Monday, in a surprise announcement to many in the cruise industry, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said they'd joined forces to create a "Healthy Sail Panel," a blue-ribbon panel of 11 experts with impressive scientific, health, infectious disease research/control, regulatory and cruise operations backgrounds.
Addressing trade media on Tuesday in a brief virtual roundtable set up by Royal Caribbean Group were Vicki Freed, senior vice president, sales, trade support and service; Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president, trade support and service, Celebrity Cruises; and Carol Cabezas, chief operating officer, Azamara.
The "Healthy Sail" panelists were selected based on their expertise—but there's another plus. "They all have relevant experiences in dealing with challenges," said Freed. "Obviously, our industry is challenged right now."
The experts will share information, corral the the latest scientific/medical knowledge and develop protocol recommendations that can be used by the two cruise companies, as well as Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and other travel and non-travel industry groups in response to COVID-19 and the challenges it presents for everyday life and travel.
Individual Protocols for Brands/Companies
"It's actually a real cool thing that we're working together with another company," said Ritzenthaler. "But the neatest part of this whole strategy is that we will then individually prepare our own health and wellness strategies after the panel has given us what they recommend and we listen to their expertise."
She continued: "We will then individually—Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings—separately present out protocols to the CDC, get direction from them and implement it."
In other words, there won't be one set of protocols adopted in total by the companies together. So, it won't be a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, each will pick and choose what works for its company and individual brands.
Ritzenthaler said that guests can expect "a robust set of enhanced health and safety protocols." While the panel's work is still under way, she said they're likely looking at such elements as "enhanced embarkation screening, temperature screenings at the pier, testing options for our guests and our crew, obviously enhanced sanitation and disinfection protocols, use of technology, things like the UV light and clearly social distancing when we can."
Social distancing could be achieved by reducing a ship's guest capacity and cutting capacity in different dining venues and public venues. For example, one option could be doing an extra show or having additional show times in a theater. There could also be expanded, staggered embarkation and check-in.
All those are options, but Ritzenthaler stressed that the panel itself will look at all those things and more. The goal? "That we will go out with the best protocols possible and learning from the experts," said Ritzenthaler.
"Our goal is to create an environment that mitigates risks to the greatest extent possible while the virus is a threat," Cabezas said, emphasizing the importance of creating protocols that could help other companies, other industries and destinations. The panel's findings will be open source, so accessible and free to anyone.
"When you think about a ship, it's a microcosm of communities across the globe," she added."You have hotels, restaurants, spas, shops, theaters, even casinos. All of these exist on a ship, just as they do on land. Any player in any of these industries can leverage the great work that this panel is doing."
Shown above is the living area of a suite on Azamara Pursuit // Photo by Susan J. Young
She also said that another strong focus of the "Healthy Sail Panel" will center around destinations—where cruise lines take guests. "In this environment, it is no different," she said. "We have to think about the destination, as well, so we're working very closely with governments and ports...all over the globe to establish plans and protocols for the safe resumption of cruise for our guests and crew, and the communities we visit."
Cabezas added that other key players in those destinations are the cruise lines' tour operator partners, "with whom we're having dialogue to make sure the safe experience continues from the ship to the shore."
CDC Invited to Observe
The "blue ribbon" panel has several members who are former directors or high ranking officials within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and/or the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. But the media briefing has revealed that an invitation has been issued to the CDC to observe the process and panel's work.
"Prior to the first meeting that this panel had, we actually informed the CDC of our plans and invited them to participate as an observer through this process," said Ritzenthaler.
Timing for Protocol Announcement
When will the panel finish its recommendations? "We expect to get a first draft, a pretty good outline of changes that we need to do by late August," said Freed.
After that the executives indicated that the individual companies/brands will develop their protocols and present them to the CDC for approval. Freed said: "Once the CDC approves all of the recommendations, then we will each go back as a brand separately and implement the different suggestions—as quickly as possible."
How it All Developed
In an interesting "backstory," the executives revealed that Royal Caribbean Group had already been working with Utah's former governor Mike Leavitt, who is also former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the COVID-19 issues, while, at the same time, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings had hired Dr. Scott Gottleib, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for global health and wellness initiatives.
"I think it's actually a big story that Dr. Gottleib and our governor [Leavitt] had worked together in 2005 when there was a bird flu outbreak," said Ritzenthaler. "So, they got together and we started doing this as a team." Both men are now the co-chairs of the "Healthy Sail Panel."
Why Not Broader Collaboration?
Carnival Corp. has gone a different route, partnering with the World Travel & Tourism Council, on its own scientific summit set for July 23. So, the Royal Caribbean Group executives were asked why the world's largest cruise company was not also part of the RCL Group/NCLH collaborative effort.
"We are collaborating as an industry with CLIA, so CLIA has taken a very active role," Freed noted. "Companies operate independently and sometimes they come together. This one made sense for [RCL Group/NCLH] to work together."
Freed stressed, though, that "we're going to give all the great information that we learn complimentary to everybody....We are going to share this information with as many people who want that information."