Safety and health protocols, reimagined onboard experiences, new ships in the shipyard. Cruise lines didn’t sit around during the COVID-19 “pause” waiting for the world to return to normal.
Travel Market Report spoke to executives at five cruise lines to discuss how they took advantage of the break in cruising to ensure the cruise vacation would be better, safer and more fun than ever once ships returned to sailing. We also discussed what they learned from their experience getting back to sailing, what their line’s next milestone will be, what they missed most about cruising during the pause, and what advice they have for cruise selling advisors.
(Due to its length, the roundtable is divided into two parts. This is Part One.)
What did your cruise line do during the pause to ensure cruising would be better than ever when sailings started up again?
Todd Hamilton, SVP of Sales, Norwegian Cruise Line: Health and safety has always been a priority, but now we were faced with elevating our standards to meet the evolving public health concerns. As such, we leaned on leading experts and formed the SailSAFE Global Wellness Council, which is chaired by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the U.S. FDA. Together, we developed the SailSAFE health and safety program, which at its cornerstone requires all guests and crew to be fully vaccinated.
Our protocols provide a multi-layer approach to protecting our guests, crew, and the destinations we visit, including pre-embarkation testing, enhanced cleaning and sanitation measures, upgraded medical-grade air filters, and enhanced onboard medical teams and health services.
Simultaneously, our team was dedicated to taking the time during our pause to raise the bar with the guest experience. New technologies and procedures were implemented to facilitate a more efficient embarkation process, so guests can begin their vacation sooner. We upgraded our food and beverage menus, including revamping the offerings in Le Bistro and Cagney’s. A few of our ships went into dry dock for a refresh in advance of their redeployment, including Norwegian Epic which now boasts a completely redesigned The Haven complex.
Vicki Freed, SVP, Sales, Trade Support and Service, Royal Caribbean International: Put all the safety and Healthy Sail Panel and enhancing our medical facilities and the air quality and all that aside, because we really stayed micro focused on that. But when it came down to what else could we do, we were still building ships. We had the Odyssey of the Seas in the shipyard.
And we were looking at our safety drill, which is Muster 2.0, which we had been working on, but this allowed us to have the time to really launch it. This makes the first day one that people can really consider a vacation day. Now people do the drill on their mobile devices or if they want to, they can watch it in their in-state room television. Then they just check off that they have reviewed everything. And they go to the actual life boat, meet with a crew member who is there all day at their convenience.
And we enhanced our beverage menus with some really cool drinks like watermelon mint. We really looked at everything, the whole guest experience, from the activities to the entertainment to what's relevant. What do we want the future to look like?
We also redid the pool area on Perfect Day at CocoCay and we were able to do a lot of the landscaping and upkeep there. You know, when you have visitors every single day, you have to wait until you have no one on the island to do this.
John Chernesky, SVP, North America Sales & Trade Marketing, Princess Cruises: We used the pause to enhance every part of the cruise experience and come back a stronger, better company. This includes enhancing our MedallionClass experience to support new health protocols by enabling staggered boarding times, contactless payment,and all the on-demand food, drink and retail ordering that comes straight to you.
We also introduced Dine My Way, which gives guests the freedom to make reservations in onboard dining rooms and specialty restaurants at times they prefer and with whom they wish to dine. Dine My Way also helps to optimize capacities in dining rooms and restaurants onboard, manage wait times, and gives guests more flexibility.
Ken Muskat, EVP & Chief Operating Officer, MSC Cruises USA: In preparing to resume cruises globally and in the U.S., our first priority was developing the right measures to allow us to sail safely and responsibly. We worked hard to ensure that our robust measures cover every aspect of the cruise experience, including embarkation and disembarkation as well as the complete onboard experience and visits ashore. These measures effectively set a standard for the industry and include testing at embarkation, full vaccination and regular testing of crew, mask-wearing, physical distancing measures, enhanced sanitization, 100 percent fresh air circulated in staterooms, and public areas, and more.
