High price to pay when launching a new ship

By Captain Greybeard – John Honeywell, editor, World of Cruising

Cruise ship launches are lavish affairs. And why not? When you have spent maybe half a billion pounds building a vessel that is going to be carrying paying passengers for 30 years or more, it’s worth investing in some extravagant hospitality to get things off to a good start.

I’m not just talking about the christening ceremonies, with big names, headline entertainment, and sumptuous banquets. The pre-inaugural events are where the really big money goes. There’s usually one or two cruises for invited guests – travel agents, media, loyal passengers, and trade partners – all provided with accommodation, entertainment, food … and drink … for FREE.

There’s often a fireworks display, and special performers drafted in – West End star Michael Ball, for example, on P&O Cruises’ Britannia recently. Anthem of the Seas arrived in Southampton for a week of events last month – including two two-day cruises to nowhere, packed with travel agent guests – before setting out on her real maiden voyage.

When Royal Caribbean launched Oasis and Allure of the Seas, they flew guests from around the world to Fort Lauderdale to spend consecutive Thanksgiving Days on the ships – those from the US had been aboard a couple of days earlier so they could still enjoy the holiday with their families. It all pays off in the acres of coverage in print and online, and the hours of TV programming devoted to the new ship. The more the merrier … and even competitor companies benefit from the raised profile of cruising generally.

But there is a hidden cost. While media guests can be trusted to drink in moderation, the same cannot always be said of agents, especially young staff taking advantage of a rare opportunity to leave their office counters behind for 24 or 48 hours.

One cruise line (whose blushes I will spare for the time being) was particularly horrified by the effects of hen party-like gangs of young ladies roaming newly carpeted corridors in the early hours – and the resultant clean-up operation before morning. Even then, attempts to ration the free drinks ladled out at the next event were largely unsuccessful.

Some try to ensure the visiting agents get to see more of the ship than just the bars and the smoking areas – organising treasure hunts and other events with the promise of cash, bonus points, or a free cruise.

But that usually takes care of only the daylight hours. After dark, it’s the Belles of St Trinian’s all over again.

At one Southampton event to introduce a Royal Caribbean ship – I think it might have been Freedom of the Seas – I asked chairman Richard Fain how much his company was spending on the event; what it was costing to give thousands of guests free run of the ship, eating in all the restaurants and drinking the bars dry before paying passengers were allowed on board.

Naturally enough, he wouldn’t say. An amiable chap with a sense of humour attuned to British tastes, he frequently hides behind stock market rules and regulations when avoiding saying anything he’s not ready to say. On this occasion he glanced briefly at his right-hand man, Adam Goldstein, stared at the ceiling, wrung his hands, and simply said: “An unconscionable amount of money.”

The phrase has remained with me ever since, and I was reminded of it recently by a news report on the “compensation” packages paid out to Royal Caribbean executives. Fain’s annual salary was quoted at a relatively modest $1 million. A bonus of $2.2m, stock options totalling $8.6m, and a few other almost insignificant perks took his grand total for 2014 to $12m.

An unconscionable amount of money indeed.

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