There’s no better cheerleader for the cruise industry than Royal Caribbean VP, Vicki Freed. So it’s no surprise that when the CDC opened the door to resuming cruising from US ports, Freed took advantage of her Wednesday Coffee Talk last week to say the words so many have been longing to hear:
“As it tests the CDC guidelines, RCCL will offer free cruises to employees and invited guests. If you’re interested, send me an email.”
If there’s any doubt about the pent-up demand for cruising, the response should put an end to it. By the end of the afternoon she received 1,000 emails. Within the week she had several thousand.
Travel advisors raised their hands on my Facebook pages and across social media – and many said they were fielding calls from customers as well. The story spread across the trade press and into the mainstream. By Friday, it was in USA Today and People; since then it’s been picked up by Fox and CBS News, and many others.
At the DreamVacations/Cruise One/Cruises Inc annual conference on Monday, meanwhile, RCCL chairman and CEO Richard Fain reminded us that the industry has been expecting and planning for the current virus surge. His plan has always been to get ships into the water as early as December, he said, and that has not changed.
“The experts have been predicting this surge at this time from the very beginning, so we’ve all been expecting it,” Fain said. “We’ve seen that the mood of the public very much follows the media about what the level of disease is – when the papers report surges, people’s interest goes down, but when it goes the other way interest comes back pretty quickly. I’m still optimistic we’ll be able to start in a very small way before the end of this year. One thing we want to do is make sure our partners move forward before the cruise itself sails – so the flywheel starts going in December, I hope, and then it gathers speed. Once it gets started it goes faster and faster.”
Other cruise executives speaking at the conference were upbeat as well.
But all hinted at a quick return to sailing. “I remain incredibly optimistic,” said Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio. A return to cruising “is around the corner via a multi-layered approach to the health and safety of our customers. I urge you to be ready. Keep focusing on your pre-engagement plans so we can more quickly kick-start demand when the time is right.”
The past seven months “have provided many learnings and given us chances for innovations,” Del Rio added. “In these unprecedented and profound moments in time, everything you are doing is contributing to the entire cruise industry. We can’t succeed without you.
“The environment we are in is temporary; I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and beyond that light we will come out of this just fine. The world has overcome pandemics and crises before. We will make it through this together.”
Carnival Corp. CEO, Arnold Donald, agreed that travel advisors are the key to the future of the cruise industry. “There’s never been a time when the travel advisor community has been more valuable than right now,” he said. “We need you to be fully acquainted with the health and safety protocols so you can be knowledgeable and reassuring to your clients. No other travel product out there has as extensive health and safety protocols as cruising. Not only is cruise the best vacation experience – it’s the best vacation value, and it’s also one of the best choices for a safe vacation.”
MSC Cruises stepped up with its own offer to travel advisors, promising to “give them chances to come on board,” including travel agent rates and a Get Onboard program, “so they can set themselves up as the experts they are,” said SVP Michelle Lardizabal.
World Travel Holdings co-chairman and CEO Brad Tolken, meanwhile, told me, “cruise loyalists can’t wait to get back on a cruise; the pent-up demand for leisure travel will be second to nothing we have ever seen. My parents are in their 80s and they have four cruises booked; they don’t care what the itinerary is or what’s included, they just want to get back on a cruise ship. If Vicki Freed called me, I’d be there in a heartbeat.”
Two Sides to Every Story
One thing is for certain: it will not be difficult to fill those early cruises, pandemic or not. Though not everyone is ready to sail.
“I would definitely go!” said Cruise Planners travel advisor Kristen Vicole. “After listening in to many webinars and doing my own research, I feel confident enough that cruises might really be the safest form of travel! I would not have any concerns since I’m sure the cruise line and the islands have done everything to keep visitors safe.”
In London, Canada, travel advisor Kristine Carr put her name in as soon as Freed made the offer. “I feel it would make a huge difference to be able to tell clients exactly what they can expect of the experience, and that will instill the confidence travelers are wanting. Hopefully it will be a good experience, but important as well if not a good one, for the guests’ sake,” she said. “Our clients count on us. I think agents and RCCL will greatly benefit from doing this.”
