(Last week we covered the manner in which Screening and Social Distancing will have to be conducted on a variety of ships. Now let’s move on to Ventilation, Dining, Staffing, Contact Tracing, and Insurance.
An important lesson learned from all the ships that were marooned in ports with guests and crew onboard was that the Covid-19 virus loves recycled air, even if it’s filtered and purified. This probably means that all staterooms should vent directly to the outside of the ship.
The easiest way of accomplishing this is to book a balcony (aka veranda) stateroom. You can slide open the door anytime you wish. The cruise lines will have to figure out a way to vent all their ocean view staterooms. The inside staterooms may become a thing of the past with these cabins becoming storage space.
Look at the percentage of balcony cabins on the chart. The Oceania Marina poses no problems since 94% of their staterooms already have balconies. The problem is probably manageable for the Symphony of the Seas and the Seabourn Encore, since about two-thirds of the staterooms have balconies and many of the others are ocean-view staterooms. It will pose significant problems on the Disney Wonder, which has been featuring their inside family cabins as a safety feature (no kids can go over the balcony); and on the Niew Amsterdam, where the inside staterooms are prized by thrifty retirees.
Some cruise lines will solve some of their ventilation and social distance problems by simply not booking their inside cabins and investing in fixes for the ocean-view staterooms. This will improve both the distancing and ventilation situations, but at the expense of the bottom-line … unless prices are raised.
On older ships that weren’t represented in this sample, most of which have fewer balcony staterooms, the answer may have to be to remove the ships from service if they can’t sustain significant price increases.
Two symbols of cruise ship dining have always been sumptuous dining rooms that can feed about half the guests in one sitting, and huge buffets that feed most of the guests at breakfast and lunch without using servers. Especially on resort and mid-size ships, these features are well entrenched. If recommendations from public health experts are to abolish buffets and large dining rooms, the ships will face huge architectural and staff expenses – and strong guest resistance.
The small ships, the Seabourn Encore and the Oceania Marina, will be a completely different story. They already have the bulk of their restaurant space dedicated to small specialty restaurants. Converting the buffet and main dining room to several specialty restaurants and continuing to provide free 24-hour room service, means these lines could pull this off without a hiccup.
Also, both of the small ships already have servers that often plate the food on buffet tables and bring them to guest’s tables. This practice will likely have to be adopted universally if buffets are to remain open. This will come at a huge cost on ships with high passenger to crew ratios.
Along with spaciousness (Passenger Space Ratio), staffing is directly related to what guests pay for their fares. Only the two luxury small ships have staffing ratios of 1.5 or lower. In the case of the Seabourn Encore, the 604 guests are supported by 450 crew members. In contrast, on the bargain priced Niew Amsterdam, the 2106 guests are supported by only 929 crew members. Again, the likely answer is to reduce the number of guest, the ship is carrying so that long lines in guest service areas, personal service in buffets, and 24-hour room service become possible.
This leads to a final conundrum: Where do you put the extra crew members if more are needed? The crew quarters will also need to be revamped to meet the new social distancing, dining, hygiene and ventilation standards since the experiences learned on most of the quarantined ships suggest these can become hotbeds of the viruses.
Here, again, the small ships have the advantage. They are already housing most of the staff they need. Their problem is “only” how to meet the new ventilation, hygiene and social distancing standards in the existing crew quarters. But on the larger ships, carrying fewer guests may be the only way of solving these problems.
What if, despite all the precautions, Covid-19 breaks out among a handful of guests or crew? The ship must be prepared to re-test as many people as possible who might have come in contact with the infected persons. If resources are provided, this can be accomplished more easily on the ships than ashore, since dining reservations, event signup lists, and video surveillance can be used to identify nearly everyone who shared space with the infected persons when they weren’t in their cabins. If these persons are identified, those who have more than 15-minutes close contact should be required to quarantine themselves, both on the ship and ashore, for 14 days. How can this be accomplished easily and effectively? Who should the ship notify? These are significant issues that must be addressed in advance, lest the fiascos of the past few month be replicated.
The new cruisers face risks for which the present cruise insurance policies provide no protection. New policies must be developed that protect guests from risks such as trip cancellations at any time, being denied boarding in any port, full medical and quarantine coverage, being asked to quarantine ashore, medical evacuation, and liability claims. The only way that these policies are likely to be affordable is if this coverage is mandatory for all guests and provided to all crew as part of their benefit package.
If more rigid health and safety standards are adopted for cruise ships, the newer luxury small ships and premium small ships are likely to be ready to cruise earlier than the resort and mid-size ships which face many additional problems. The overriding problem faced by the larger ships will be decreasing the capacity of guests. The challenge that all ships must face is how much elasticity is available in their pricing.
In other words, by how much can you raise the prices to pay for the additional space, upgraded cabins, additional crew, and the insurance that will have to become part of the new package?
This becomes another reason for starting with the newer small ships. Their customer set likely has earnings of six-figures, even if they are in retirement. They are the most likely to tolerate the inevitable price increases and to value the safety and comfort that the premium and luxury cruise lines have always provided.
Once they accept the price increases, it will become easier to impose them on the larger ships. The travel agent publications are full of articles predicting that the cruise industry will return to life thanks to bargain fares of less than $100 a day. I do not think there’s much chance of that happening unless cruise lines are willing to forget the lessons of the past six months and face the repercussions of having guests cruise on unsafe ships.
These publications are also full of optimism for getting many cruise lines to re-enter service in early summer. Again, I say, “Not a chance – unless important health and safety mitigations are disregarded.” Am I pessimistic about the future of the industry? “No way!” I think the Covid-19 mitigations will result in better ships, healthier crew, improved peace of mind, and – unfortunately – higher cruise fares.
Steven Frankel, Ed. D, is a Signature Travel Expert, a Trip Designer with Trip Advisor’s new $199 RECO consulting service, and the owner of Cruises & Cameras, LLC. He specializes in planning cruises on small ships. He and his wife have enjoyed 40 cruises on ships that carry fewer than 1300 guests. Having spent 13 years as a travel consultant, Dr. Frankel is also one of the first Travel Advisors to have successfully completed the Certificate Program, Epidemiology in Public Health Practice, taught remotely by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University to thousands of health professionals around the globe. Steve looks forward to assisting both cruise guests and travel agencies on how best to deal with the realities of Covid-19. He’s the author of 13 books, the newest of which is How to Plan Your Next & BEST Cruise (Amazon, 2019).