Larger cruise ships on local deployments expected to be first to return

Deck Plans | Azamara

Larger cruise ships with local deployments will be the first to come back on sale following Covid-19, the former boss of Azamara has predicted.

Larry Pimentel, who stepped aside from his role as president and chief executive in April as the line made plans to survive the pandemic, said he expected older, smaller ships with international deployments to “sit on the sidelines simply because of the air travel” as travel resumes.

Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, he said: “Think about taking a 10, 12 or 15-hour flight in coach and the denseness that you’d find on these carriers. I’m not going to do that at the moment.

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“We’re going to find big ships with local deployments are the first to come back,” Pimentel said. “You’re probably going to find short rotations out of the States and you’ll probably get three or four-day rotations going to private islands. Why? Private islands can secure the safety and health in all areas without a bunch of nonsensical politics layered in it, which makes things even more complex and, frankly, angers a lot of people.”

Pimentel said small luxury vessels sailing to less crowded destinations may also come back sooner, but said: “We still have an issue with social distancing in an industry that was all about the connection on the ships, so herein lies a paradoxical sort of scenario.”

Pimentel predicted many ships would not come back into the sector at as line battle with cash flow issues.

“Cruise lines need the cash right now,” he said, noting that the only income lines are bringing in is onboard revenue as cabins on 2021 sailings will be filled up with people who deferred from this year and used their future cruise credits to rebook. “So the cruise industry is going to have a terrible 2020, and a terrible economic 2021.”

Pimentel said: “The ships that come back are likely to fill up as there won’t be as many ships operating. Let’s face it, there will be some ships that will sit in the sidelines that won’t come back to the industry. The whole industry closed down in about three weeks. There is no way in hell we’re coming back in three weeks or even three months.”

He also predicted that “new cruise ship orders will slow so significantly that it will almost seem like they are stopping altogether, compared to we’ve seen over the last couple of years”.

“I fully expect a lot of options not to be secured,” he said. “This [recovery from the pandemic] is not months, this is a multi-year process.”

He pointed out that there are 19 new ocean ships on order this year, adding: “That’s a lot of vessels and right now, who needs more capacity? Nobody. But in the future, demand will be there. I’ve learned this about the consumer – once they feel even a little bit comfortable, and the value seems there, they will book.”

Norwegian Plans Phased Return to Service

Norwegian Dawn
Norwegian Dawn

“I will do everything humanly possible to be able to look my own family in the eyes and say they will be safe on our cruise ships,” said Frank Del Rio, chairman and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), on the company’s first-quarter earnings call.

Del Rio said NCLH is working with experts to develop health protocols that will be robust to gain CDC approval and generate confidence among the public. The same process must be replicated around the world.

When the no-sail order is lifted by the CDC, Del Rio said he expects that the company’s brands will return to service in a phased order of roughly five vessels a month, assuming ports are open and they can sail their designated itineraries.

Norwegian Bliss

With 28 vessels, it will take roughly six months to bring the whole fleet back into service. It is also unknown at this point whether they will be allowed to sail at 100 per cent capacity.

Consumer demand is still there, according to Del Rio, despite all the negative press. He noted that bookings are still coming in, despite the suspension of marketing activities, and expects that cash coming in will overtake the net cash outflow (refunds) in the next 60 days.

“There is pent up demand; people want to cruise again,” he added, noting that world cruise segments for the Regent and Oceania brands were sold out, with customers flying to embarkation points in Japan and Dubai.

However, with a booking curve from six to eight months out, it will take time before the pipeline is full or nearly full, he said.

Mark Kempa, CFO and executive vice president, commented that he sees 2021 as a transition year and that NCLH may be able to rebuild in earnest in 2022, bringing the company back on the track it was prior to COVID-19.

Newbuild deliveries may be delayed 12 to 18 months, added Del Rio.

It’s not a great time to woo first-time cruisers

Cruise ships in Costa Maya, Mexico.
Cruise ships in Costa Maya, Mexico. Photo Credit: Byvalet/Shutterstock

In January, Jessica Fricchione and 10 of her family members booked what would have been her first cruise, a Bermuda sailing out of Baltimore leaving on May 31.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, the group’s sailing was cancelled — and they have no interest in taking a future cruise credit.

“No one in the family wants to book a cruise again,” she said, adding that they were looking into a stay at an all-inclusive resort instead. “I don’t ever, ever want to be stuck on a cruise ship.”

Justified or not, the cruise industry’s reputation took a hit from the high-profile Covid-19 outbreaks on a handful of ships in March and April.

Industry stakeholders acknowledge that media coverage of those ships being turned away from ports and, in some cases, of passengers being quarantined in their cabins for weeks on end is most likely to have an impact on the potential-cruiser set.

In a media call last month, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said there was “no question” that the media attention would have an impact on that market segment.

“There have been people who may have been considering [a cruise] who would be having second thoughts at this point in time,” he said.

The first-time cruiser has always been considered critical to the growth of cruising. Despite CLIA lines’ global passenger growth of about 60% since 2009, to 30 million in 2019, cruising is still vastly underpenetrated compared with other vacations: 11.9 million Americans cruised in 2019, only about 3% of the population.

Travel advisors expect that the crisis will cause a decline in the new-to-cruise market.

“When you’re dealing with first-time cruisers, you typically have to overcome some fear of the unknown with cruising, such as seasickness, boredom, claustrophobia,” said Anthony Hamawy, President of Cruise.com. “The current negative press around cruising will add to those fears.”

Signature Travel Network CEO Alex Sharpe said that those who’ve never been on a cruise can’t draw upon personal experience to put into perspective what they are seeing and hearing from the media.

“If you’ve been watching the news and you’re not a cruiser and you can’t put what [ships with Covid-19 outbreaks] have been through in any context with your own family’s great times on a ship, it’s hard to reconcile that and say, ‘That’s my next vacation,’” Sharpe said. “I think new-to-cruise will take a hit in the short term. That will take some time.”

Some cruise lines have found that booked passengers who were new to cruise have been more likely to cancel cruises they had booked during the current operations pause.

Mark Conroy, Silversea Cruises’ managing director of the Americas, said that new cruisers have been more likely than past passengers to cancel and take a refund versus a future cruise credit because they are “more nervous.”

Loyalty program members “will come back first,” he said. “They’re the people that know us and love us and travel with us every year or every other year. They’re the ones that are eager to go.”

Repeat cruisers will lead the way

Many think that those who were once potential cruisers and are now on the fence can be swayed back once cruise lines are up and running.

Charles Sylvia, CLIA’s vice president of membership and trade relations, said that there will be “more challenges ahead with regard to the first-time cruisers” but that people returning from cruises with positive stories will put them at ease.

“Once they see the resumption of operations and once they see friends and family members and co-workers going on cruises and coming home with that same level of enthusiasm and satisfaction, then they will be back — the first-time cruisers will come to us,” Sylvia said.

Donald also said that returning cruise passengers, as well as travel advisors, will be the most important messengers in overcoming the additional concerns non-cruisers have. He added that this is something the industry is accustomed to dealing with.

“We were busy knocking down myths before, and we’ll have to return to that,” he said, adding that the two “most powerful ways” to do that is through travel advisors, “with their knowledge and experience and personal relations with their clients,” and the passengers, who will “provide the kind of testimonials and credibility with their friends and colleagues and relatives.”

And as has always been true for travel coming out of every crisis, for some people, the right price is a big persuader.

“I think, with time, this will be overcome because the vacation value will ultimately win out,” Hamawy said.