Onsite at CLIA's cruise3sixty: Cruise Line Presidents Discuss "The Big Picture"

FORT LAUDERDALE-It was all about projecting Saturday, as cruise line presidents looked into the future of the industry at a morning general session of CLIA's cruise3sixty conference, entitled "The Big Picture." On hand: Gerry Cahill, president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines; Dan Hanrahan, president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises; Carol Marlow, president of Cunard Line; Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA and Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Hanrahan, who also serves as CLIA's marketing committee chairman, gave a brief presentation of CLIA research that preceded the panel discussion. Notably, he said, the 36 new ships coming online between now and 2012 incrementally represented an addition of $300 million in possible commission money. Hanrahan also commented on wave season and made the case that while wave season still represented a big chunk of annual sales, it had lost a degree of importance. "The new norm," he said, "is consistent year-round cruise sales."

The panel discussion was intermittently interrupted with questions for the agent audience, which they responded to wirelessly (think the "ask the audience" lifeline in "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"). In answer to the first query, 69 percent of agents in the audience predicted better cruise bookings this year over last, even in the face of a weakening economy. The panelists responded. "The industry has gone through recession before, but we keep investing in the industry," said MSC's Sasso. The overriding sentiment expressed by the panel being that the cruise industry was not recession proof, per se, but was recession resistant. "The agents optimism is correct," Sasso said.

Conroy, whose Regent line is under the private operation of Apollo Management, and therefore can reveal certain information public companies cannot, said that Regent's 2008 sales had already surpassed 2007's.

Meanwhile, Carnival's Cahill, a new member to any cruise panel, having only been on the job as president and CEO for months, stressed the value proposition of mass market cruises. "People are looking to spend less money on vacation," he made the case for, in this, a foundering economy. Though he too said he would like to see cruise pricing go up especially as the prices to build new ships keeps growing.

While many cruise lines have shifted inventory to Europe or elsewhere, Carnival remains dedicated to the Caribbean and Cahill thinks that poses an advantage for Carnival since everyone else is fleeing. "We are staying," he said. "Others are moving."

Lastly, Sasso, a self-professed and well-documented friend of the travel agent community, pleaded with agents to convert land-based vacationers to cruises.

After the cruise panel, CLIA added a new wrinkle to its conference by bringing to the stage a younger group of cruisers: kids. Led by noted family travel columnist Eileen Ogintz, the discussion, dubbed "Kidding Around" was conducted on beanbags to exude a more child-friendly atmosphere. One thing was clear: onboard innovation or "stuff" as the kids, who ranged from eight to 15 years old, called it, may be the most important part of a child's cruise experience. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line seemed to be the big winners with the kids, on more occasion than one, as they repeatedly praised such onboard fixtures as Royal Caribbean's Flo-Rider wave machine and NCL's bowling alleys. (DE)

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