It hardly seems possible, but cruise ships recently reached the one-year anniversary of heading back to sea following 15 months of the pandemic-imposed shutdown.
While many pundits were pessimistic about the industry’s restart — and some remain so — guests aboard Celebrity Edge on its sailing early last summer out of Fort Lauderdale painted a different picture.
“We had no apprehensions at all,” says Diana Bloss, director of operations for Worldwide Cruise Associates. “Quite the opposite — we were eager to cruise again, as were all the other guests that we met. Every passenger had to be vaccinated, and everyone had to have a negative COVID-19 test to sail. All crew had to be vaccinated, quarantined and tested negative. Everyone was just so happy to be on a ship again. And more importantly, the crew were so happy to be working again, and doing what they have a passion for, and are proud to be a part of.”
Bloss notes that the cruise industry has faced outsized scrutiny throughout the pandemic. Some of this legitimately emerged when several cruise ships suffered major outbreaks as COVID first emerged. A lot of it came from non-cruisers unfamiliar with the pre-pandemic health protocols already practiced on ships, along with the potential for testing, mitigation and quarantine — when necessary — that cruise ships can provide on the back side of the pandemic.
“The scrutiny was totally prejudicial, as the cruise industry has the highest standards of sanitation, air filtration and health requirements in the travel industry,” Bloss says. “I think the biggest message we came back with, which was a belief of ours throughout the close down of the industry, was that cruising was the safest environment to be in — safer than a resort, safer than going to the grocery store, safer than going to a large land event.”
Celebrity Cruises was the first to put an oar back in the water, and over the course of last summer, all the major cruise lines followed suit with one ship at a time. The restart has been bumpy at times. Port protocols in the Caribbean and Mediterranean changed frequently, causing itinerary adjustments. The rise of the Delta variant, followed by the Omicron variant, caused additional disruptions. As with airlines and hotels, getting crew members back in place to fill all positions is a current challenge. But just recently, Carnival Cruise Line announced that all 23 ships in its fleet were again sailing, followed soon thereafter by Norwegian Cruise Line’s fleet of 17 ships and the 26 ships of Royal Caribbean, and disruptions to service have begun to wane.
To be sure, between passengers and crew, COVID likely exists on nearly every ship sailing today. But cruise line testing requirements allow ships to discover positive cases and efficiently quarantine passengers and crew as needed; and with vaccinations required to board most ships, the majority of cases are asymptomatic.
“What is important for planners to know is that when — rather than if — there are cases found onboard, ships have a very specific protocol in place,” says Karen Devine, president of 3D Cruise Partners. “The unfortunate news coverage of the cruise industry was astoundingly inaccurate relative to the actual statistics. Cruise is the only sector of travel required to report cases [to the CDC], but now that ships are sailing again so successfully, my clients are seeing the proof in the pudding, so to speak, and gaining confidence day after day, and returning to cruise incentives.” She continues, “It is not easy for all, given some of the protocols relative to testing and vaccine requirements. But this continues to evolve weekly and further relaxation is expected, as we see with protocols evolving everywhere in the world right now.”
Although cruise meetings and incentives have only been starting to resume this year, Devine is currently working with an insurance company on an early spring full charter next year with Windstar Cruises, which has a fleet of six smaller ships ranging from 148 to 342 passengers in size. “For this first-time cruise incentive client, size was key, and Windstar’s Star Pride with 156 total suites allowed their 130 winners, executive team and staff plenty of high-caliber cabins to utilize. The price point fit their budget well, and Windstar’s premium-plus style fit their history perfectly relative to hotel comparison of their past programs.”
Star Pride is one of three identical Windstar ships which, just prior to the onset of the pandemic, was scheduled to go into dry dock to be fully refurbished and lengthened, a $250 million initiative to add 50 cabins to each ship, bringing guest capacity to 312. The revamped ships, which entered service in 2021, now have four dining options, a larger pool, gym and spa, and the smallest cabins remain 277 sf, about 50% larger than is standard among mainstream cruise lines.
