The 4,002-passenger Norwegian Bliss in Miami.
While the global health crisis has “docked” the cruise industry for the last several months, the return of leisure travelers and corporate groups to the high seas isn’t too far off.
Recently, a webinar featuring speakers from major cruise lines drew fairly positive results from polls of the travel agents in the audience: Most described their clients as “interested but cautious,” and more than 50% had taken new bookings, primarily for next year. The first speaker was Katina Athanasiou, CITP, chief sales officer for Norwegian Cruise Line, who reported that “We continue to see a push in booking for 2021 and 2022.”
Separate from the webinar, Jerilyn Giacone, director, charters, meetings & incentives for Crystal Cruises, brings positive news regarding the return of group business. “We are actively quoting and booking incentive groups and charters for 2021 and 2022, and still have space available, so now is the time to start the conversations with clients who may have put their 2020 plans on hold,” Giacone advises. Pre-pandemic, Crystal’s group business had been on an upswing, she adds. “On the incentive group side, Crystal has seen a nice growth trajectory for the last two years, and 2020 was poised to be a banner year for incentive group programs — particularly aboard our Ocean ships — and a record year of full-ship charters on Crystal River Cruises and the Crystal Esprit yacht. While we’ve had to postpone many of these programs due to the global health crisis, we have thankfully been able to reschedule most for 2021 and 2022.”
Leisure Before Groups
Naturally, leisure guests will return before groups do. “They’re already lined up to get back on ships as soon as they’re in the water,” says Karen Devine, CITP, founder & CEO, 3D Cruise Partners, the contracted cruise buyer for many of the major incentive companies around the United States. “So, the positive reporting from the industry on booking is because of the retail guest.” Following the return of leisure, it is likely that many of the initial cruise meetings will be on smaller ships and charters. A charter allows a group to control who is on board and dictate COVID-19 protocols for all guests, in addition to those dictated by the cruise line. “From early indications, the ability to charter a small vessel like our river ships and yachts will continue to be popular,” Giacone says. “These vessels accommodate a smaller number of guests with abundant onboard space, providing a secure environment for corporate programs and special event occasions.”
Paving the way for those initial group bookings are the various special deals being extended by cruise lines, spurred by the current challenge to their business. Celebrity Cruises’ Take Ten offer is an example. Planners earn up to 10% of total cruise fares when booking any of Celebrity’s 2020 sailings, and they can also Take Five on 2021/2022 sailings.
But, discounts, more favorable cancellation terms and the like will do little to encourage planners if they perceive a significant risk of COVID-19 contagion for their seafaring attendees. 3D Cruise Partners is certainly doing its part to correct this perception with facts. According to the CDC, “the current total number of worldwide COVID-19 cruise cases — including guests and crew — is .0006% of the total global impact,” states the 3D Cruise Partners’ “Reality vs. Perception” report. “With over 340 vessels sailing at any given time — as was the case in March when ships were sailing — representing over 550,000 guests and crew, it is clear how minimally impacted the cruise industry was overall, and the vast majority of vessels had no issues whatsoever.”
Strict Cleanliness Standards
Another key part of making planners and groups feel comfortable is the CDC-approved protocols that will be in place, from new cleanliness practices to social distancing. “They’re starting to get announced, which is fantastic news,” Devine says. “So, it’s starting to become a much more positive conversation.” She stresses that the cruise industry’s hygienic practices had been quite stringent before the pandemic. “Cruise lines have practiced enhanced security and sanitation practices for many years — and, thus, perhaps a reason why the number of cases on ships was minimized,” states her company’s report. “As one example, hand sanitizer is constantly utilized, and the use of it enforced. Crew stands at the entrance of the ship and dining venues to apply it, and dispensers are in abundance throughout a ship.” Furthermore, “unlike airlines, trains, hotels, restaurants and other land-oriented venues, cruise lines are required to report guest or crew illness to the CDC” and “U.S. Public Health regularly and frequently inspects ships in the U.S. to ensure safety and sanitation practices are in place, and operable in accordance with the very strict regulations for cruise ships.”
