Cruise360 Execs Talk Technology, Multi-Gen Travel, New Accommodations and More

At Cruise360's opening general session, Cindy D'Aoust, CLIA's president, posed questions to Christine Duffy of Carnival Cruise Line, Rick Sasso of MSC Cruises, Andy Stuart of Norwegian Cruise Line and Adam Goldstein of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. // Photo courtesy of CLIA

At Cruise360's opening general session at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Thursday afternoon, Cindy D'Aoust, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), posed cruise industry questions to a panel of top cruise lines executives. 

Speakers included Christine Duffy, president, Carnival Cruise Line; Rick Sasso, president and CEO, MSC Cruises (USA); Andy Stuart, president and COO, Norwegian Cruise Line; and Adam Goldstein, president and COO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Prior to the discussion, Goldstein also delivered a keynote address. Travel agents can check out our story on his "Top 10 Lessons on How to Grow Your Business."

Technology & Personalization

Asked about the role of technology, Duffy quipped that just a few years back people taking a cruise thought, "Isn't it great when you can't be connected? Everyone wanted to be disconnected and that was one of the big selling features." 

Now, she's amazed at how quickly that position has changed, as even when cruisers are encouraged to unplug from work, they still want to be connected. "Social media and interaction has just become part of the way people live their lives," she stressed.

Carnival has seen that across all demographics, not just younger people. People are increasingly using Facebook, tweeting and chatting up a storm, even on ships. Duffy cited her line's new app that's now on four ships and will eventually be on the entire fleet. 

"People can sign up for a very reasonable cost to have access to all their social media when they're onboard the ship," Duffy noted. The app is particularly helpful to a group of people traveling together as they can communicate and share cruise experiences. 

Also, far less paper is needed in the cabin as many guests just use the app. "We're in transition, so you still may see a lot of paper, but we're trying to move everybody over to technology," she stressed. "I don't think it will take long before we see that happen."

Carnival Vista's new photo venue is very high tech. // Photo courtesy of Lynn & Cele Seldon

Duffy also mentioned the Carnival Vista's new photo experience (shown above). "No longer are we putting all the photos that photographers take onboard on racks and you try to find where your pictures are," she said. "You actually walk into an experience that looks a little bit like an Apple Store" with iPads and a facial recognition feature that finds the appropriate photos. 

Separately, she said the industry tends to focus on what happens before someone goes on a cruise, maybe what's going on during the cruise, and perhaps to some extent what happens after the vacation is over. But from her perspective: "The great opportunity, in particular, that technology and social media and digital gives us, is to really to begin to connect the whole experience from the front end -- when agents are engaging [clients] to pick the cruise vacation or the brand that's right for them -- all the way through, and most importantly, when people get back to make sure we are all collectively holding on and 'owning' that customer."

D'Aoust asked Goldstein about Royal Caribbean's robust technology approach. "It's an interesting proposition," he said, citing the cruise industry's historical focus for multiple decades on personal service -- the service that the waiters deliver, the service that the stateroom attendants deliver and so on. "It's probably the main thing that's differentiated our industry," Goldstein said. 

Royal Caribbean's new ships have both techie features like this robotic bar and personalized service. // Photo by Royal Caribbean. 

So the challenge, he believes, is how do lines use that technology as an enabler, offering more choice and facilitating the service but "not get in the way of it, not undermine it, not replace it."

Goldstein said Royal Caribbean challenged itself with just that on the Quantum project -- using the latest technology but still delivering that personalized experience and service. 

He said this era may just be the "beginning of the game" for that challenge, and that may never end for the industry as technology moves faster and faster. "But we are commiting to never lose the personal service for which we are famous," he said. 

Multi-Generational Guests

Multi-generational travel has become a hot trend, "but if I'm an agent, how do I take that and lead with it," D'Aoust asked Goldstein?

"We've focused on this for quite a while, and our newer generation of ships are certainly focused on multi-generational family travel," he said. 

One thing to keep in mind? "For each generation of the family -- grandparents, parents and children... their perception of the cruise environment is that the cruise was made for them," said Goldstein. "That's what the children think, that's what their parents think, that's what their grandparents think."

They know that the others in their family are out doing what they want, but there just seems there is just so much more designed just for them. That's a good thing, he said. Then Goldstein said 'the accordion' comes -- when everyone comes together at dinner to share their daily experiences and talk about what they did and what they'll do tomorrow.

"And then the accordion stretches out again and everyone goes back to doing their various [activities]," he says. "All cruise lines are magic when it comes to this. It's truly an advantage that we have," and the concept extends for staterooms, shore excursions, entertainment and active opportunities. 

"Multi-generational travel is made for cruising," chimed in Stuart, who also cited the flexibility of a cruise as a vacation choice. Sailing many times with both his children and in-laws, he quipped, "the beauty of it is that we didn't have to all get together for dinner sometimes."

