Pent-up demand, clients desperate to sail on their favourite ships to glamorous destinations – cruise can come back with a bang next year. Gary Peters reports.
Negativity is a dangerous thing. It can spread like wildfire if left unchecked. All optimism can evaporate in an instant and all difficulties appear insurmountable.
The cruise industry has had a curious relationship with these sentiments in recent times. Such was the progress over recent years, and such were the increasing passenger numbers across all sectors, that it had been a long while since the industry had had to entertain anything other than a general feeling of positivity.
And then along came this virus. Boom. Just like that, distressing headline after distressing headline, proclaiming ships to be dangerous hotbeds of disease, unsafe places that should be avoided. Social media posts appeared – usually accompanied by countless exclamation marks – stating that those who dared to dream of a return to the seas were somehow living in a different reality with no concept of the current worldwide pandemic.
There is, no doubt, a fine line to tread. Industry heads accept there is a need to be mindful of the public perception when encouraging people to buy cruise holidays while, at the time of writing, positive cases of Covid-19 are on the rise.
Nevertheless, the argument goes, what other sector has produced such a comprehensive set of health and safety protocols? What other sector has demonstrated such level of collaboration? What other sector has worked with such an extensive range of medical experts from around the globe? In short, it is light years ahead of many other sectors.
It is for these reasons, cruise experts say, that 2021 can be a year to get back on track and back to doing what cruise does best – providing unique holiday experiences, enjoyed by people of all ages. The news that a vaccine – said to have a 90 per cent success rate – could be available in early 2021 has also boosted optimism.
As John Ferguson, senior cruise consultant at Thorne Travel, explains, the reality is stark: “2020 was supposed to bigger and better than any previous year [for cruising],” he tells CTN.
Next year, however, can make up for a lost nine months, he believes, adding that clients are very keen on no-fly options. “We have seen a huge increase in [demand for] sailings with smaller ships and those that are departing from the UK. Customers find it easier, as they don’t need to fly and can drive to the port at their own leisure.
“It is our jobs as agents to make sure that we help shake off the bad reputation and pick the right ship for our customers, explaining the new safety measures and, more importantly, the fantastic benefits they can get on board.”
Ferguson has even booked himself on a cruise next year with a group of clients, “so that they have me on board as a point of contact”. He adds: “As soon as I booked and started telling my customers, they all followed and that was so nice – they still have faith in cruising.”
Building on the point of what agents can do to support clients, A-Rosa UK & Ireland MD Lucia Rowe says that the lockdown period has in fact allowed many to complete training courses and agents are “arguably more knowledgeable than ever and ready to get selling 2021 and beyond”.
She adds: “We have seen a significant increase in the number of ocean-going customers who are now trying river. Traditionally there was not much crossover, as it was felt that the offering was very different.
“However, while we are wholeheartedly hoping that ocean cruising is able to make a full return soon, it is encouraging to see that those who want to get back sailing right now are giving river a try, and this could provide new opportunities for agents in 2021.”
Agents should be quick, however. Rowe adds that the “second half of 2021 is experiencing the biggest demand right now and some of our most popular summer itineraries in the key months are already full”. She continues: “I would encourage all agents to make sure they are encouraging early bookings to avoid disappointing customers if they have a set route in mind.”
The same can be said for MSC Cruises, as the line’s UK & Ireland director of sales, Steve Williams, explains: “In summer 2021 MSC Magnifica will return to the UK for another full ex-UK season sailing from Southampton. So far demand for these sailings has been really good, with a particular focus on mini cruises as well as the 14-night Mediterranean cruise that sets sail on 7 August 2021.”
That clients are booking for next year and beyond comes as little surprise to Craig Upshall, UK & Europe sales director at Aurora Expeditions, who echoes Ferguson’s sentiments and says that that next year is a “bounce-back opportunity”.
The expedition line is looking forward to a summer season in the Arctic and from October 2021 the Antarctic region. It has also announced plans to visit Alaska and Haida Gwaii, the North West Passage and the Russian Far East in 2022 – itineraries that the line says are selling exceptionally well – and is preparing to welcome new ship Sylvia Earle next autumn. Aurora is also keen to host up to 50 agents on Greg Mortimer when it visits Europe next year.
“With or without a vaccine, the world will need to learn to live with the virus, as we have with past pandemics and other challenges in the world,” says Upshall. “The world will begin to open up and we’ve already seen lines operate in a Covid-free environment, on rivers, oceans and niche destination cruising.
“There’s a huge amount of support for the cruise industry, from both seasoned cruisers and new to cruise, especially in the expedition small-ship sector, and mass-market cruising is making huge strides in terms of dealing with the negativity and in coming together, as we’ve seen with the pledge by CLIA cruise lines for increased testing.”
Of the big ocean lines, MSC Cruises’ ship MSC Grandiosa returned to sailing in August on Western Mediterranean itineraries. At the time of writing and in the light of further lockdowns across Europe, the line has introduced another layer of safety measures, including additional on-board testing for guests midway through the voyage and more testing of the crew on board.
“The feedback so far from the more than 20,000 guests that have sailed with us since August has been very positive,” says Williams, speaking before the latest lockdown announcement. “Guests have enjoyed the security provided by our protected ‘bubble’ shore excursions, with many stating that they feel safer on board than they do ashore.”
Progress such as this provides hope and enables the industry to focus on what is to come, which is music to Clare Dudley’s ears. The managing director at Ponders Travel tells CTN that now is the time to start thinking about tomorrow, not about yesterday.
“I think that there needs to be more talk of the future and less of the past,” she says. “Everyone, more than ever, will want a holiday once this is over.” Dudley’s call to action is to continually feed clients “holiday inspiration and destinations – but always trying to sell, too”.
Williams adds: “With the industry set to welcome new vessels in 2021 including, for MSC Cruises, MSC Virtuosa in April 2021 and MSC Seashore in August 2021, there are positives to take for the future.”
The industry still believes, that much is certain. As Ferguson says: “I will always go out screaming about cruise as it really is the most amazing experience.”