting, it’s strongly enforced its new protocols, in one case denying ship re-boarding to one family mid-cruise because they’d left their “cocooned” shore excursion and headed off on their own.  

CLIA and other cruise company executives repeatedly cited MSC’s and TUI’s successful early fall European voyages as “proof” that big ships can safely sail. Across the globe, Dream Cruises’ Explorer Dream also started operating from Taiwan, the first big-ship Asian departures since the industry shut down. 

But in an industry setback, several dozen crew members on Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen tested positive for COVID-19. The line’s leadership acknowledged “mistakes were made” as not all its own protocols were followed appropriately, a “teachable moment” for the industry as a whole. 

By now, thousands of cruise industry-related workers were idled, furloughed or laid off, and ancillary companies (ports, tour operators, hotels, food service companies, restaurants, bars and so on) also suffered economically. Finally, the CDC announced a 60-day restart comment period for the public and health experts to offer opinions about resumption of cruising. 

Many consumers continue to book future cruises, in large part because tens of thousands of professional travel advisors were “Innovation Achievers” who creatively kept clients engaged —and often — during tough times. Hard sell was out, but “servicing is selling” became a mantra espoused by Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president, sales, trade support and service, Celebrity Cruises, and others. Vicki Freed, senior vice president, sales, trade support and service, Royal Caribbean International, fielded a robust series of Wednesday “Coffee Talk” virtual presentations to support advisors. 

A summer travel advisor survey by Scenic Group, parent of river lines Scenic and Emerald Waterways, finds that top of mind for clients is safety concerns focused around COVID-19. Fifty-five percent of advisors surveyed said clients need to know about the ship’s health/safety protocols and how the line will proactively prevent outbreaks, as well as how the onboard experience will change, including food service. Advisors also said clients were looking for reassurance of booking flexibility.

Pierfrancesco Vago, MSC Cruises’ executive chairman, engaged with authorities and showed precisely how big-ship cruising could restart without endangering local ports or communities.

Another 2020 “Innovation Achiever” was CLIA’s Stephani McDow, senior director, professional development and trade programs; she did much to pivot and innovate to help agents meet their CLIA certification requirements during the pandemic including adding new virtual ship inspections and virtual certificate programs. She also founded and now leads the new internal CLIA COURSE (Charter on Unified Racial and Social Equity), bringing 16 CLIA global regions together to learn about diversity, equity and inclusion. 

On the small ship side, UnCruise Adventures’ creative Wilderness Adventurer began sailings in Alaska without any calls at Canadian ports (possible for small, American-flagged ships). Unfortunately, after one UnCruise passenger tested positive, the line cancelled other Alaska sailings; later, it was learned the test was a false positive. 

Impetus for Change: September/October

After several successful big-ship cruises from Italy with no issues in late August and September, MSC added a second ship, MSC Magnificato begin 10-night Mediterranean cruises in October. Costa Cruises’ Costa Deliziosa and AIDA Cruises also restarted limited European cruises. 

On the razzle-dazzle innovation side, Carnival Cruise Line’s largest ship ever, the new 5,280-passenger Mardi Gras, successfully passed sea trials in September. As “Innovation Achievers” in new ship design and “over the top” creative features, Travel Agent recognizes Christine Duffy, Carnival Cruise Line’s president, and Ben Clement, the line’s senior vice president of new builds, refurbishments and innovation.

Christine Duffy, Carnival Cruise Line’s president 

What’s the big draw? Slated to sail from Port Canaveral, FL starting February 6, 2021, Mardi Gras is the first North American-targeted cruise ship powered by Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and the cruise industry’s first ship with a roller coaster. Traversing an 800-foot-long track, BOLT will have all-electric, motorcycle-inspired vehicles with digital speedometer displays and speakers with sound effects. Cameras along the track and within the vehicle will provide guests with photo keepsakes. Riders will race along the track 187 feet above the sea and feel the drops, dips and hairpin turns. BOLT is a centerpiece of the Ultimate Playground, an expansive, open-air recreation area atop the ship.

Certainly, a shining day for the cruise industry was September 21, when the Healthy Sail Panel filed its 65-page report with 74 recommendations with the CDC about how cruising could resume safely and with specific protocols. CLIA also filed core elements for health/safety protocols, and all oceangoing CLIA lines agreed to those for ships of more than 250 passengers. 

Later that week, top cruise industry leaders and the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, had a telephone meeting to discuss the continued cruise shut-down, economic impact and new health/safety protocols. While the CDC apparently wanted to extend its "No Sail Order" (expiring at the end of September) through February 2021, ultimately, it extended it only through October 31. 

New ship deliveries continued through fall, among them Princess Cruises’ Enchanted Princess and Silversea Cruises’ Silver Moon; the line’s new expeditionary ship, Silver Origin, was also delivered in summer.  

Arnold Donald, president and CEO, Carnival Corporation

In October, cruise lines, big and small, also embraced new technologies to help protect passengers and crew onboard ships. Deserving a “Innovation Achiever” shout-out is Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, as the line is the first in the industry to use the ACT CleanCoat antimicrobial solution on its river vessels. The odorless, non-toxic solution, which can kill both bacteria and the COVID-19 virus, will be used on all Uniworld river vessels and render surfaces self-disinfecting after one application. 