On a European trip, he said kids don't want to be at a museum every day. Some members can take the kids to the beach, while others do a different activity. "It's a fantastic opportunity for multi-generational travel and I really think the industry doesn’t make enough of it," Stuart emphasized. "It's tailor-made." 

Norwegian Cruise Line's exclusive lounge within The Haven on Norwegian Escape  // Photo by Susan J. Young

Evolution of Accommodations

D'Aoust asked about different types of accommodations, including the popular ship-within-the-ship concept offering exclusive key-card access for certain staterooms and suites as well as a pool, lounge or restaurant just for those accommodations. For example, Norwegian offers The Haven on many of its ships, and MSC Cruises has the MSC Yacht Club.

D'Aoust said ship-within-a-ship enclaves are advantageous for families since suites are limited. Sasso added that double cabins -- two cabins with connecting doors -- are helpful but double cabins can't accommodate six or 10 people. 

"Our MSC Yacht Club is a ship within a ship," said Sasso, "and that allows for family travel." So grandparents might choose to stay in the ship within a ship area, based on what they desire for an onboard ambience, while younger members of the party still could choose other accommodations. 

Sasso cited the industry's waterpark facilities and multi-age supervised kids' clubs as good sales points for agents seeking to appeal to multi-generational families thinking of a cruise. He also talked about MSC's affordable "kids sail free" program.  

D'Aoust also asked Stuart about the concept of single occupancy staterooms. "We've had a huge hit with single occupancy staterooms, starting with Norwegian Epic, building a whole area of studio staterooms with a private lounge just for that segment of rooms and it's been an absolute hit," said Stuart. 

No, Stuart said, the line isn't trying to hook people up on a dating game. Instead, he said it's about solo travelers traveling in a way they feel comfortable and safe. Someone, for example, might put a note on the board in the lounge, asking, "I'm going to dine at Cagneys this everying, does anyone want to join me?"

Right now, Stuart says they don't have solo cabins on every ship, and "we're probably not going to expand it beyond what we have today. We feel pretty comfortable with the number."

The Destination Versus the Ship

While "the destination" ranks high for most travelers when choosing a cruise itinerary, D'Aoust asked the group about "more people staying on the ship in port." In other words, is the ship rivaling the destination? The answer, said executives, is both -- depending on the type of clientele and the regional itinerary. 

Fifty-percent of the U.S. population can drive to a Carnival Cruise Line home port in six hours or less, according to Duffy, who says families love not having to pay for airline tickets. "Even those that can pay, [want to] avoid the hassle," she said, citing the issues with TSA and long security lines at airports. 

"This gives us the ability to get families onboard efficiently and cost effectively, and some more than 700,000 kids sail annually on Carnival with their families," said Duffy. Yet, she also pointed out that the number of children sailing this summer on the Carnival Vista's inaugural season in Europe is much lower than it will be when the ship makes its way back to the U.S., because every day was a different port. 

Simply put, different itineraries attract different guests. Also, in Europe, guests definitely want to get off the ship, but in the Caribbean they may wish to stay onboard and relax on certain days. 

The lines still continue to seek out new options, and to continue to look for innovation in privates islands and new shore options for places like the Caribbean where many guests have traveled repeatedly. Carnival has just announced new options in Cozumel, said Duffy. Why? "There are some great attractions you can do if you have eight or nine hours ashore, that you can't do if you have only four or five hours," so the line is broadening its options. 

Sasso reminded agents about the cruise industry's largest competitor -- land-based tourism. In addition to attracting new cruisers, he also says it's crucial to keep satisfying the industry's loyal guests. "That dynamic continues to require us to be evolving."

One dynamic that absolutely satisfies guests is the "out-island phenomena over the past 20 years," which he said shows up over and over again in guest comment forms. Thus, his line is investing several hundred million dollars in the Caribbean's Ocean Caye MSC Marine Reserve. It also is building a new out-island experience in Abu Dhabi. "That attracts guests familiar with cruising, but it also may entice people who haven't made that choice yet," he said. 

All-Inclusive Or Choice

In a recent discussion D'Aoust had with travel agents, inclusivity was a hot topic. "Years ago, everybody thought it was all free on a cruise," she said, but then cruising was customized and people were given the choice of "pick and choose." Then some people said, "wow, not everything is included anymore," so she asked the executives where the industry stood with inclusivity or choice? 

Disney Cruise Line's Castaway Cay is among the many private islands operated by cruise lines. // Photo by Susan J. Young

One inclusive feature that everyone agreed is working fabulously is the private island experience; Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Holland America Line and many others offer such experiences. Going ashore and enjoying the island is included in the fare; special perks and programs come at an added fee, so it's both inclusive and flexible choice-wise.

"We're so used to having private islands that we forget how sexy it is," said Stuart. "We're blase." Yet, Stuart says: "It's a big deal. Who gets to go to an island where no one lives? As a group we could make more money. It's a great way to bring more people in," and, he says, "it's the best experience and almost everyone wants to go."

He pointed to the newly announced reinvestment in his line's Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. He also said that the flexibility is valued by many clients who like choice. With family reunions, he said, a group can build its own activities.

