Water woes on two continents had the cruise industry scrambling this week, as river lines in Europe and ocean liners in the Pacific headed north instead of south. In the end, though, nimble itinerary changes and cooperation across the industry kept most guests happy.
It started with record low water levels in Europe, which closed ports and canceled river cruises on the Rhine and the Danube. Then, back in the Americas, Hurricane Willa sent Holland America Line’s Eurodam and the giant Norwegian Bliss — carrying 1,000 travel agents and suppliers attending the national Cruise One/Dream Vacations/Cruise Inc. annual conference — scurrying to San Francisco instead of Mazatlan.
Quick to step up to the plate was AmaWaterways. It’s Co-Owner Kristin Karst, who was among a galaxy of travel industry executives and press onboard Bliss, met on Sunday with a group of Dream Vacations/CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. travel agents who specialize in cruises. (Let’s just refer to them collectively as Dream Vacations for the rest of this article.)
Karst immediately offered future cruise credits to all guests for every day their cruise was diverted; Rhine cruises were repositioned to the Netherlands and Belgium, for example, following the Tulip Time cruise itinerary. Holland America, meanwhile, offered cruise credits to Eurodam guests, whose ocean view this week will be off the coast of California rather than the Mexican Riviera, as Hurricane Willa lashes Mexico.
River lines go with the flow, offers credits
The key to dealing with weather emergencies is to go with the flow and stay upbeat, said Karst. Indeed, she added, the confluence of cruise cancellations is an interesting learning experience for the many new Dream Vacations franchisees onboard Bliss.
“I’m happy that (the agents) see what’s happening, that there’s nothing we can do about Mother Nature but be positive and have a great experience, even when it’s not exactly what it was supposed to be. No matter where the ship sails, it’s still a wonderful vacation, a magical way to see the world,” Karst told Travel Market Report. “But we also do not shy away from spending money to make sure our mutual guests and our travel partners are happy. We believe word-of-mouth from guests is our strongest marketing tool; what they tell their friends will bring so many people back to river cruising, or not.
“We see the big picture. We want river cruising always to be peoples’ vacation choice. So, we will do whatever we can to make it the best possible experience.”
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has also seen impact from the levels. Uniworld president and CEO Ellen Bettridge told TMR that the line "continuously monitor water levels along all of our routes."
"We always proactively share updates with guests and partners and in most cases, for the limited number of cruises impacted, are able to seamlessly alter small sections of the trip to offer an equally rewarding itinerary," she said.
Norwegian promotes cancellation policies
Norwegian, meanwhile, took a different approach. As Hurricane Willa closed in, Senior Vice President of Sales Camille Olivere met with the Dream Vacations conference team late into the night to rearrange the conference agenda, reschedule breakout sessions, and reroute speakers and guests scheduled to join the group, or to get off the ship, in Mexico.
“Last week, when we started to monitor the storm, it didn’t appear to be an issue,” she said. “Once we know there’s an issue, we start contemplating which itinerary will create the best guest experience and also make sure everyone is safe. People don’t realize how difficult it is to secure a port; a lot of work had to be done in a very short period of time. It’s quite amazing.”
Under the rules of the Jones Act, cruise ship guests may not disembark until the ship has sailed to a foreign port; Norwegian is eating the $800 fee for each speaker who now must pay that, as the ship will be in California rather than Mexico for an additional three days. Norwegian CEO Andy Stuart, who was scheduled to join the conference in Mexico, now will not be able to attend at all.
But Norwegian did not offer refunds to customers. “The safety and security of our guests and crew is always our top priority. Due to Hurricane Willa and Tropical Storm Vincente in the Eastern Pacific, we modified Norwegian Bliss’ itinerary from Los Angeles,” Norwegian spokesperson Christine da Silva told Travel Market Report. “Our onboard team is working to ensure the best vacation experience possible given these weather-related changes. We will continue to closely monitor the storms and provide additional updates as they become available. We apologize for any inconvenience or disappointment these weather-related changes may cause.
“As is common in the travel and tourism industry, we have developed cancellation policies that address weather-related and other situations. These policies are communicated to our guests when they reserve their cruise and can be found on our website. As a convenience to our guests, we offer a travel protection plan at time of booking, as well as during several follow-up communications.”
Onboard Bliss, Dream Vacations’ newest franchise owner Bill Schneider said his clients are, for the most part, well-traveled and understanding of the vagaries of weather on travel providers. He agreed that, “It’s a good learning experience for us, to see what it’s like when clients get diverted, and to watch the smooth transition.”
For the Dream Vacations team, meanwhile, Hurricane Willa was the most unwelcome of attendees. The biggest challenge, said Drew Daly, was finding new venues for every event, as sea days became days in port and vice versa, and outdoor events scheduled with Mexican heat in mind had to move indoors in the San Francisco chill.
In the end, Cruises Inc. agent Amy Madson said it’s always a good idea for travel agents to set customers’ expectations about potential weather issues, be it the dry season in Europe or hurricane season in the Caribbean. “I say, ‘There is a risk that things will not go smoothly and you may not get the destination you expect. The cruise lines will do whatever they feel they must to keep you safe,’” she said. And if they are really concerned about not getting the exact destination they are booking, she recommends a cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance policy.