From left to right: Michelle Fee, Ruben Rodriguez, Harry Sommer, John Padgett and Michael Bayley during the Presidents' Panel at the 2022 Cruise360. (photo by Lacey Pfalz)
On March 30, four of the cruise industry’s biggest leaders took to the stage to discuss current events and their impact on the industry during the first general session of the Cruise Lines International Association’s 2022 Cruise360 convention.
Moderated by Michelle Fee, CEO and Founder of Cruise Planners, the general session included discussions on topics ranging from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine and the latest trends. The four who participated in the panel were Rubén Rodríguez, President of MSC Cruises USA; Harry Sommer, President and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line; John Padgett, President of Princess Cruises and Chief Experience Officer of Carnival Corporation; and Michael Bayley, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International.
The Future of Cruising
One topic that was rightfully top of mind during the presidents’ panel was the future of cruising. With the CDC taking away the travel advisory against cruising, the four presidents were all optimistic for the future of the industry.
“It’s been a very long journey with the CDC, and initially there was no coordination, communication; it was a very challenging environment,” began Michael Bayley. “But over time, we developed a pretty collaborative, communicative process with the CDC, and many of us were relentlessly on calls with the CDC Maritime Unit and their leadership, and in fact an intergovernmental team, which included representatives from Department of Transportation, Coast Guard, the White House, and it was a journey.”
“Over that period, they’ve learned about our industry and we’ve learned about their concerns, and we’ve built trust. Step by step, they’ve worked with us to create an environment that has allowed us to operate successfully,” he added.
That operation is now paying off, with plans for many cruise lines to return to cruising in full with their entire fleets by the end of the year.
Outdoor space is maximized on Norwegian Prima. (Rendering courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)
“It’s been a long two years, and I think, you know, over the course of those two years, there were certainly low points and high points, but I think we’ve seen a little stability in the general environment recently,” said Harry Sommer. “We’ve seen people starting to come back, ships coming back in the water. This is really across the entire industry, but for NCL specifically, we’ll have all our ships back in the water by May 7, so just a few weeks away, and we’re really positive … if things continue the way they are now, I see a road to normalcy by December.”
“Our clients are eager to get back out there…” began Rubén Rodríguez. “And what’s great about cruising is that we offer such great value, and if there’s ever a time when value matters, it’s now. The opportunity to get out there, and now we’re seeing more demand for longer vacations and a lot of demand for very short getaways. It’s spring, right after Omicron, now we’re seeing a little more demand for longer vacations … It’s an opportunity to bring those that are new to cruise, which may have stayed away … I’m optimistic.”
One important topic included pandemic protocols of all sorts, from onboard protocols to other requirements, like the pre-departure testing requirement for Americans returning home from an international country.
Rodríguez said that testing prior to embarking on a cruise “is part of what makes the industry so safe.”
“We are all releasing the mask mandates onboard, we’re releasing the social distancing, we are making the onboard experience today very much what it was before the pandemic,” he continued. “The testing and vaccine requirements ensure that cruisers can enjoy their cruise in much the same way as they did prior to the pandemic.”
“We are seeing all health authorities in Europe, in the U.K. and also the CDC in the U.S. shift their focus to the severity of the disease as opposed to the incidents of cases,” continued Rodríguez. “…We certainly all hope to see continued liberalization in the testing for international flights.”
From left to right: Ruben Rodriguez, Harry Sommer, John Padgett and Michael Bayley during the Presidents’ Panel at the CLIA 2022 Cruise360. (photo by Lacey Pfalz)
“I think, in our ongoing dialogue with the CDC, our expectations of future changes with the protocols will always exceed their ability to deliver them to us when we want them, but they have been relatively responsive,” added Bayley of Royal Caribbean.
“So this is great news: the fact that they’ve removed the warning, it is a very positive, very positive, step for our industry. It means that when customers, consumers have concerns, they can go to the CDC website and there’ll be no warnings whatsoever about cruising. So you’re free to cruise.”
In terms of the pre-departure testing requirement for returning Americans, Harry Sommer said: “I think, when we talk both to our health experts and back-channel to the CDC, they’re pretty comfortable with the level of COVID we have within the country now … They’re a little bit concerned about now the prevalence in Europe.”
“So I think the guidepost there is not going to be so much the prevalence here, because prevalence here has been low for quite some time, but when we start seeing prevalence in places like France, Germany, Switzerland and other countries in that area come down to levels closer to here.”
Bayley added: “I think from everything we’ve learned about the CDC, who tend to guide a lot of this, is that when they really believe that it’s really moving from a pandemic to endemic, when they really believe that the positivity rates have declined to such a degree that it really poses no risk, I think that’s when we’re going to start seeing the government and governments start removing these testing requirements … I think we’re going to see that probably by the summer.”
The Latest Cruise Trends
Michelle Fee asked each president about the latest cruise trends that they have identified. Many of them have continued to see guests book cruises closer to their cruise date, but the number of cruisers booking a bit farther out and the number of guests booking with a travel advisor is also increasing.
Revenge travel, said Harry Sommer, is another big trend that he’s identified personally: “We have some cruises that sixty percent of the guests onboard book their next cruises while onboard, so it’s just absolutely amazing … We have seen a remarkable rebound in trade sales. Just yesterday, out of coincidence, was our highest trade booking day since the pandemic started in March 2020…”
A Princess MedallionClass vacation means a seamless experience for guests. (photo via Princess Cruises)
John Padgett, the creator of Princess’ Medallion Class experience, says that people are more connected than ever before because of the pandemic, with both guests and crew. “There’s literally tens of thousands of connected devices on our ships at all times, sharing information.”
“There’s so much excitement across all ages … all forms of travel groups, that there’s really no single trend, but just demand for a great product, which is cruise,” added Padgett.
Bayley emphasized the role that loyal guests play in encouraging others who might not have cruised, either since the pandemic or at all: “…when people come back from their vacation, and they tell their friends and neighbors about what an incredible time they’ve had, that’s what really flips the switch.”
The War in Ukraine
One smaller topic that was also discussed was the war in Ukraine and its impact on one cruise line in particular: Princess Cruises. John Padgett led this discussion and applauded travel advisors for their role in guiding their guests along with the changing times, from the pandemic to conflicts.
“Princess is a world cruise line, so it’s certainly no surprise that we have to adjust to constant geopolitical changes around the world … in that particular case, we just dropped St. Petersburg from those itineraries and diversified,” Padgett explained.
“From my perspective, that’s what really the travel advisors are all about. They allow us to be that dynamic with our business, to readjust it and to keep travel going … From a Princess standpoint, we couldn’t do what we do if it weren’t for the travel advisors helping us make that happen.”
The cruise industry has certainly been moving through many currents of change these past few years, and this doesn’t seem to have hindered the four presidents’ optimism in the future; in fact, great things seem to be just around the horizon for the cruise industry.