Cruise ships are floating cities filled with extravagance, attracting people who want to gamble excessively, eat endlessly, soak in the sun and explore various ports of call.
Since April, cruise ships have been berthed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Countless trips were canceled and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on refunds and to get passengers and crew back home safely. Now, with new guidelines and protocols somewhat in place (though they’re changing almost daily), the cruise industry is preparing for its comeback.
A comeback which has already been moored. Most cruise lines were eyeing August 1 to return to the water, but the industry’s trade group, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), announced its members will extend their pause through mid-September; some ships are going beyond even that.
WONDERLUST spoke with three of the top people in the industry — Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean, Senior Vice President, Sales, Trade Support and Service; Mark Conroy, Silversea, Managing Director, North America; and John Downey, President of Hurtigruten.
We asked how they’ve been impacted, how they’re preparing for the new cruise experience in our new world, and how they can reassure passengers that cruising will once again be safe and the fun-filled spectacle it has become.
WHAT’S THE CURRENT STATE OF YOUR CRUISE LINE?
Vicki Freed Royal Caribbean’s canceled all sailing until August 1. Alaska’s been canceled for the entire season – through the end of September – but that’s the whole industry. We also have to make sure that where we cruise to, that the ports of call have the same protocols as we do.
It’s not about being back in the water the fastest, it’s about being back in the water with the right protocols and safety nets. When we start sailing, we’ll start with a couple of ships, not rush back. At the end of the day, it’s about safety. We’ll damage our reputation if it relapses and comes back.
WHEN SHOULD YOU GET BACK IN THE WATER?
Mark Conroy A few things have to happen. Right now, nobody’s interested in working with anybody else or helping anybody else. The airlines have to get flying a bit more because we travel to some distant places. The borders have to open. Then borders within the states have to open. Our governor [Ron DeSantis, in Florida] has been inputting the highway patrol at the border of Georgia stopping cars. He doesn’t have the legal right to do that.
John Downey We restarted our operations on the Norwegian coast, sailing four ships there. The Norwegian government lifted restrictions faster than some other countries, but Norway has shut down borders from nearly every county except some Scandinavian ones — we have both Norwegian and Danish guests on board. We’re waiting for the rest of the world to open up again.
WHAT IS YOUR CANCELLATION AND REFUND POLICY?
Vicki Freed If we cancel a sailing, we give the consumer a 100% refund or a 125% future cruise credit. We’re seeing a lot of people opting for a future cruise credit. Another program we put into place through April 2022 is Cruise with Confidence. We want to do what’s right for the consumer. If anyone books from now through August 1 and they’re looking for any sailing through April 2022, they can elect to cancel all the way up to 48 hours before the sailing to get a 100% refund in the form of a future cruise credit. We can’t rebook that, but they can bail on us and we’re OK with it.
John Downey If you were impacted by a cancellation, we work on rebooking you on a new cruise free of charge. Same thing goes for anyone who wasn’t affected by a cancellation. We’re giving our customers the ultimate flexibility until the end of next year. That’s a starting point. The other thing we’re doing to ease customers’ minds is we’ve reduced our security deposit by $500 so that reduces concerns about risk from a financial perspective.
HOW MUCH DID YOU SPEND REFUNDING PASSENGERS?
Mark Conroy Over $200 million. We’re designed to take money in, not give money back. We don’t have a couple of hundred million lying around.
HOW DO YOU PREVENT COVID-19 FROM SPREADING ON CRUISE SHIPS?
Mark Conroy We need a process so nobody who’s sick gets on the ship. Covid-19 doesn’t start on the ship. It starts on shore and is brought on board. We can do temperature checks and do health history, but it’s not 100%. We’ve been looking at testing companies who are really quick because we don’t want to wait a week, but we want to make sure it’s accurate. There’s one that’s similar to checking your blood sugar, the trouble is it’s only 60% accurate.
There has to be a chain of people cooperating. Airlines need to test before passengers get on board. You need to make sure hotels are screening staff and their people. The baggage handlers need to be checked. Then what do you do about shore excursions? Those operators need to be screening their drivers and guides and going to less crowded places. A lot of moving parts.
WHAT STEPS ARE YOU TAKING TO MAKING THE CREW AND PASSENGERS SAFE?