Another positive? Genting Hong Kong secured $227 million from Germany’s coronavirus stabilization fund to keep M/V Werften (a Genting shipyard group that’s building Crystal Endeavor) operating through at least March. Separately, Hurtigruten splits its cruise operations into two units — one for Norwegian coastal cruising, the other for expedition.

Katina Athanasiou, chief sales officer, Norwegian Cruise Line, told advisors that the pandemic experience has made her line nimbler and more responsive. Industry-wide, cruise lines sweetened the deals for potential bookers with added inclusions, adding protection policies for booking deposits and allowing consumers to cancel for a full refund closer to the sailing date.  

Cruise lines also created new travel advisor tools. Adolfo Perez, senior vice president of global sales and trade marketing, Carnival Cruise Line, introduced a new Future Cruise Credit Toolkit to support advisors in using FCCs to assist clients and grow their business. 

In late October, the CDC issued a “Level 3 Warning” for Americans “to defer all cruise travel,” but it then let the "No Sail Order" expire, replacing that with a “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.” For the first time, cruise lines had a restart path, providing they followed CDC requirements and steps including simulated sailings with volunteers and installation of onboard PCR COVID-19 testing labs. 

Calling that conditional sailing order “a strong indicator of a safe return to cruising happening sooner rather than later,” Jeff Anderson, Avoya Travel’s co-president, emphasized: “Between the new CDC guidelines and the immense amount of hard work put in by the cruise lines to develop and implement effective health and safety protocols, we firmly believe that cruising will soon be back in a safe way that will protect the guests, crew, and the communities the cruise lines visit.”

Past guests certainly showed their strong pent-up cruising demand in fall. When Regent Seven Seas Cruises opened bookings for Seven Seas Mariner’s 143-night 2023 World Cruise, approximately 80 percent of inventory sold on opening day compared to 30 percent or so in prior years. Some 20 percent of the bookings were new-to-brand. 

CLIA’s Stephani McDow, senior director, professional development and trade programs

Path to Reopening: November/December

As the path to cruising became clearer, cruise lines entered November with a strong effort to prepare to return to service. Travel Agent recognizes Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, as an “Innovation Achiever,” as on November 2, the line became the first cruise line to announce that it had installed a full-scale PCR (polymerase chain reaction) laboratory at sea on the 930-passenger Viking Star. The new lab has the capacity to test all onboard crew members and guests with a non-invasive saliva test. 

In late fall, SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I headed for Barbados to begin Caribbean cruising. SeaDream’s Chairman Atle Brynestad and his team, including Bob Lepisto, the line’s president, are “Innovation Achievers” for identifying Caribbean destinations that would welcome cruising “now” not later, and also for adopting a stringent “multiple test” policy (not just an advance test for guests prior to cruise arrival but also rapid testing at the pier itself too).

The group also secured agreements with local authorities in Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada for how the line and local officials would deal with any COVID-19 cases that should occur onboard and how sick guests could be treated ashore. 

Mardi Gras is the cruise industry’s first ship with a roller coaster. 

One negative toward the end of year? Given lockdowns in Germany and France for worsening COVID-19 rates, cruise lines temporarily suspended some European sailings. But as the new year loomed, cruise lines were looking forward to restarting cruises in the U.S. and elsewhere.  

New Mississippi River options in 2021 will include American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Countess and American Cruise Lines’ new American Jazz and American Melody. On the expedition side, many new ships will debut including Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic’s new National Geographic Endurance (already delivered). Thanks to the innovative spirit of Sir Richard Branson, a new cruise line, Virgin Voyages, will also begin “adults only” cruises with the new, 2,770-passenger Scarlet Lady

Big ship lines spent the last two months of 2020 working on implementing extensive CDC requirements. While most extended their suspension of service through year’s end, they hoped to begin cruising in early 2021. Betsy Geiser, vice president, Uniglobe Travel Center, Irvine, CA, put it best: “While we know it is still going to take some time to sort out the protocols, it offers a nice bright light at the end of a very long tunnel.”

Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking

Ones to Watch

In 2020, a slew of executive moves changed the cruise industry’s leadership look. Among the growing list of top leaders “to watch” in 2021 are these:    

  • Josh Leibowitz, Seabourn’s new president, who previously served as senior vice president, Cunard North America and Carnival Corporation’s chief strategy officer;  
  • Carol Cabezas, chief operating officer, Azamara, who took the helm after Larry Pimentel’s departure;
  • Christopher Prelog, Windstar Cruises’ new president, who formerly served as COO, has other cruise/hospitality management experience and has worked on cruise ships;
  • Jack Anderson, the new interim president of Crystal Cruises, who is a highly respected industry veteran and has spent 10 years with Crystal in leadership and consultancy roles; and 
  • Gus Antorcha, the new president of Holland America Line, who was formerly chief operations officer for Carnival Cruise Line.

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