cruise3sixty: Checking in with Alaska, Avalon Waterways

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Yesterday was, simply put, a whirlwind at cruise3sixty, with six press conferences and the first General Session. Here’s a snapshot look at two of the newsworthy happenings.

Upping the Bar

New at cruise3sixty, Patrick Clark, the line’s managing director, announced that Avalon Waterways is beginning a series of fleet-wide enhancements to existing vessels that sail in Europe. The upgrades will be completed in 2011.

In what the line is calling the “Comfort Collection by Avalon,” all cabins and suites on vessels sailing within Europe will be outfitted with orthopedic mattresses; high-comfort mattress covers; European-style duvets; Egyptian cotton linens; extra blankets; bed configuration choices; and a selection of either firm or soft pillows.

The company also is introducing L’Occitane toiletries in bathrooms, as well as robes and slippers in each room, fleetwide. It also is providing fresh flowers in the accommodations, complimentary bottled water, fully stocked mini-bars, flat-screen TVs and 3G Internet access.

“You can’t afford to throw [the product] out there and sit,” stressed Clark. “You have to look at how to improve it [and make it] better.”

Craig Campbell, Lieutenant Governor of Alaska; and John Binkley, president of Alaska Cruise Association

Some agents may also be aware the river line is introducing a new all-suite vessel, the Avalon Panorama, which launches in 2011. From my perspective, this vessel is a step up from other river products – based on artist’s renderings shown to reporters at cruise3sixty.

Its 64 Panorama Suites are 30 percent larger than the industry’s average cabin. Those suites also feature 11-foot-long expanses of glass, with sliding doors that open to reveal seven feet of open air viewing with a protective railing. It’s better than a balcony, essentially bringing the outdoors in, and providing river cruisers with superb views.

In addition, Clark said the line expects to have more news in the coming weeks related to onboard dining.

“We’re Open for Business”

Alaska Lieutenant Governor Craig Campbell journeyed to Vancouver to continue to stress: “We’re open for business" In a joint press conference with John Binkley, president of the cruise industry-funded Alaska Cruise Association, Campbell reiterated for reporters the substantive changes Alaska has made in the past few months to be more business-friendly.

It was a far cry from earlier this year, when the state and the industry were at odds. Cruise lines had pulled ships from Alaska this year and in 2011, complaining about high operating costs, onerous regulations and unnecessary fees. The industry also was suing the state over its head tax.

But then Alaska Governor Sean Parnell changed the tone of the discussion by attending the Cruise Shipping Miami conference in an attempt to stem the economic loss. Parnell met with a dozen cruise line executives in South Florida and vowed to orchestrate change. And, he did. 

Soon after, the state legislature passed radically changed legislation to reduce costs in terms of the head tax. The $54 head tax is now $34.50, which will be reviewed in three years by the state to determine if it’s the appropriate amount, or if it needs further adjustment.

That tax is also now being targeted more directly at improving facilities and services that are cruise-related, something not being done in the past. Now those tax revenues are helping fund pier replacements or upgrades at Juneau and Ketchikan.

The state also increased its marketing budget by 80 percent to enhance the public’s desire for Alaska as a travel destination. Environmental regulations are also being addressed through a science panel, which will review those regulations— determine what’s necessary and doable— and make recommendations within three years.

In reaction to these steps by the government of Alaska, the cruise industry dropped its litigation over the legality of the head tax. Moving forward, Campbell said the state is trying to change the narrative: “It’s not about high taxes. It’s not about regulatory problems. It’s not about litigation, but what a phenomenal destination we have in Alaska.”

Alaska typically gets a million visitors a year, but that’s dropped by 140,000 over the past two years. Campbell cited the cruise sector’s economic impact within Alaska at $1.4 billion. Between last year and this year, Alaska has lost 5,000 jobs as a result of the decline in cruise ship visits; now, Campbell said, the focus is to get those jobs back.

Campbell says it’s not enough to expect visitors to show up, simply because Alaska has gorgeous natural beauty. More marketing is needed to visually show potential visitors what the state offers, through beautiful photos of mountains, wildlife and glaciers. He believes the enhanced marketing efforts, which kick off in July and will reach a high point in the fall, will deliver more visitors to the state in coming years.