“I’d go on the first cruise or the 100th cruise,” said Angie Lusk of Trips with Angie. “The requirements for testing, social distancing, and mandatory masks inside give me great confidence that I can cruise and return to port safely and COVID-free.”
“It would be awesome. I can’t wait to cruise to show my clients that it’s ok!” said Kathleen Coleman of Full Sails Travel.
“I will volunteer or pay, 1st cruise or 100th, because I need to experience the modifications with each cruise line to properly promote confidence among my clients,” said Lori Newbury of Cruise And Tours Experts LLC, noting she has been to Orlando seven times since March, visiting every park. “I plan to cruise RCCL, Celebrity, Disney, and Norwegian as soon as possible and others as the opportunity arises. I will distance myself; I will isolate both before and after within my own household so as to lower the risk to myself and others. I truly feel that my personal willingness to travel is what has bolstered the confidence of my clients. I have clients who had previously cancelled travel rebook for 2020 and 2021 who feel confident because I’ve been able to demonstrate safe travel.”
“I think anyone that volunteers would want to understand the protocols that are in place. There are risks but understanding the plan before volunteering would be helpful,” said TRUE Global Network vice president Margie Jordan. “Travel agents are poised to spread the word to their large followings about the successful voyages, the protocols they experienced and the successful sailing. I think we all want to see the return of those gorgeous ships to the water.
“It’s not the ships that are the problem; it’s careless cruisers boarding when they are sick or symptomatic. Mitigating that risk for healthy passengers is the challenge [and that may require] the cruise line coming up with refund offers that eliminate the option of losing money if you don’t sail if you become ill. We have to let cruise lines figure it out. But travel pros are the best promoters of the industry. We’d be there with our cameras, videos, and social posts sharing the experience along the way.”
At 1STravel, Patricia Weg says, “our clients will feel more at ease if we are able to explain everything to them: How was social distancing around the cruise? How was dining? Do they still have buffet for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Can we still watch a show? How far from each other are people sitting? What about the pool area, how are they keeping people six feet apart? Do you have to wear a mask all the time? How are they handling excursions? What is the procedure once you arrive at the port? So many questions that a lot of our clients have that by us traveling first we will be able to answer.”
Still, though, others were not so quick to pack their bags – for themselves and for their customers who are asking to go.
One definite “no” is Kendra Auguste, who caught Covid on a free RCCL cruise in February. It started with her six-year-old complaining of chest pain and fatigue on the last day at sea; by the time they got home, Auguste and her husband took to bed for days, barely able to lift their heads.
In retrospect she did many things in February she would never do now. First, she ignored the virus; “my husband was like, what about the virus? And I’m like, don’t be silly, that’s in China.” She sent her child to the kids’ club; she stayed in an interior balcony suite; she sailed on a ship with an enclosure around the pool. She suggests cruisers eat in the specialty dining rooms at off times; bring their own wipes and use them frequently; use the pool on off hours.
“I love RCCL and I don’t think it’s anything they did wrong at all,” she says. But now, “I’m just a worry Suzy.”
Fellow Covid survivor Julie Lanham, owner of Vacations to Remember, though, is ready to go again.
“I’m not saying I’m not concerned – but I am saying I won’t stop traveling in fear of getting the coronavirus again,” she said. “I’ve already traveled to Mexico three times and plan to go back next month. I don’t feel like traveling is any less safe than the grocery store or the gym or anywhere else I go in my daily life. And if I have to wear a mask, I am fine with that. Individuals being responsible for their actions, taking precautions, wearing a mask if in a large public setting, etc. is the key to returning to life as usual – or at least a New Normal.”
For customers, though, it’s “WAY too much risk,” said Sande Bloom of Amare Travel. “This is being approached by far too many as the opportunity for a free cruise instead of the chance to get our business moving safely. I’m telling people that are inquiring that it’s not meant to be about pleasure. These cruises are to set up safety protocols.”
Vicki Freed, meanwhile, declined to promise that cruises with guests will start In December, though she had said that in an earlier interview with the trade press. And she agreed with Bloom about the seriousness of this endeavor.
The point, she noted, is for the volunteers to help prove that the CDC protocols work, and that cruising is safe. The details are being worked out.
In the meantime, she said, one pressing issue “is working on a way to manage all the interest.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.