“Welcome to the reunion of the North American cruise community.”
That is how Charles Sylvia, the vice president, industry and trade relations for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), kicked off this week’s CLIA Cruise 360 conference in Hollywood, Fla.
The event returned after a year gap due to COVID-19 and, gathering hundreds of travel advisors to the city’s Diplomat Beach Resort to celebrate the cruise industry and to become “the center of the cruise universe” for a few days.
“The presence of each and every one of us, in this ballroom right now, live and in person, is symbolic of a collective love letter from all of us to a passion we have known since the very first moment we stepped off of a gangway,” Slyvia said.
“This week is the turning point that we have all been waiting for, signaling a brighter future for the cruise industry and ushering in a renaissance for the travel advisor profession.”
Kelly Craighead, CLIA president and CEO who joined the organization at the end of 2018, welcomed advisors back to Cruise 360 after a year that she called “one of the most extraordinary times in history.”
Craighead emphasized that while there is a long way to go for the cruise industry and for CLIA’s 44,600 members, but “bit by bit from the river to ocean, cruising is getting back on course.”
Cruising by the numbers
Craighead, in her state of the union address during the opening session of Cruise 360, spoke about where the industry was, and where it was going.
In 2019, nearly 30 million passengers were expected to set sail with even more in 2020. The expectation was that cruise lines would continue to add loyal guests and expand their reach with more and more first-time cruisers strengthening the industry.
Then, in March 2020, CLIA and its member cruise lines voluntarily suspended operations.
Since then, the industry has come back to life.
This month alone, 25 ships have sailed from U.S. ports, including Alaska, a state that has lost $3 billion in revenue because of the shutdown of the industry in 2020.
In total, 32% of global ocean capacity is sailing again, compared to just 1% at the same time last year.
According to Craighead, by the end of the summer, nearly 150 ships could be sailing, about 50% total of CLIA’s ocean-going cruise ships.
While that’s good news for travel advisors and for the cruise industry, that return, and the continued expansion of the industry, which hasn’t necessarily been slowed down by the pandemic, also provides a challenge.
To meet that supply of new ships, the industry is going to need 37 million people to choose a cruise for their vacation by 2025, 7 million more than 2019, a mammoth challenge for both suppliers and advisors.
That will be helped by returning cruise guests—CLIA’s data shows that 82 percent of past cruisers are likely to cruise again in the next few years—but there’s still more to be done. And a lot of that is going to fall on advisors.
“The key to reaching these levels that I’ve mentioned is the need to keep each and every one of you engaged,” Craighead said.
“There’s a lot of work left to be done but together we’ll cruise forward, we’ll keep our eye on the horizon and we’ll be in search of fair wins and fair seas,” Craighead said.
Looking back and looking ahead
Craighead, in a question and answers session led by Cruise Planners’ Scott Koepf, joked that she has slept about 20 hours over the past 16 months, but, looking back, she pointed to two turning points that have kept her, and her industry colleagues encouraged.
The first was the European Union’s decision to allow cruising’s restart, even prior to the availability of vaccines.
"This collaboration between government and the industry to put together a set of protocols to let the industry resume, having this framework and the ability to start operating in Asia and Europe, it felt like there was hope,” she said.
The second was when CLIA launched its Ready, Set, Sail campaign, launched earlier this year to push for the resumption of the cruise industry in the U.S.
“We didn’t realize how much pent-up demand there was just to do something,” she said.
Looking ahead, CLIA’s most optimistic timeframe for a return to pre-pandemic levels is 2023, while its more pessimistic view is 2025.
In terms of when the questions about onboard mask mandates and vaccination requirements will end, Craighead said “it just depends on the conditions we encounter.