Putting the facts straight, Nishith Saxena, Founder & Director, Cruise Professionals, shares his perspectives on the much-talked response from cruise lines to the COVID-19 crisis as well as outlook for the industry.
Like other segments of travel and tourism, cruise lines have also been hit badly due to COVID-19. These financial losses may take some time to recover. However, the consumer confidence has not diluted. The graded approach using which cruise lines are opening up their voyages is aimed to manage the supply demand equation.
Why did cruise lines continue to sail despite the spread of coronavirus? Why was there a sluggish response from cruise lines considering the health and safety of passengers?
Thanks a lot for allowing me to share what transpired in the days following the Coronavirus spread in the initial stages. The perception is totally unfounded and grossly unfair to state that cruise ships continued to sail despite the spread of Coronavirus. Imagine more than a hundred cruise ships full of passengers and crew totaling to 4000 plus each, sailing in various oceans in the Atlantic or Norway or Caribbean or South Pacific. Upon hearing the news of Corona Virus spread, almost all cruise lines increased focus on health and safety of passengers and the crew by adopting stringent hygiene and sanitation protocol onboard till the ships arrived at the pre-determined port of disembarkation.
Till Mid-February 2020, there was limited information available about the nature of this virus, but when WHO declared Covid19 as a pandemic, most countries acted in a “Self-Preservation” mode and cruise ships were not allowed to disembark passengers at many ports internationally. At that time, cruise lines were fighting many battles simultaneously but not all of this is in public domain.
Behind the scene, all cruise lines were consulting the health authorities which were providing guidance and medical advice to ships and cruise line management across the globe. Thankfully the ship’s crew and passengers understood this situation better than some of the media who did not report the matter with the correct perspective and continued to sensationalise the individual incidents, which was not the correct depiction of the facts.
Cruise lines take health and safety of the passengers and crew as their first and foremost priority. This is not just a slogan, but an ethos followed very strictly in the cruise industry. What someone may perceive as a sluggish response may be a very thorough and careful handling of a sensitive situation – when the enemy is unknown, we can’t throw caution to the winds.
If the approach of cruise line in handling Covid19 cases onboard a few vessels was not correct, then we would have seen thousands more fatalities on many ships. Since the ship is a contained zone and people’s movement can be regulated, control over the situation was achieved quicker than most would like to believe. The ship incidents were unfortunate, not intended and the response was not sluggish.
What sort of impact are you seeing on the brand as well as on the industry due to the above scenario?
If the impact on the industry or the brand is to be measured by future bookings, then it may surprise all of us. We have seen media reports of some cruise lines getting nearly 200 per cent plus growth in the bookings when their schedule was announced. While it cannot be denied that similar to all travel businesses, cruise lines have suffered heavy losses due to voluntary suspension of their fleet operations – these financial losses may take some time to recover, but the consumer confidence has not diluted. The graded approach using which cruise lines are opening up their voyages is aimed to manage the supply demand equation. Going by the experience and inside knowledge of the industry, I know that cruise lines’ have some of the sharpest minds when it comes to pricing and yield management.
One of the biggest stake holders – our consumers have always demonstrated great maturity and supported cruise lines initiatives. They understand how businesses work as many of these passengers have their own establishments. They possess a better understanding of such disruptions and do not relate isolated incidents to specific brands. In fact, cruise passengers and crew would continue to remain our biggest brand ambassadors and we do not foresee any brand erosion in the mid or long term.
Cruise sector will majorly be under scanner post COVID-19. What sort of SOPs are being adopted to instill confidence among passengers for future sailings?
No industry is irresponsible to operate their businesses without taking necessary precautions and cause any kind of harm to its crew or clients – may it be airlines, cruise lines, hotels, rail services, attractions or coaches. We should not single out any one industry as each of these are inter-dependent. Specifically, for cruises, we are in the business of making people happier and creating memories at sea. The SOP’s to prevent Covid19 or any other communicable infection have been finalized in consultation with health authorities after multiple testing of the processes and would be implemented at all levels: pre-embarkation, at the time of embarkation, during the cruise, at a port of call and also at the time of disembarkation. These include, but are not limited to, increased sanitation of all public spaces, thermal screening, limited self-serve buffets, increase in room sanitation, touch-less entry & exits etc. Communication for the same to build consumer confidence would be released appropriately for different brands. To put it simply, cruise lines are in control of the situation.
Have the cruise liners which you represent announced any sailings? what is the timeline when you plan to restart business?
We’re in business and never stopped responding to queries and assisting our trade fraternity – operating from homes under the lockdown, each member of the team has been working hard for the last 10 weeks with cruise lines HO’s to manage bookings and cancellations, issuing refunds and Future Cruise Certificates and assisting passengers in re-planning their future cruise. We are glad to share that a few cruise lines we handle have introduced some very attractive rebooking and fresh booking offers with very low deposits - these would be shared through normal marketing communication shortly. Considering the flights connectivity and opening of borders and ports, each of the premium and experiential cruise brands we represent would have their own strategy with regards to opening voyages for sale and the marketing communication for same would be forthcoming shortly.
Will the pandemic affect the cruise liners’ further expansion plans, in terms of vessels and routes?
The future expansion plans, deployment and ship build programs are looked into constantly by the top management and it would not be appropriate for me to comment. What we have witnessed in our long association with the cruise industry is that this business permeates supply chain in multiple communities and multiple countries, it’s passengers and crew are sourced from across the world. A healthy cruise industry is a mirror of a happy and prosperous society – therefore cruise industry would bounce back quicker than most people expect. The future plans would be shared as & when appropriate, right now the focus is to get back to where we belong – the oceans.
What will be your marketing strategy post covid-19 issue to woo passengers?
Such disruptions compel us to think of new and innovative ways to conduct business and marketing strategy would evolve accordingly. One certainty we foresee is the hybrid of B2B and B2C distribution as brands would invest heavily in rebuilding markets after a gap of more than 6 months. Digital would become an integral part of the marketing budgets and the strength of distribution at low cost would determine the health of businesses going forward. I feel that we must stop focusing too much on “Covid19 Free” environment in all marketing communication for various travel products as more we talk about Covid19, the longer it would remain embedded in our consumer’s mind. The whole idea of moving from Lockdown to Unlock is to get to the normal cycle of life. Like all bad memories, this would fade away with time.