On top of these practices, there will be new sets of protocols geared toward the current health crisis. Norwegian, parent company to Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, was the first major cruise line to announce its augmented program, dubbed Sail Safe, and comprising part of Norwegian’s Peace of Mind, along with Flexible Booking. Sale Safe consists of six initiatives: (1) enhanced screening protocols, (2) all-new air filtration, (3) increased sanitation measures, (4) responsible social distancing, (5) enhanced medical resources and (6) extended ship-to-shore safety. “This is about partnership with world-class experts in fields of health and safety, and infectious disease,” Athanasiou said in the webinar. “We’re continuing to take every precaution so guests can continue to explore the world with Norwegian with the ultimate Peace of Mind.” She went on to elaborate on each of the Sail Safe initiatives:
• “(1) All guests and crew are committed to undergoing extensive pre-embarkation health screening, temperature checks and continuous monitoring throughout the voyages, etc.”
• (2) “We are installing medical-grade air filters on all of our ships, H13 HEPA filters to be specific, that remove 99.9% of airborne pathogens to ensure that clean air is continuously put throughout. H13 HEPA filters are fine enough to catch particles of COVID-19.”
• (3) “All ships will be thoroughly cleaned prior to every single voyage in accordance not only with our protocols but those we are developing in partnership with the CDC.”
• (4) “Staggered embarkation and check-in processes will be implemented across all of the fleet to ensure proper social distancing, in addition to the reduction of capacity in our public spaces and how our guests flow to and from various venues and activities across the ship . . . I think [social distancing] is going to be a phased and evolving approach which the entire industry works through. I anticipate that . . . there may be things that occur on Day 1 that do not on Day 30, Day 60, etc.”
• (5) “Our enhanced medical resources will include onboard testing for COVID-19. We’re also committed to increasing our medical teams fleet-wide, in addition to dedicated isolation or other areas across the ship so we can take care of any guests that show symptoms.”
• (6) “Last, but certainly not least, because this is so critically important, is our extended ship-to-shore safety, and that means we’re partnering with our local destinations and tour operators to ensure that our industry-leading sanitation protocols that we’re creating on board our vessels extend fully to the shore-side experience. So, we will only visit safe, open ports of call and work to make sure we have the right itineraries and providers to make sure everything we’re doing on board [for guest safety] is extended when we go shore side.”
Some of these protocols, particularly social distancing, will likely be eased when the pandemic subsides or when a vaccine or cure is found. Others, such as enhanced sanitation and air filtration, will likely be permanent. The protocols being developed by Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line and other major brands will surely be equally as robust, and encourage group bookings once those protocols are CDC approved.
New Ships, New Adventures
Also helping to encourage the return of groups are new ships by brands such as Celebrity, Crystal and Silversea, which promise new experiences for attendees. Celebrity Apex, the brand’s latest Edge-class ship, was introduced last spring. The vessel offers new menus and dishes, new venues, and new entertainment and artwork. Groups can take advantage of The Theatre, which provides stage-automation systems that control everything from the rotating platforms to a new, 180-foot curved video wall. In addition, the 1,970-sf Meeting Place offers a pantry, bar and A/V systems. The Magic Carpet, an elevating venue with a full bar and live performance space, delivers different experiences on every deck it visits. In addition to the recent introduction of Celebrity Apex, the company is investing $500 million via The Celebrity Revolution program to modernize the entire fleet with new staterooms, suites and spaces.
Sovereign Alliance, an event-planning company, has utilized Celebrity’s Millennium, Infinity and Summit ships for its clients. Michael O’Fallon, CEO and founder of Sovereign Alliance, notes that guests have praised the ships’ theaters, meeting spaces and dining rooms as “open and comfortable.” “We have also sailed on the Solstice-class with similar praise that was indicative of the Millennium-class vessels,” he adds. “The primary difference in regard to customer feedback on the Solstice-class was high praise in regard to the spaciousness and openness of the accommodations.” O’Fallon also commends Celebrity for its group activities, saying, “Our groups primarily enjoy onboard activities that are structured toward their interests. This is easily accomplished with the professionalism of the Celebrity staff and crew,” he says. “Corporate ‘kick-off’ events with music, awards and special performances have worked very well for our corporate clients.”
The maiden voyage of the new Crystal Endeavor will be Tasmania & the Fjords of New Zealand, a 14-night cruise embarking late this year. “Crystal Endeavor will have all the features that our larger ocean ships have — multiple dining venues, including Nobu Matsuhisa’s Umi Uma, full-service spa and salon, fitness center, entertainment venues, enrichment programming — but for just 200 guests in all-suite, butler-serviced accommodations,” Giacone explains. “This will offer guests a wonderfully comprehensive Crystal Experience aboard the most spacious, purpose-built luxury expedition vessel, as well as an intimate, personalized atmosphere with a 1:1 service ratio.”
