Norwegian has no plans to reduce China service, Del Rio says

Norwegian Joy
It’s full speed ahead in China for Norwegian Cruise Line.

Despite recent announcements by other lines that ships once scheduled for year-round service in China would move to Australia for part of the year, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings chairman Frank Del Rio said his company has no plans to follow suit.

“I’m glad to see that the others are leaving,” Del Rio said. “That leaves us perhaps the last man standing, and that’d be great. I’ll take all the demand.”

Del Rio’s comments came during a conference call with analysts to discuss first-quarter financial results.

Cruise selling in China has been disrupted since March by the Chinese government’s move to halt travel to South Korea, a protest of a decision by the South Korean government to install a U.S.-made missile defense system.

“The disruption caused travel agents to be distracted from focusing on contracting charters further out into the year, then trying to book, in some cases rebook, [and] find new customers [for those] who no longer wanted to go on sailings that didn’t include Korea,” Del Rio said. “But it’s also had a bit of a chilling effect on overall demand.”

He added that sales for new cruises had started to pick up in the past two weeks. “The South Korea situation, we believe, is a temporary bump in the road, and time will tell,” he said.

Norwegian Cruise Line is scheduled to start sailing the 3,883-passenger Norwegian Joy, its first ship custom-designed for the Chinese market, from Shanghai in late June.

Princess Cruises recently said that its Majestic Princess, also custom-built for the Chinese market, will be deployed to Australia for six months in 2018-19. The move follows the redeployment of the Sapphire Princess from China to Europe in the latter half of 2018.

Because Norwegian is new to the Chinese source market, Del Rio said he’s being cautious about predicting the impact of the Norwegian Joy on the company’s performance in the second half.

“So in many ways, all the good things that I have to say about how our business is operating on the other 24 ships is being somewhat tempered by the potential that could arise in China,” Del Rio said.

A strong Wave

Del Rio said on the call that this year’s Wave was “the best Wave season that we and likely the industry has experienced in quite some time.” As a result, NCLH brands have fewer cabins to sell for the rest of 2017, and it expects higher prices on those bookings than last year.

NCLH, which also includes Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, posted Q1 net income of $61.9 million, compared with $73.2 million a year earlier. Revenue rose 6.8%, to a record $1.15 billion.

Del Rio attributed the net-income decline to higher-than-expected maintenance and repair costs, particularly for the Norwegian Star, which broke down in Australia for five days in February.

Outside of that, CFO Wendy Beck said the results were driven by “strong close-in demand in the Caribbean, coupled with strength in onboard revenue.” Cuba itineraries are now available on all three brands, and “the performance of that itinerary is just astonishing,” Del Rio said. NCLH is also doing better than it planned in Europe this year, which Del Rio attributed to a combination of less inventory to sell than at the same time last year and positive market conditions. “That is resulting in very, very strong sales in Europe at significantly higher prices than the same time last year,” he said.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ Frank Del Rio

Image result for norwegian sky
Norwegian Sky will cruise from Cuba.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio has been seeking permission for his U.S.-based cruise ships to dock in Cuba for over a year. On Dec. 7, the Cuban-born Del Rio was called to Havana to sign agreements that finally enable all three of the company’s brands to sail there next year. He spoke with senior editor Tom Stieghorst about the process.

Q: Were you aware when you were down there that the other cruise lines had also been approved?

Frank Del Rio
Frank Del Rio

A: I was pulling into the terminal building where the signing ceremony was taking place, and as I was pulling up with my driver and my team, [Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. president and COO] Adam Goldstein was walking out with his team and we exchanged pleasantries as we always do, congratulated each other and had a good laugh about it.

Q: So you almost had a CLIA quorum?

A: Adam even mentioned that. He said, “Frank, I understand there’s a CLIA meeting today,” so that was one of the reasons we had a good laugh.

Q: What building were you in and who were your Cuban counterparts?

A: Oh, there’s too many to mention, and they may not want us to mention them, but the ceremony took place at the terminal building where the cruise ships actually tie up. It’s a very nice building. As I told the officials there, I think that terminal facility is as nice a facility as any in the world, certainly the premier one in the Caribbean basin and Central America that I’ve been to, at least.

Q: Do you plan to visit other ports besides Havana?

A: We do, but not in this first round that covered 10 sailings of the three brands through May 31.

Q: Do you have any insight as to why the Cubans acted now? 

A: I don’t. I think one could speculate. Is it because Fathom pulled out? Is it because of the rhetoric around president-elect Trump’s views on Cuba? It could hypothetically mean that after some time Cuban authorities felt comfortable with additional cruise lines. I didn’t ask. I don’t really care. I’m just happy as all can be that we’re finally in.

Q: Will this be too much at once? Is there anything that concerns you about the infrastructure arrangements?

A: No, on both counts. Because of the infrastructure limitations, the maximum number of vessels in Havana at any given point in time are two: a mid-size vessel like a Sky or a Marina, for example in our case, and one smaller ship, like an Oceania R ship or Regent Mariner. So the number of cruise guests who can be in Havana at any given time is in the 2,500 to 2,700 range. Havana’s a large city. Cuba handles over 3 million tourists a year. So I don’t see that as a burden whatsoever.

Q: Will your shore-excursion department plan the people-to-people program? Do you have someone in Cuba that can help?

A: Both. I don’t see the shore excursions that we would offer in Cuba to be significantly different than the ones we provide when we go to any major historical metropolitan area. Whether it’s Rome or Istanbul or St. Petersburg, Russia, our target customer, especially for the upscale brands, isn’t going to the beach when they go to the Greek islands; they aren’t necessarily going to the beach when they go to Hawaii. They’re looking for experiences, they’re looking for cultural exchanges, they’re looking to visit museums and things of that nature. That’s a lot of what Havana has to offer.

For RCCL’s Fain, China a case of deja vu

Two weeks ago I wrote about Frank Del Rio’s take on China and the obstacles he saw to further growth there, but the Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO is clearly not the only cruise chief thinking a lot about development in Asia.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. chairman Richard Fain delivered some insights into his thinking on China on a recent conference call with investors. He listed four areas in which China is similar to the industry in North America and Europe, at a comparable stage of maturity.

China has troubled cruise investors, most recently because of price softness in Shanghai.

Drawing on 30 years of decision-making experience, Fain said he’s seen it before. “It is striking how many parallels there are in China’s evolution today compared to other places in other times where we have developed a market for cruising,” Fain said.

Cruising in North America in the 1980s looked much like China does today, according to Fain’s analysis.

“It was poorly known to the population at large,” Fain said. “Distribution was through a small number of specialist agencies. There was little choice of itineraries, and growth was episodic and dictated by the arrival of new ships.”

In addition, favorable word of mouth was the main way people found out about cruising, he said.

Fain characterized travel agencies specializing in cruises in the 1980s as a “niche” business and said China’s embryonic cruise travel agency system will evolve with time, as in the U.S.

He said worries about the paucity of destinations in China parallel the same concerns in the U.S market years ago. When Royal Caribbean was trying to decide on a fourth ship, there was “a great deal of hand wringing” about whether there would be interest “beyond the established group of then popular destinations.

“Today we all look back on that concern and find it laughable, but then it was a real concern. Similarly in China, our attachment area today for customers is small and our itineraries are limited, but a quick look at the map shows just how enormous the potential really is.”