When it comes to selling cruises, "we need to talk about value not price. I think that's good for all of us." When lines talk value, the approach typically includes more stuff. For example, Stuart said his line's inclusive beverage package has been very popular: "It's resonated with customers and I think that concept is here to stay." 

He told the agents that when the lines offers choices in packages or value-adds, it helps the agency community as "it's your sweet spot. It's going to mean higher pricing, which is a good thing for everyone and it's going to be a more inclusive product." He thinks that's good too and the concept is here to stay.

Stuart added: "It helps all of you enormously because when there is a choice, they need someone to make a choice [on their behalf]."

Value-adds create a "triangle of happiness," said Stuart, noting that the customer, travel agent and cruise line all are happy. "As a brand, we think it’s a great thing, we think it’s here to stay." That said, he said "together we can do a better job of presenting it and selling it more effectively," noting that the line has some guests who actually qualify for a perk, and yet don't pick anything.

That breaks his heart, he noted, when considering that if only the line and the agent together had done a better job to tell the story in a compelling way, the guests could have picked a dining package, shore trips and so on. 

Overnight Stays in Port

"Do you think we're going to see more overnights in port?" asked D'Aoust. Goldstein said "certainly it has an important role to play within our industry," particularly for some lines. "Azamara has gone hard that way," doing overnights and night touring.

But, "there are trade-offs," he said, and what's important is having a choice. Some people want to collect ports, and if that's the case, on a seven-night itinerary the number of ports are reduced if there are overnights here and there. Goldstein said overnights work best on longer cruises of two to three weeks, but not everyone can take that much time.

He said there are enough brands within the industry doing overnights so there are good choices for clients if they wish that.

Another way to look at it, said Sasso, was doing what MSC does -- not overnighting during the cruise but offering a chance for guests to do and see more of Spain or Italy before or after a Mediterranean cruise. "In seven days you can only do so much," so overnights aren't that viable for those voyages.

His line also has multiple port embarkations in the region, allowing guests the flexibility for designing their own land segment built around the cruise. 

Hotels Differ From Cruise Lines

D'Aoust asked why it seems that some hotel groups are bypassing travel agents, yet why do agents remain so invaluable to the cruise industry? "I think hotels are being short-sighted [but] I think the big difference is hotels, unlike cruise lines, are not only reliant on leisure travel so there's a huge business travel, transient travel that the hotels operate and I think [that's] similar to the airlines, where their business is much broader," stressed Duffy.

Cruise lines have such differentiated products, there are so many and they're heavily leisure, so "a travel agent is the best resource not only for us and the guest, to really help people navigate and really make sure they get on the right cruise for them, based on what they want to do for their vacation," Duffy said. "If I'm the consumer, the agent is the objective party." 

Goldstein added that the larger type of hotel companies have a far higher level of volume than the cruise industry as a whole. Looking strictly at volume and that 23 million people cruised last year, "that doesn't even catch their attention," he said, as they're dealing with billions of customers. 

Adam Goldstein // Photo by Susan J. Young

Also, "there is more at stake with us. There is more at stake for the customer in the choice of a cruise and that's where they need the help of travel professionals to help them make that choice," stressed Goldstein.

"Their choice of a cruise is going to influence the central memories of their lives," said Goldstein. "Only rarely would a hotel fall into the same category." So while customers are comfortable taking a hotel booking into their own hands, "they're not comfortable to take this matter into their own hands, nor should they. They need your help."

Putting it another way, Sasso said cruisers see their cabin steward, butler or dining staff day after day, while guests might not frequently see and speak to the maid at their hotel. "The whole infrastructure of cruising allows us to engage," Goldstein said. "Cruise lines have that connection to the guest."

Sasso asked the audience how many crew members and onboard staff a cruise guest meets before getting to their stateroom, indicating it's a lot, and says: "That didn't happen on my last hotel stay."

Duffy added that for cruise rookies, people new to cruising, it's really hard for people to get their hands around the experience, and for that reason, the relationship needed to get them on a cruise is much different than for a hotel stay. 

Agents are tops, according to Stuart, because: "The reach you have is beyond anything we could achieve."

One Top Takeaway

The executives had these closing thoughts:

  • Stuart: Think simple things to make things better, in your business. Look at your business and think about what to do to make it better.  
  • Goldstein: Business success depends on how agents see themselves. Focus on knowledge and commitment. 
  • Sasso: Agents have 20-plus cruise brands they can sell. Challenge yourself to become the most knowledgeable expert and do that with commitment, using the assets and education of CLIA and its cruise line members.  
  • Duffy: If we weren't doing what we're doing, what job would we want? Blessedly, this is the best industry in the world, the future is bright, and for those of you in this room, you're already committed. Create an experience that makes memories in your clients' lives.
  • Sasso: You will never be trumped by technology. I don't care if there are more satellites, more apps, more connectivity and all that stuff going on around you. It still won’t trump you. You are going to end up closing the sale.

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