She adds, “For incentive charter programs requiring over 85 identical-size accommodations, the majority of the suites on board will be 304 sf, plus an Owner’s Suite and two-bedroom Expedition Suite for executives hosting the achievers. This ship will appeal perfectly to groups who are seeking a truly ‘wow’ experience for top producers or clients, as the itineraries are longer — 10 nights or more — and reach more remote corners of the globe. The experiences offered aboard Crystal Endeavor will be more intrepid and specialized according to the destinations, making them very special, perfect options for select groups and charters.”
Another recent achievement of the Crystal brand is in the area of sustainable operations: The sister ships of Crystal River Cruises — Crystal Bach, Crystal Debussy, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel — have all earned Green Award certification (www.greenaward.org). Ships include features such as a diesel-electric power plant and advanced wastewater treatment systems.
New to Silversea Cruises this summer is the brand’s first-ever destination-specific ship, Silver Origin. The all-suite, all-balcony, 100-guest vessel — of which the company took delivery just weeks ago — will sail year-round in the Galapagos Archipelago. Highlights include panoramic views from the Explorer Lounge, butler service, sophisticated interiors and Ecuadorian-inspired cuisine. “We have a bigger opportunity than we’ve ever had in the incentive market for higher-end expedition cruises,” Devine says. But the growing opportunities for meetings at sea, once the industry gets back on course, go well beyond expedition. “Every single category of cruise is building and developing, which just furthers the offerings for customers to choose from depending on the demographics of the client participants and their budget,” Devine observes. “What’s so interesting to me is that we’ve got better and bigger ships in the short [program] market than we’ve ever had before. We have more seven-night Mediterranean and Northern Europe cruises than ever before. We have more river cruise opportunities than we’ve ever had, and, with that, what’s really popular are tandems — two or three ships that sail together and they do the same experience. So, because there is so much build, it allows us flexibility to completely customize something for a client.” The expanded Northern European itineraries (from Southampton and London up through Ireland to Scotland) were becoming very popular with groups because the ports are less familiar to the well-traveled attendee than those of the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
Giacone confirms the rising popularity of European itineraries. “The most popular itineraries for incentive groups have historically been our seven-night Mediterranean Ocean voyages in spring/early summer and September/October,” Giacone says. “Crystal Symphony will be in Europe in both 2021 and 2022, and we’re seeing great interest in those itineraries from groups who are planning ahead and looking forward to these special events again. Closer-to-home itineraries are also quite popular, like Crystal Serenity’s 2022 return to Alaska and the New England/Canada sailings — both regions offering several seven-night options. Depending on the region, hundreds of available shore excursions can be booked to suit the groups’ needs, or our land programs team will work with them to create their own private experiences, from simple car-and-driver services to elaborate full-day explorations and evening events.”
Among Norwegian’s new destinations from 2021 to 2023 are Antarctica; Greenland; Cape Town, South Africa; Asia, including ports in Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia and Brazil, with calls in Fortaleza and Salvador de Bahia.
No Virtual Cruises
When cruise meeting planning resumes, it will benefit from these new ships and new ports, as well as special offers by cruise lines anxious to re-establish their pre-pandemic level of group business. In addition, the traditional advantages that sea meetings often have over land meetings remain intact. O’Fallon describes a few of them: “(A) Theater, meeting and lounge events have audiovisual elements built into their structures with full mixing consoles, integrated amplification, lighting and professional microphones. This is a tremendous cost savings over hotel-based events. (B) There are no F&B requirements for the space that is reserved for meetings and events. And (C) keeping the camaraderie and ‘togetherness’ of the group is easily accomplished as they ‘journey together’ to their next destination.”
Neither that camaraderie nor the experience of cruising is achievable via a virtual medium, so there is no doubt cruise meetings will resume. “Inevitably people want to travel. So, it may take a while for the industry to get back to where it was before all this happened, but it will. The demand is there, thanks to the retail market, and group business will follow,” Devine says. “What I’m expecting is that the fourth quarter of this year will start to get some interest, minimally for ’21 and I would say a lot for ’22, because companies are going to take a little while to sit back and recover themselves.”
Indeed, the recovery process from such an unprecedented blow to the meetings industry cannot and should not be rushed. But when the process is complete, cruise meetings will regain their rightful place as one of the industry’s most compelling options. C&IT