“Windstar has a great reputation with customers — retail and group/charter alike,” Devine says. “So, even though the customer was new to cruising, when she conducted her site visit, the client immediately felt and saw the warmth and genuine interest in her charter. These are comparatively small ships in the cruise world, and the team on board was incredibly accommodating. Windstar’s home office excels in the group and charter business. They know how to make these customers feel welcome and excited about each and every program they operate.” She adds, “We contracted and planned a full charter, as the client wanted exclusivity. We were then able to customize the ports of call, time in ports and onboard programming. The client loved that only their group will be on board, with the privacy and customizable options that were presented. The ship’s size is almost perfect relative to its ability to host group functions, and given that this is a full charter, full branding with customer logo, signage, flag and more is easy. Windstar’s flexibility and willingness to work on a custom itinerary were perfect for this approach for the customer.”
Windstar’s itineraries appeal to some cruisers because smaller ships can access smaller, more unusual ports. But many groups are attracted to the bells and whistles found on larger ships, even if it means sharing the ship with independent cruisers. An electrical distributor company had planned an 80-person incentive program aboard a Royal Caribbean ship for 2020, but the event was postponed as the pandemic took hold. The company was able to reschedule their event for early this spring, using the 4,375-passenger Freedom of the Seas for a short Bahamas cruise out of Miami.
“The choice was primarily price driven,” says Allison Flint Lenzi, director of group travel with HMI Performance Incentives. “Our client wanted a three-night experience over the weekend, and the itinerary and dates led us to choose the Freedom of the Seas. Royal Caribbean consistently fulfills quality expectations based on past experience, so that made it an ideal choice.”
Additionally, following the original cancellation, Royal Caribbean extended credit to a future sailing, instead of imposing a cancellation penalty. “We had the flexibility to apply it towards two different sailings in 2022, in order to maximize usage of the credit,” Lenzi says, adding that she finds cruising is consistently a better value than land-based programs. “It’s an ideal choice for the right client, because experiences like cocktail receptions and entertainment are already included. Although the ship is limited in what can be offered in terms of location and timing, and the space is assigned, we had two cocktail receptions. It’s important to note that function spaces are only for cocktail receptions — meals cannot be served in a function space. Our group appreciated having a beverage package included, and we also reserved tables in the dining room so they had more opportunities to spend time together.”
Lenzi says the main challenge she dealt with in planning this event was the perception of cruise safety. “This was compounded by CDC warnings and the vaccination mandate in place for cruises,” Lenzi says. “There were participants that unfortunately could not join the trip because of the regulation, whereas a land destination likely could have accommodated guests in this situation. Despite the challenges of changing protocols, Royal Caribbean successfully delivered the product and guest experience we were familiar with from before COVID.”
Another group that worked with Royal Caribbean on a postponed event was West Virginia-based Farmers & Mechanics Insurance Companies. The group originally booked its annual Agent’s Retreat for a 2020 sailing. It was rescheduled twice, and finally took place early this spring aboard Royal Caribbean’s 4,905-passenger Anthem of the Seas.
“We selected Royal Caribbean based on positive feedback,” says Scott Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing for Farmers & Mechanics Insurance. “We were looking for a cruise to take place around March, and going out of Cape Liberty, New Jersey was only a four-hour drive from our office.” Roberts notes that his company had a record number of agencies qualify for the incentive compared to previous events at a land-based resort. “A cruise is a much bigger incentive for our agents, and generated more excitement than previous land-based events we have held.”
Although Roberts’ group was on a seven-day itinerary sold to the general public, he says it still worked out well due to the capacity restrictions imposed by the CDC. Anthem of the Seas sailed only 60% full, and his attendees were able to find and connect with each other, despite the ship’s large size. And even though the cruise was shared, Roberts was able to take over the ship’s Music Hall venue for both the group’s welcome reception as well as an awards reception on day six of the sailing.