Now, during our ramp-up in the U.S., our guests have more choice than ever before when cruising from Florida to The Bahamas and the Caribbean. We have listened to our travel advisor partners and offered a wider range of itinerary choices with 3-, 4- and 7-night itineraries available.
Adolfo Perez, SVP, Trade Sales and Marketing, Carnival Cruise Line: During our pause in operations, we took the opportunity to implement a variety of protocols and procedures to enhance our already safe and healthy onboard environment. In addition to expanding our medical facilities, we’ve increased our already-vigorous sanitizing and disinfection efforts, rolled out more contactless features via the Hub App with menus on QR codes, etc., expanded the training of our staff, and enhanced our HVAC systems on board.
As for the product side, we were hard at work on launching Mardi Gras which is truly a unique expression of the Carnival vacation experience with so many new features and expanded versions of our most popular spaces.
What did you learn from your cruise restart? Would you have done anything differently if you could do it again?
Muskat: Last August, we became the first major cruise line to resume global operations, and since then we have cruised continuously with tens of thousands of guests and now have more than half our fleet back at sea. Over the last 12 months, we have learned a lot.
The biggest key learning is that the implementation of our health and safety protocol has been and continues to be paramount to our success. A key benefit of our protocol is its ability to adapt to the evolving circumstances ashore, so when it is needed, we can strengthen our health and safety measures, or relax them when it is possible to do so. As we’ve resumed cruising around the world, our health and safety protocol has reflected the needs of the region and time period. As circumstances have changed, we continue to adapt accordingly.
We have also learned that a phased restart is key to successfully bringing our entire fleet back to sea. Since our resumption globally, we have slowly phased in additional ships and itineraries throughout Europe. In the U.S., we initially restarted with limited capacity and shorter cruises, and we are very excited to add seven-night cruises in mid-September.
Freed: We're always learning. Our mantra is continuous improvement and learning is a very big part of it. We took a very measured approach to getting back into service. We didn't just suddenly say that the gates are open, let's go at a hundred percent occupancy. We took it slow and steady until we had the confidence that we could deliver a great guest experience while keeping safety and health in mind.
Hamilton: Over the last 18 months, we learned how resilient we are as a company. Our team has come together in ways never imaginable. We listened more intently to our guests and put them first as we navigated through this challenging time, introducing more flexible booking options with the Peace of Mind program, which allows guests to cancel their trip up to 15 days before embarkation for sailings through October 2021, and within 61 days for voyages through March 2022 for future cruise credits.
We also learned how nimble we can be, which was probably one of the most important qualities over the last 17 months. Our team has demonstrated how quickly we can shift and adjust given the evolving public health concerns while doing our best to maintain a positive guest experience throughout the cruise journey. For example, during the onset, we were faced with an overwhelming volume of cancelation and refund requests, which we had never faced before. Our systems were not equipped for such a situation, so we had to quickly develop new processes to keep up with the demand and evolving circumstances, to better support the needs of our guests and travel partners.
Most important was to maintain clear, authentic, and constant communication with our team members, guests, and travel partners given the fluidity of the last 18 months.
Perez: We’ve always said that the silver lining during the pandemic has been the amazing loyalty of our guests, crew, and travel advisor partners. During our pause in operations all the emails, social media posts, and conversations demonstrating their tremendous support and appreciation for our company really kept us going.
As for your second question, I really don’t know if we would have done anything differently during the pandemic. It was such a fluid situation and I think we were incredibly nimble and focused on adapting to an ever-changing environment and getting the job done. We took a very measured approach to our return to service and I couldn’t be more proud of the hard work, dedication and commitment demonstrated over the past year and a half by all of our team members, both onboard and ashore.
Chernesky: As the world continues to experience challenges, we continue to listen, learn, evolve and adapt. As a result, we’ve been actively updating our health and safety protocols in accordance with guidance from public health authorities to maximize the health and safety of our guests and crew while delivering a memorable vacation experience.