If there was one person who could truly be called an icon of the travel industry, it was Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart.
TORONTO — Cruise lines are right up there with airlines when it comes to industry sectors hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. And that’s saying something, considering that damage the pandemic and its travel restrictions have inflicted on the entire industry, retailers and suppliers alike.
In Alaska alone, new stats released April 29 show that 408 sailings have been cancelled so far.
“It’s a little over 800,000 passengers that will not be coming up at this point,” says Mike Tibbles of CLIA Alaska. Originally Alaska was projected to have a record 1.44 million cruise ship passengers this year.
The CDC’s extension of its ‘no sail’ order could halt all cruise itineraries out of the U.S. until at least mid-July.
Amid all the gloom and doom, here are some heartening insights from Vanessa Lee, President, Cruise Strategies Ltd.
Interviewed for Travelweek’s cruise industry analysis coverage in the April 23 issue, Lee had more to say about the future of cruising – and why cruise clients she’s talked to “have no concerns about getting onboard a ship again – and neither do I. When the time is right.”
Q. Can you put into words how dire the current situation is for the cruise industry? Have you seen anything like this before?
Lee: “The whole world situation is extraordinarily dire and incredibly tragic and this is both unprecedented and unimaginable. The pain I feel for my beloved cruise and travel industry is deep and all encompassing.
“However, as both a realist and pragmatist (and also I am an inveterate optimist), I do see that there will still be a cruise business and it will be strong and robust but it may also be quite different than the industry we have known most recently.
“Cruise companies are often very innovative, they have evolved with their onboard offerings and new builds over a number of years and they are populated with some of the finest talent in the business.
“I have no doubt they are considering how best to overcome obstacles, refit ships to offset concerns in certain areas and bring their ships back better than ever, when the time is right. And, they value the travel agency segment of our business, very highly.”
Q. What’s your take on future cruise credits versus refunds from the cruise lines?
Lee: “I think each situation is unique and there may be very compelling reasons for a travel advisor to discuss a refund for a specific client on an individual basis.
“I have been involved in a few of those cases and usually the cruise company will comply with a refund request should a client, for whatever reason, not want to take an FCC.
“The relationship between the travel advisor and the cruise line is invariably a good one and many cruise lines are taking very good care of their preferred agency partners by offering commission on both the cancelled booking and the future cruise booking. This assists with cash flow for every agency and I know it’s much appreciated.
“This is also an ideal time for the advisor to sustain and bring even closer, their personal relationship with their client. Those cruise guests who perhaps booked online with an OTA may not have had this kind of hands-on experience.
“The value of a travel advisor has been enhanced during these difficult times and I know many who have gone to bat for their clients in a variety of circumstances. I do feel that an FCC scenario is very positive and some lines, as you know, are offering over and above a 100% FCC to really entice guests back on board. That is also an encouraging and assuring situation.
“I am also personally aware of a large number of cruise guests who have already booked another cruise for fall 2020 and also plan to cruise in 2021. They have no concerns about getting onboard a ship again – and neither do I. When the time is right.”
Q. When travel restrictions are finally lifted, do you think the cruise industry will bounce back immediately? Or will it be a slow rebound? Why or why not?
Lee: “Our way of life, in every respect has likely changed dramatically for the near future and probably for over a year.
“I expect the cruise industry to return in a calm, suitable way with great thought and attention to detail and as timing dictates in a variety of countries all over the globe.
“Itineraries have already been changed, certain areas of the world will not lend themselves to cruising for some time and others will be more logical recipients for cruise guests.
“Some destinations are ready and willing to receive cruise companies and we must remember that millions of people all over the world rely on cruising and tourism for their livelihood.
“Shorter, closer to home cruises may work for some in the near term along with visits to private islands where the cruise companies can manage their own guest experience on shore as well as at sea.
“River cruising may likely be on more client’s lists and again in certain countries and only to some ports. It is still too soon to determine how it will look by the mid to late summer or early fall.
“But resume it will and there will be many offerings including attractive pricing, very realistic deposit and cancellation policies to offset anxiety, and also a number of good promotions such as SBC’s to appeal to cruisers.”
Q. Is the world seeing the value of travel agents, especially during a crisis like this?
Lee: “I have always been a staunch admirer and advocate of the travel agency community and believe travel advisors will not only survive this incredible difficult test but will actually thrive in the longer term. They have to hang in, continue to service their clients, stay in touch with them and offer assurances in every form possible.
“I look back at 9/11, the SARS crisis, the many recessions I have seen in my 43-year career and I have always seen agents survive, become better, more innovative and more relevant. We are all here to stay and we must stick with each other, as together we are stronger.”