Once we get this COVID-19 virus behind us (and we will), things will look a lot different. At this point no one knows exactly how different, but all aspects of the travel industry will be unrecognizable to us. Perhaps the biggest changes, I feel, will come to the cruise industry, and here’s why.
Cruise lines have been the whipping post for disease for decades. Hotels are not inspected by the CDC, and neither are planes. Prior to COVID-19, how many news stories have we heard about the norovirus onboard some ship? Truth be told, there are probably equal numbers in hotels, but are not reported (or noticed) as frequently. And remember, many of the newest ships sail with a larger population than the towns where many of their passengers come from. But moving forward, they have a lot of work to do.
Trust. Not that they are untrustworthy, but the cruise lines will see a prolonged period of anemic sales until people will trust cruising again. For most of us, the first mention of COVID-19 or Coronavirus was the Princess ship held in Japan. More recently the Holland America ships that could not find a port to accept them. And even still, there are several thousand people onboard cruise ships trying to get to shore. All bad news.
The first step will be a revamp of the way we cruise. I suspect the 24-7 all you can eat buffets are a thing of the past. There may be buffets, but they will be behind glass and food will be served by masked and gloved staff. Capacity of the theaters and showrooms will be reduced as will the capacity of the dining rooms. I am not suggesting we need six feet of separation, but there will be more than there is now. Likewise, there will need to be some capacity control over the public areas—notably the swimming pools.
For me, there is nothing worse than getting on or off the ship. It does not matter if I am embarking on day one or hopping into a tender on day three. It is a hassle with way too many people. Down the road, look for scheduled boarding times for both. And they likely will take a cue from the airlines and offer an earlier board for people that pay for the option or their loyalty tiers.
Another aspect of cruising that I honestly had not given much thought to was air circulation. I have earned that interior air is typically recirculated throughout the ship and this is an obvious issue with an airborne virus. We likely will see the air handling systems bringing in fresh air to the ship’s common areas and individual fresh air to the cabins. Likely you will see interior cabins begin to diminish and perhaps disappear altogether. Common interior areas (casino, lobby, atrium, promenades) are likely to be closed certain hours for the spraying of a disinfectant.
All in all, this is an incredibly expensive proposition for the cruise lines and they realize it. The Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund just took nearly a 10% stake in Carnival which gave them a boost after seeing their stock tanks more than 80%. But to keep sailing, you need passengers. Expect to see steep “fire sale” type fare pricing which will return to “normal” as the cruise lines adapt their ships. Looking way into the future, I think you will see the demise of the mega-ships and a return to the mid-sized ships (3000 to 4000 passengers) where crowds are more easily handled and any medical issues may be more easily contained!
And, unfortunately for the travel agent community, I think as partners, we will have to share in that pain. Commissions may be reduced, incentives eliminated, and general support may be diminished. While it may be a challenge for us, remember that we are partners with the cruise lines—in the good times and bad.
In the end, we all have a job to do when we come out of this. We still need to be vigilant about the COVID-19 Pandemic and keep our clients abreast of the information; but we also need to follow the recovery and be as flexible as possible and be able to pivot as needed both for our clients and for our businesses. It sounds cliché but it is true—we are all in this together!
Hang tight friends, we’ll get through this!