After toasting its 50th birthday in style last year, celebrations in 2020 have understandably been few and far between for Royal Caribbean International and the wider cruise sector.
For the line’s vice-president EMEA Ben Bouldin, a change of UK Foreign Office (FCDO) advice would be a more than welcome gift heading into Christmas and the wave booking season.
Meeting over Zoom at the start of an atypically uncertain festive period, he shares fellow cruise chiefs’ hopes for a spring resumption in sailings from the UK, but believes a recent report by Downing Street’s Global Travel Taskforce “didn’t go quite far enough” in offering the industry the clarity it craves.
“We want consumers to be confident that there is a path back to cruising in 2021,” he says, adding how “desperate” he is for FCDO guidance against ocean cruising to be dropped and the sector to be brought under broader government travel guidance and the travel corridors system.
“I think we’ve done more than enough to justify not being excluded from the general guidance. We’ve got to really lobby government hard to try to encourage them to make that change.
“[An advice change] doesn’t mean we suddenly want to start cruising from 1 January – it just means that we want confidence.
“We would like to understand what that phase path looks like so we can start to plan. Winding down the cruise industry and starting it back up are very difficult things to do.
“We’ve still got some way to go, [but] we’re winning the battle and hopefully we’ll see some movement over the next few months.”
Bouldin is well aware his requests come amid a challenging backdrop – as England emerges from a second national lockdown and the UK prepares for a relaxing of Covid restrictions over Christmas, with hitherto unknown effects.
He is optimistic in his outlook for next year and Royal’s 2021 programme though, which he says is “filling up nicely”.
As Bouldin puts it, the line “ironically” – given how the year played out – invested more in wave activity in 2019/20 than in the previous five years, headlined by a major TV sponsorship of ITV’s The Masked Singer.
“We got off to a great start,” he recalls. “I think people’s confidence remained bullish, certainly in the early months [they thought that] by the time we got to 2021 everything would be OK.
“As the year has gone on, people have become a little bit more cynical and sceptical as to whether 2021 cruising is going to happen in quite the same way, and you can’t knock them for feeling like that.
“They’re waiting for absolute confidence, so it peaks and troughs.”
Royal’s 2021 ex-UK plans see Anthem of the Seas based in Southampton during a summer that also features an early “mini season” of sailings for Odyssey of the Seas, the line’s newest ship, which floated out in Germany just a fortnight ago.
“We have to be patient with our restart plans [but] I’m very hopeful we can keep a good chunk of our 2021 programme,” says Bouldin. “It’s difficult at the moment because of course Covid is not giving up. That’s really the guidance I’ve given the team, we can only do so much, but let’s keep chipping away.”
The unpredictable nature of the year, he reflects, has been difficult for someone who “thrives on fixing things”.
“I like trying to improve things, but it’s very difficult in this current climate. I’m actually kind of powerless to a large degree,” he says frankly.
“The lack of certainty around the world we live in – it’s very difficult for someone like me to manage because I like to deal in facts.”
Bouldin is pinning far more certainty on Royal’s 2022 operations.
Having already launched Caribbean and Alaska itineraries, the line’s Europe deployment featuring “really significant hardware” went on general sale on 4 December.
Odyssey returns to Rome, while Anthem will again call Southampton home with Allure of the Seas in Barcelona.
“So we’re excited about what the future holds – I’m expecting strong demand for 2022,” says Bouldin. “What I do genuinely believe is the vaccine will come [UK regulators approved Pfizer’s just days after we spoke] and 2022 will be uninterrupted. I’m really hopeful for that.
“I’ve got the team squarely focused on making sure that 2022 is nailed perfectly. For 2021 we’re going to have to be patient, nimble and just see how things play out and do everything we can to keep our season intact.”
Major boosts to Royal’s restart efforts have come from both the east and west, with test sailings in Singapore ahead of a return to local cruising and an “astonishing” 100,000 volunteers claimed by the line to have signed up for trial voyages in the US under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s framework.
Bouldin believes the Singaporean trials are “a great way to pressure test our protocols” – adding more trial voyages will be run when other regions restart: “For each test we’ll learn something new.”
Beyond the Covid crisis, will Royal’s and the industry’s recent innovation remain? “Will we be better on the back of this? Categorically we will be,” Bouldin responds.
Slicker check-in processes, more automation and touchless technology alongside new hygiene protocols “will live across the cruise industry and be better for it”, he says.
“There’s a lot that we will benefit from and we will absolutely continue forever more – it’ll just become the new standard.”
As for “more contentious” policies, such as mask-wearing and pre-embarkation testing, Bouldin is hopeful “we don’t have to wear a mask for the rest of days”.
“There’s no reason to suggest that we want to be doing that on a cruise if we don’t have to. So some areas hopefully will disappear and that would be a good thing, but many areas I think will continue and that will overall just raise the bar of the cruise industry even further.”
There are also reasons to be positive closer to home, with recruitment under way for three key account manager sales roles covering the UK, Germany and the Nordics, with Bouldin keen to help “great travel people” who are out of work due to the pandemic.
He admits the line had been “a bit cautious” about recruitment faced with the industry’s current situation “but I think as we have confidence in 2022 and confidence in 2021 coming back, we wanted to make sure we’re ready”.
He adds: “The industry has done a lot of things the right way and that’s built a lot of confidence. Once we start showing our ships off again, talking about all the great vacations our industry delivers, people will come back in their droves – I’m confident of that.”