Vicki Freed We’ve always had strict standards. We have a huge medical facility with more than one doctor and more than one nurse. We have cleanliness standards that we adhere to. Our ships are inspected by U.S. Public health officials. We probably have stricter requirements than restaurants, maybe even hospitals and schools and universities.
When we go back into service, we won’t sail at 100% occupancy. It’ll be much lower so we can ensure social distancing. We’ll take temperature checks when you come to the terminal. Pre-cruise, we’ll need you to answer health-related questions. Our crew will all be wearing Royal Caribbean logo masks – very fashion forward. For things like the shows we will have an usher seat you. If you’re a party of four, you’ll be seated together then two seats empty.
Mark Conroy We wish there was a test that we can send out with your documents and if you test positive you can cancel.
A lot of protocols are already in place that we’re enhancing. When you come aboard now, your luggage will be placed in a separate room and sanitized. When you walk on and off the ship, you’ll walk across a mat that’s got a disinfectant on it to make sure you’re not tracking in anything on your feet, more prominent handwashing, and guests will be required to wear a mask when they’re boarding and disembarking. We have in the public bathrooms a mister that coats the wall and disinfects it. We’ll probably have to do that now with every suite during turnarounds. People used to take cleanliness for granted, now it’s a principle.
Social distancing will be an issue, but not so much for us because our ships are spacious. Our ships have double the capacity in our dining rooms than guests. Our goal is to keep people who aren’t well off the ship. If you get started again and you have a case, how do you deal with it? We already have isolation wards, but how do you get them home again? That’s the problem. You don’t want to be the first guys in the water because you can be the first to have cases.
John Downey Prior to Covid even hitting, we already had a very stringent set of protocols in place. We required all of our guests on our expedition cruises to do a physician review and sign off that they were healthy to travel with us. In addition to that, we already had high cleaning protocols and hygienic hand sanitizing and handwashing stations on the ship. We think those actions contributed a lot to us not experiencing a single Covid case on our ships.
To further reduce risk to guests and crew, we are continuing to do physician and health reviews. We’re reducing our capacity to about 50% for social distancing. We’re doing that in the dining rooms, adding more seatings. We had buffets before, but going forward we’re only doing a la carte service to limit touchpoints. On our expedition cruises, when we drop into a destination or location, and many of them don’t have traditional port facilities, we take Zodiacs out to landings on shore or ice cruising in arctic places. They normally carry 12, but we’ll lower that as well.
We’ll do crew health checks every morning. And increase the frequency of our cleanings, independent inspections as well as microbiological testing for samples across the ship, so we have independent health authorities give us the OK we’re safe to sail.
DID YOU HAVE ANY COVID-19 CASES ON BOARD?
Vicki Freed We never had a situation where we had a quarantine of guests. Maybe that’s the luck of the draw but we have high standards.
In January, we had a ship, Anthem of the Seas, sailing out of NYC –- this was when Covid was really big in Wuhan and hadn’t really come to the U.S. We saw the ship from Japan and we had a grandmother and grandchild sailing and when we returned on a Friday in January they had the flu. Our doctors did a sample on board. They said it was the flu, we gave it to the Coast Guard and CDC and they said you can sail. We said, “what if that really isn’t the flu?” Most cruises might sail but we’re a very conservative company. We chartered an airplane and sent the sample to the CDC. We told the guests not to come until later this evening. The CDC was so busy and they couldn’t get us the answer until the next day. We told guests not to come to the ship if you’re local. If you flew in, we arranged hotels and gave money for food. Come tomorrow but wait for our message. We were waiting for the all clear signal from the CDC. They said we couldn’t get the result. So we told the guests to come Monday. Instead of an 8-day cruise, it’ll be a 4-day cruise. Come Monday if you want to sail. If you choose not to sail, you don’t have to call. We’ll refund 100% of your money.
The CDC called and said it was the flu, but we already told people not to come. We did a 4-day cruise to Bermuda instead of the Caribbean. We’re very conservative. It’s not about the money. We wanted to do the right thing.
WHAT WILL BE THE BIGGEST CHANGE TO THE CRUISE EXPERIENCE?
