Royal Caribbean boss says numbers ‘likely to be restricted’ when cruising restarts

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Cruise ships are likely to be restricted to carrying fewer guests to allow for “more natural space” when cruising first re-starts after the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the boss of Royal Caribbean UK.

Speaking at the line’s first ‘Café Royal’ webinar for trade partners, vice president EMEA Ben Bouldin said that as well as enforced reduced load factors, cruise lines are also anticipating more automation at check-in, increased screening and enhanced medical facilities and capacity on board.

He said lines were also looking at new procedures to disembark guests quickly from ships in the event of a future Covid-19 outbreak and said social distancing measures in dining rooms and around the pool decks are all likely for post-pandemic cruising.

“Until there’s a vaccine, we’re trying to understand what the new normal is. Things will be really different. Be reassured we are looking at absolutely everything,” Bouldin said.

“It’s incredibly complex. We have to get the right balance of accommodating changes to make sure everyone is safe, while not undermining our guests’ enjoyment of their holiday.”

Bouldin added that there had been confirmation from Clia in the US that a medical letter would not be required to travel and he said that he did not expect to have to give mature travellers any special treatment. He also hopes the line would continue to be able to support guests with disabilities.

“We are not expecting to have to treat people over 70 any differently. We are confident we have the ability to look after them,” said Bouldin.

“And we hope to be able to support guests with all sorts of disabilities. Our intention is absolutely to remain an inclusive holiday experience.”

Bouldin said the line was preparing to “shout loud and proud” about its health and safety protocols when it returns to service and said the re-introduction of ships into the market would be “staggered” to allow it to complete the “mammoth task” of getting crew in the right places.

Cruise ship exodus from Alaska cuts very deeply

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Only a few months ago, most talks about Alaska cruises revolved around the record season expected this summer and some concerns about over-tourism.

Then came the coronavirus. Now, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line have cancelled most of their 2020 Alaska sailings and all land products.

Sarah Leonard, CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, called the cuts “devastating, not just to the hundreds of businesses that rely on cruise passengers for their livelihoods but also to the communities that receive a large portion of their revenue from visitor taxes and fees.”

Leonard said cruise ships bring a little more than half of Alaska’s visitors and that the state’s tourism industry in total supports more than 52,000 jobs and creates more than $4.5 billion in economic activity.

According to CLIA Alaska, more than 1.4 million people on 43 ships were projected to spend $793 million this year. Juneau was projected to have 626 calls this year, more than any other municipality in Alaska, followed by Ketchikan (558) and Skagway (454).

The changes mean that Holland America will not offer an Alaska land program for the first time in 70 years.

“These are unprecedented times,” Holland America Line CEO Orlando Ashford said in a statement. “We know this decision impacts our loyal guests, travel advisor partners, staff members and local businesses who rely on summer tourism for their economies.”

Princess president Jan Swartz called the decision “extremely difficult” and lamented not being able to support the small-business partners throughout the state as it has “every summer for decades.”

“We know these decisions will have a large, adverse economic impact on the state of Alaska, which relies on tourism,” she said in a video.

Several factors played into why such a hot market became one of the first to see major cruise reductions this summer.

The biggest might be that because of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order from U.S. ports until mid-July, combined with Canada’s restrictions on cruising through June, half of the Alaska cruise season was already lost. This has an outsize impact on Holland America and Princess because so much of their business includes land and cruise combinations.

“The shortened summer season has made it simply not viable to operate our [lodges, trains and buses] throughout Alaska,” Swartz said.

Holland America also cited the “complexities of starting up hotels, rail operations and motorcoach fleets for what is at best a mid-to-late restart of travel to Alaska.”

Tom Garrett, the owner of Union Hill Travel, a Protravel independent agency in Kansas City, Mo., that specializes in Alaska travel, said that given how high the startup costs are for companies on the land side in Alaska, it would be hard to recoup costs if they lost half the season.

“The season is roughly 130 days long,” said Garrett, who is also the former director of tourism for Alaska. “They’re going to miss out on over 50% of the season already. We used to say in Alaska, our businesses didn’t begin to make money until late August.”

Adding to that is the uncertainty as to whether the national parks will be open.

“If nobody can go on a tour of Denali, and that’s one of the main reasons for Alaska and guests can postpone for a year and get a future cruise credit worth 125%, they’ll say, let’s just go next year,” Garrett said.

Both Princess and Holland America are still offering some Inside Passage cruises that are not tied to the land product.

And while the massive cuts have some advisors wondering if other lines will follow, Garrett said none are as tied to the land extensions as Princess and Holland America.

“They’re heavily invested in land assets,” he said. “A huge portion of their business revolves around those land extensions. A company like Celebrity takes advantage of those extensions but isn’t personally financially invested in them.”

In fact, he added, “it’s possible that some lines will say, ‘If Holland America and Princess don’t want to go, we’re happy to take their space.’”

Another factor some travel advisors cited was the demographic of Alaska cruisers. Eric Hrubant, president of CIRE Travel in New York, said the decision did not surprise him.

“Alaskan cruises tend to have a big baby boomer population,” he said. “People in the retired age bracket or not in perfect health probably aren’t going to want to get on a cruise this summer.”

He also said those cruises attract a lot of multigenerational families.

“Over the years, most of the people I do Alaska cruises for are affluent retirees, and we’ll do a multigen thing: grandparents, their kids and their kids’ kids,” he said.

Deborah Deming of Frosch Classic Cruise & Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif., also said her Alaska business is made up of a lot of multigen families, which means “the 60-to-80-year-old is the one paying for it,” and this year, they are unlikely to take a cruise.

One thing she is grateful for is that the cancellations happened before most clients made final payments.

