From ship quarantines to vessels kitted out to become floating hospitals, the cruise industry has been front and centre of global travel news coverage, with operations now suspended and passenger ships lying dormant in dock.
But what impact will the coronavirus pandemic have on the sector? How are lines coping and supporting agents through these hugely testing times? And, once sailings restart, will consumer demand follow?
“I completely respect the government’s decisions to date and the advice of its medical experts – I’ve got elderly relatives and it’s clear some groups are more vulnerable – but what I felt was unfair was specifically identifying cruise and not holidays per se,” explains Fred Olsen Cruise Lines managing director, Peter Deer, speaking to TTG last week.
He is referring of course to prime minister Boris Johnson’s national address on 12 March, advising over-70s “with serious medical conditions” against cruising specifically.
Johnson’s comments followed weeks of intense media coverage of Diamond Princess’s quarantine in Japan, while similar [cruise-specific] calls from the White House sparked widespread suspension of operations a fortnight ago, with many brands not due to reinstate operations until early summer.
“Cruise ships had been earmarked by the press because of what happened in Japan, but at the start of the year – when no one really knew how or where the virus was spreading – you could argue it was the same as jumping on a plane or staying in a hotel,” argues Deer. “I respect the advice, but it was unfair to name cruise.”
The new landscape presents hitherto unencountered obstacles.
Fred Olsen’s own Braemar had its “challenges” Deer admits, with the ship currently making its way back to the UK from Cuba, from where passengers were flown home after crew and guests displayed “influenza-like symptoms” during a voyage.
The ship will now wait with the rest of the line’s fleet ready to return to action on 23 May – although Deer predicts this date may be pushed back.
“You just could not plan for something like this,” agrees Cruise and Maritime Voyages (CMV) marketing director Mike Hall. “It’s beyond crisis management.
“Luckily, we didn’t have any cases, and I really feel for those lines that have had more than their fair share.”
Hall describes the process of CMV bringing clients home, including transferring passengers between Columbus and Vasco da Gama via tender – 12 nautical miles from Phuket – as like a “military operation”.
CMV’s own resumption date of 24 April “is being looked at”, but despite the FCO advice, Hall is not convinced of long-term damage to the sector.
“I don’t think it will tarnish cruising’s reputation,” he says. “We’ve got passengers who are in that over-70s age bracket, and it won’t stop them in future.” Amid the lull, Deer and Hall stress the need to “keep brand profile high” in the marketplace. “Right now we need to be giving the best customer service and care we can as that’s how guests will judge us,” explains Deer.
Support for agents is described as “paramount”, with both lines’ teams keeping in regular contact with the trade via their sales teams.
It’s an approach shared by Claire Stirrup, Celebrity Cruises’ director of sales UK and Ireland, who admits the past week has been “bittersweet”, taking delivery of Celebrity Apex virtually, with the Southampton naming event and showcase sailings cancelled. But she is prepared for the challenge ahead.
“We’re disappointed, of course, but we need to look forward, as every day has given us different challenges and something else to tackle.”
As part of its agent engagement strategy, Celebrity has launched a new live chat trade contact function – rolled out ahead of schedule after recent testing.
“It’s all about reacting quickly to get the right message to agents,” says Stirrup. “We know customers want their questions answered really fast, so that just puts pressure on our partners. Live chat has been a great success. I think we’ll take lots of initiatives with us as we move forward.”
Celebrity is also running virtual coffee mornings and webinars around product training as it prepares agents for a return to business.
Stirrup and Hall both predict industry-wide talk of pent-up demand will indeed materialise.
“You can’t get away from the fact that those due to travel soon are concerned,” observes Hall. “But looking further ahead, people still want to cruise.
We’re seeing good traction for the winter and 2021 – not at the levels we were seeing, but it’s still good. I think once this all clears up things will go ballistic."
Stirrup adds: “People might not be ready to book today, but they will come back when the time is right. And our agents have got plenty of loyal customers who want to book with them. So it’s just a matter of timing.”
Deer’s “gut feeling” is that we will see customers opting to stay closer to home initially, with Fred Olsen looking at tailoring its end-of-year cruises based on consumer preferences.
“People aren’t thinking about their holidays right now as they don’t know when this is going to end. They need that confidence back,” he says.
“For that reason, we haven’t been aggressively marketing ourselves. I know other lines have taken different approaches. Later in the year, when that confidence comes back, then we can ramp up our sales energy.”
Deer’s focus for now, it seems, is Westminster – urging the government to provide more support for the cruise industry and appreciate its value to the economy. He estimates about 40,000 British jobs are indirectly impacted by the sector through supplier contracts for food, fuel and other services.
Cruise lines, unlike airlines, have had to support ship-bound crew, including citizens who now have nowhere to go because their countries have closed borders.
Deer reveals he has spoken with shipping minister Kelly Tolhurst on the issue, who gave a “very receptive” response to his concerns.
He is now calling on lines to lobby government “from all angles”.
“The government has talked a lot about not going on cruise ships, but we need to make sure they know the benefits of our sector – airlines are very good at making noise, so why shouldn’t we?”