“Anthem of the Seas offered our group so much to enjoy throughout the cruise,” Roberts says. “The overall service from the beginning of the process to the end was excellent. For any business to truly understand what customer service looks like, they should send their employees on a Royal Caribbean cruise so they can see for themselves firsthand. The Broadway-style shows were top-notch, and the quality of the restaurants and night clubs was amazing. The VOOM internet service onboard was exceptional. I’ve heard horror stories online about how bad Wi-Fi is on ships, but not on Anthem of the Seas — it was reliable and strong throughout the entire cruise.”
Roberts says the pandemic meant some agents did not join the incentive, either due to not being vaccinated or over concerns about COVID, but in the end, no attendees contracted COVID while on the cruise. “The restrictions placed on the cruise industry are greater than if we were going to a land-based resort,” Roberts says. “We communicated regularly with our group, reminding them of getting their COVID test completed within 48 hours of departure, having their documentation with them, and making sure they had it available for boarding. Our group was well prepared and adapted very well to the protocols and restrictions.”
Bloss is working with a U.S. financial institution on a Mediterranean cruise set for the third quarter of next year. The long lead time is necessary because the company wants a full-ship charter — most ships sail year-round and itineraries are on sale to the public as much as two years in advance. “When deciding on which cruise line and which ship to present to a client, there are many components that have to be considered,” Bloss says. “What level of product is the client looking for: mass market, premium, luxury, ocean or river? Other factors that play a part are time of year and destination — who is available, when and where?”
She continues, “Worldwide Cruise Associates has been in the MICE business for over 30 years, and cruises are the only product we handle, so we have a wealth of knowledge and personal experience as we inspect ships constantly throughout the year. In this particular case, we had two options for our client, one we had recently cruised on and the other being Seabourn, which we had not cruised on recently. So, we flew down to the Caribbean to see for ourselves how Seabourn Odyssey looks as it returns to service after the shutdown, and also to see what changes have been made to the vessel.”
Seabourn won the presentation. “Being a small ship carrying 458 passengers, with a high ratio of crew to guests, the service is exceptional and very personalized,” Bloss says. “Full ship charters offer the utmost in exclusivity and customization, allowing our clients to fully witness their dreams come to fruition.” Branding is another advantage when chartering a vessel, and Bloss says this client counts on branding their incentive trips and Seabourn offered many options. “The client also has some meeting content and the theater is just the right size to accommodate this, and alternative dining was also a factor in choosing this vessel. The client wanted small, intimate dining options for their VIPs and top producers, and Seabourn Odyssey provides eight different dining experiences.”
Seabourn now has five ultra-luxury ships in operation, including Seabourn Quest in Barcelona, Spain, Seabourn Ovation and Seabourn Encore in the Mediterranean, Seabourn Odyssey in Alaska and Seabourn Sojourn from Athens, Greece. “Our team members … are excited to welcome guests back on board and very much looking forward to delivering special ‘Seabourn Moments’ when they sail with us,” says Josh Leibowitz, president of Seabourn, in a recent news release. “It’s not too late to book a summer getaway, and these voyages will offer a fantastic experience as the ship sails from one historic destination to the next, with much to offer onboard and ashore along the way.”
Bloss says the cruise line offers a host of outstanding amenities. “The all-inclusiveness of Seabourn is one of the big reasons this ship fit our clients’ needs better than others. Not only are you purchasing accommodations, but all meals are included, including specialty restaurants with no upcharge, all beverages are included and there is a nice selection of high-end wines. Also included is entertainment — live shows, bands — the DJ is right there, so no need to arrange for transfers to take your client to an event somewhere. And on every Seabourn cruise there is a Caviar in the Surf event, which usually takes place on a nice private beach and features endless caviar and champagne, plus the use of water toys. This is Seabourn’s signature event, and it really is an amazing ‘wow’ for your client.”
She concludes, “My advice to a planner is, even if your client hasn’t requested a cruise, throw one in as an option. Cruising is back and is coming back strong. All the business that we had lifted and shifted from 2020 and most of 2021 is now possible to deliver, and [we can] get back to do what we all do best.” C&IT