“With so many things in flux, it makes sense for this to happen now before they took in more money that would then have to be refunded,” she said.

Cruise lines make progress with seafaring women at the helm

The Celebrity Edge had its first all-female bridge and hotel officer team for a roundtrip cruise on March 8, International Women’s Day.
The Celebrity Edge had its first all-female bridge and hotel officer team for a roundtrip cruise on March 8, International Women’s Day.

While women remain a minority in the top echelons of the cruise industry, they are starting to make their mark in a big way.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the Celebrity Edge sailed the first cruise featuring an entirely female bridge and hotel officer team.

It was helmed by Kate McCue, the line’s first American female captain. Guests on the Fort Lauderdale roundtrip sailing were treated to lectures, documentary screenings and networking opportunities, all dedicated to, in Celebrity Cruises’ words, “inspiring a new generation of girls and women to pursue careers in the maritime field.”

The cruise line said that in four years, it had boosted the percentage of women working across its fleet from 3% to 27%.

The Regent Seven Seas Splendor debuted this February with a female captain: Serena Melani, who grew up in Italy. She has spent 30 years in the cruise industry, 10 of those with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, where she started as a bridge officer. With the debut of Regent Seven Seas Splendor, she became the first woman to captain a new ocean ship at launch.

CLIA has made gender diversity a key goal. For last year’s World Maritime Day, its theme was “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community.”

CLIA CEO Kelly Craighead said, “Elevating women to leadership positions in the cruise industry makes good business sense. Research shows women hold the purchasing power when it comes to decisions and bookings in the multitrillion-dollar travel and tourism industry. It’s more important than ever to have women at every level of leadership in the cruise industry bringing better representation and customer understanding.”

There was a time when maritime training institutes wouldn’t even open their classrooms to women. But that has changed, partly at the urging of the International Maritime Organization. Still, the organization said, even now, women represent only 2% of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers.

Ally Cedeno, a 2008 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, recalled, “I often sailed as either the only woman on board or one out of just a few women. There were times throughout my career when I needed a mentor, someone who could provide guidance and understanding regarding challenges [I faced] as a female seafarer.”

When she graduated from the academy, 10% of the class was female. With today’s class, that percentage is more than 25%.

Capt. Kate McCue helms the Celebrity Edge.
Capt. Kate McCue helms Celebrity Edge.

At the State University of New York Maritime College, the percentage of female students has grown from about 9% in 2014 to 14% in 2019.

Cedeno founded WomenOffshore.org to support female seafarers around the world. In three years, it has grown to 700 members, with a mentoring program that has about 150 women in it.

Other cruise lines have hired female captains in recent years, including Windstar Cruises, which made Belinda Bennett its first female captain, on the Wind Star. She was also the first black female captain in the commercial cruise industry.

And there are women in leadership at the corporate level, including Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line; Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and U River Cruises; Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises; and Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity Cruises.

Carnival Corp. does not have female captains, but it does have nearly 70 female crew members in a variety of deck, engine, security and hotel positions. The cruise company held its first Inclusion Diversity Equity Aspiration conference in January, bringing together many up-and-coming leaders.

Lutoff-Perlo said in an interview last fall that she had made recruitment and promotion of women a focus at Celebrity since she took the top role at in December 2014.

“I decided … I should embrace the fact that I am [a woman] and that I have this really great opportunity,” she said. “I get to pay it forward, and I get to help other women achieve what they want to achieve in an industry that perhaps has not been as welcoming or … aggressively trying to bring more women in.”

Celebrity recruits female cadets from the maritime academies and fills some higher positions from cargo and container companies and other cruise lines. In addition, it relies on the social media presence of some of its officers to help showcase life onboard. McCue, for example, has 127,000 followers on her Instagram account @CaptainKateMcCue.

Lutoff-Perlo said, “It’s hard to underestimate the effort it takes to go from 3% to 22% of women on the bridge when there aren’t that many women out there who are studying and graduating from the maritime academies or who choose a career at sea. This is complicated. It’s not that easy.”

McCue said her interest in sailing started when she was 12 years old and her parents took the family on a Bahamas cruise. Her family encouraged her to pursue her dream of sailing for a living, and she ended up graduating from the California Maritime Academy in 2000.

But she didn’t get a job right away.

“I applied to every cruise line in the industry,” McCue said. “For about a year and a half, I didn’t hear anything, so I changed my CV and applied to be a bartender on a cruise ship. [One cruise line] said I was not qualified to be a bartender as I had never served a drink in my life, but I was qualified to drive their ship, so I joined as a third mate.”

Shortly after that, she moved to Royal Caribbean and spent 13 years working her way up to staff captain, a ship’s second in command. In 2015, she got the call from Celebrity inviting her to become the line’s first female captain. She accepted right away.

“With only 2% of the industry being female, it is obvious that we’re not tapping into 50% of the population and available workforce,” McCue said. “When you diversify and focus on inclusion, it increases creativity and productivity, benefiting the industry as a whole.”

Likewise, Melani spent years working her way to where she is now. She began her nautical career at the age of 16, working on cargo ships in her hometown of Livorno, Italy, on the Tyrrhenian Sea. She graduated from Nautical College in 1993 and was one of only a few women working on oil tankers, cargo and container vessels.

In 2016, she became the company’s first female master captain and has also led the Seven Seas Explorer, Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Navigator.

“This is really the cherry on the cake of my entire professional life,” Melani said aboard the Seven Seas Splendor’s inaugural cruise.

To other women out there in maritime schools and working their way up the ranks at cruise lines, Melani has a message: “Never losing sight of your goal is important. You can do anything you want. You can reach anything you want.”