Mark Conroy The buffet as we know it is going the way of the dodo bird. We’ll have buffets but they’ll be served buffets.
HOW DO YOU REOPEN THE CASINO?
Vicki Freed We’re watching Las Vegas right now — how to handle chips and cards — and we’re learning from them. Disney Shanghai opened and we sent people there to understand what they were doing and how they handled it.
WHICH INDUSTRY WILL HAVE THE HARDEST TIME TO BOUNCE BACK – AIRLINES, HOTELS, CRUISES?
Vicki Freed The airlines will bounce back first because people need air travel and they never really stopped flying, they just reduced their flights. Caesars Palace didn’t close their doors in 52 years until the pandemic; Vegas became a ghost town.
It won’t be a light switch that we turn on, it’ll be a dimmer switch that we gradually turn on. We’re going to come back.
Mark Conroy I think we’ll struggle. The reason people know people got Covid on cruise ships is because we report it. You could have gotten Covid at your church, movie theater, grocer. We’re required to report. They’re not.
It will take a while. I have a sense people are getting tired of staying home and measuring their personal risk and willingness. There’s risk to everything you do. Hopefully we can minimize risk for passengers and then people will come roaring back. If there was a vaccine people would come back quick because they’re fed up staying home.
WILL IT BE HARD TO WIN CUSTOMERS BACK?
Vicki Freed I think people who never cruised, that’s a harder audience to get back to start thinking about cruising. In time, and after we prove ourselves, they’ll come back. Experienced cruisers are not writing us off, just delaying. Our bookings for 2021 are doing quite well.
Mark Conroy 60-65% of customers are repeaters, so they have a certain level of trust with us. They have a willingness to travel with us, they’re aged 60-plus. They’ll come back first.
Our expedition business will come back because we go to places that are not congested. When we go to the Galapagos or Antarctica, you don’t see another ship for a week. Those are no-brainer destinations. Some talk of bubble cruising, cruises designed for the Brits that will sail out of London, the Germans round trip out of Germany, Italians round trip out of Italy and for the Americans round trips out of the U.S. Which I think will happen, but not long term.
John Downey Those who are used to cruising, especially expedition cruising, already get how we sail and how we manage risk. New cruisers, I imagine people are evaluating their travel decisions in general and thinking what will help them minimize risk. The important part for new cruisers is how cruise lines are implementing the right protocols.
HOW ARE YOUR BOOKINGS FOR 2021?
Mark Conroy Very strong. They’re nearly equal to where we were last year. A lot of people who didn’t cruise this year just booked for next year. And we offered a 125% credit if they booked.
SHOULD THE U.S. GOVERNMENT HELP THE CRUISE INDUSTRY?
Mark Conroy We don’t need the help. We’re a successful business. I rather wish they didn’t get in the way and that the governments can figure out how to work together and come up with which rules and regulations are important. Politicians need to think more about what will keep passengers safe.
ARE THERE ANY CHALLENGES FOR SMALL NICHE CRUISE LINES?
John Downey The expedition cruise market has an advantage in this situation. Our ships are smaller and that’s by design. It’s because of the destinations we travel to – Antarctica or the top of Canada or Greenland or Iceland. They are remote destinations but also have, for sustainability and environmental reasons, as well as kind of community reasons, restrictions in place for the size of ships that can travel into those places. Our max capacity is 500 guests – which is much different than some of the larger cruise lines – so the amount of people we’re bringing in we’re limiting, so that limits risk. And you’re interacting more with nature than with other people once off the ship.
WHERE WILL YOU SAIL FIRST ONCE YOU’RE ALLOWED TO?
Mark Conroy Our first ship might be to the Galapagos Islands, since it’s so isolated. The sooner we can get back, the sooner people will get enthusiastic. The Galapagos trip is 100 guests, 50 couples. Fly into Ecuador or maybe Galapagos directly. We don’t know. It’s really dependent on the CDC. We’re working closely with them. You don’t want to say sail again then have it spread.
Vicki Freed We have a private island, Coco Cay. It’ll be the first destination that we return to, probably on short cruises from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale or Galveston or Tampa, because it’s a controlled environment. Everybody who works there, lives on the island. Nobody is driving in, going to work for the day and leaving. We can keep it a very protected environment.