Planning itineraries for the travel industry’s biggest cruise ships is like playing a global chess game. You need an overall vision to place the pieces that soar across the board while still minding the swift, small ones that move just a few paces at a time.
For the past 20 years, that’s been Terry Thornton’s job at Carnival Cruise Line. The end goal, he told TMR, is “to show innovation, diversity and new opportunities in all our homeports across the United States. Once we have a formula, we try to continue to upgrade, to add capacity and to innovate ships to keep the product fresh for repeat customers as well as attracting more and more first-time cruisers.”
Arguably the most exciting and fresh thing for 2018 is the Carnival Horizon, which begins service in April in Europe, then heads to New York for the summer season, and finally sails to Miami in September to begin year-round operations there.
Thornton also is expecting good things from Carnival Miracle’s new seven-day cruise out of Tampa, “something we haven’t had for a really long time.”
Switching up ships to meet market demand
Meanwhile, the Splendor will be returning to the West Coast, sailing out of Los Angeles beginning the end of January. The Mexican Rivera cruises have been doing so well that Carnival felt the need to add capacity there, Thornton said, and the Splendor is 50 percent larger than the Miracle.
“Our travel partners on the West Coast have been so supportive and we believe very strongly in placing ships in a market on a year-round basis. We want our travel agents to be able to count on a year-round schedule of itineraries,” he said. “In the winter there is one type of guest, and as we move into summer we become very family-focused across all our ships.”
As the Horizon arrives in Miami “we’ll shuffle some ships around to make room.” The Vista will move to Galveston; “the Galveston market is one of our huge success stories; it’s a perfect fit for our brand and our product,” he said. “When we bring new ships to the Texas market, it’s like gangbusters; the advance bookings already are phenomenal—and again, I have to thank our travel partners.”
Vista will replace the Breeze in Galveston; Breeze will move to Port Canaveral — “a really interesting market, with tremendous air lift but also a wide drive market” — bumping the “wildly successful” Magic to Miami.
Switching ships around in this way, bringing new ships to existing homeports, gives repeat customers a new option and also attracts first-time cruisers, giving them “another reason to give us a try,” Thornton said. “We want that mix of first-time cruisers to grow. Obviously, our repeat business is very important, but as we build capacity, we know the future is convincing more and more people to give cruising a try. Once we do, they come back. “
For 2019, meanwhile, Carnival already has plans to move Glory, currently in Miami, to New Orleans, bumping the Dream to Galveston for four- and five-day cruises. “That is by far the newest and largest ship we’ve ever operated on short cruises,” Thornton noted. “The Galveston market is just wildly popular and we wanted to offer our travel partners and the market something new and exciting.”
Valor will move from Galveston to New Orleans for four- and five-day cruises, and Triumph will move as well. While Carnival has not yet announced what it will do, “I can tell you it will be great,” Thornton said.
The Conquest, meanwhile, will move from Port Everglades to replace Glory in Miami, “so again, new options, small ships, different shows, different ways things happen on board.”
Another important change will be the Sunshine homeporting in Charleston. “We’ve been in that market for a long time with Ecstasy; it’s a great tourism market with 5 million visitors a year. There were some challenges with the cruise terminal because Sunshine is 50 percent bigger than Ecstasy, so we’ve done a lot of work to make sure that operation will provide a great guest experience,” he said.
Charleston also is important because it draws from drive ranges of five to seven hours, “all the way into North Carolina and even into Tennessee. We listened closely to the feedback from our travel partners, and universally everyone said yes, it’s time for Charleston to have this type of ship.”
So, in May, Ecstasy will move to Jacksonville, and Elation will move a little farther south to Port Canaveral to restart a short four- and five-day cruise program there as a new option for 2019.
On the drawing board still, for 2020 and 2022, are the largest ships Carnival has ever built, 18,000 tons with over 5,000 guests.
New homeports in the planning stage
“We are constantly looking for new homeports. Our strategy is to put ships near big population bases, and we are running short of places,” Thornton acknowledged. Carnival is eyeing “the gap from Charleston to Baltimore; I can’t say anything is imminent but we are constantly looking for an opportunity there,” Thornton said.
His other dream, in the works for 15 years already, is a port in Mexico, just south of Cancun. That would offer great itineraries; “you could go to Costa Rica, South America, Panama, and a whole series of islands that could be developed.” But the Mexican authorities and hotel industry have been holding things up, concerned that cruise ships will cut into their business. “We think what would happen is exactly the opposite; that we could actually sell hotel rooms for them,’” Thornton said. “It’s such an opportunity that we will continue to work on it, and I do think it can happen.”
Also on Thornton’s wish list are more California ports, including homeports in San Francisco and San Diego. “We’d like to have more homeports on the West Coast, where we have really great travel partners to help us,” he said. “A lot of factors go into sales success — a robust economy is important, but travel agents provide us with a consumer reach we could never buy with advertising. No one can talk to a customer and put them on the right ship like a good travel agent. There is nothing more powerful than their expertise and understanding of what’s right for each client. No cruise line could buy that kind of reach.”