Hundreds of travel advisors descended on Ft. Lauderdale this week, “the center of the cruise universe for travel advisors in North America,” just a short walk away from ships docked in Port Everglades. Advisors once again came together for Cruise360, the annual celebration of the industry run by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
If the theme of last year’s Cruise360 was bringing advisors and partners back together and writing a love letter to the cruise industry, this year’s conference focused on the future, mainly the incredibly glowing opportunities on the horizon for all of CLIA’s stakeholders—cruise lines, ports, and travel advisors.
While COVID-19 and its impact are still very much impacting the industry, the message from the conference was that the light at the end of the tunnel is more apparent than ever and major opportunities are waiting up ahead.
“We are in a historic moment in time,” Charles Sylvia, the vice president of industry and trade relations told attendees during the opening general session on Wednesday. “The convergence of our value proposition being better understood than ever before and the limitless opportunities represented by a cruise industry that is roaring back strong than ever.”
“The renaissance of the travel advisor profession has begun,” he added.
CLIA expects 100% of its ocean-going capacity, over 200 cruise ships, to be sailing by August, a massive feat for an industry that had a grand total of zero ships on the water at some points over the past two years.
CLIA’s role in that recovery was to lead the industry and its advisors through that period of uncertainty, according to its president and CEO Kelly Craighead.
“Our work is really promoting cruising to government agencies and authorities,” she said, adding that advisors and CLIA members are what gives the organization its pull.
“During the pandemic, everyone had a role to play, and without the kind of leadership that we had from our cruise line leaders, our other partners, but most especially you, this industry would have never restarted,” she said.
The expectation, according to Craighead, is to “get on back to where we were before the pandemic by 2023,” including recovering the capacity, demand, jobs, and revenue that the cruise industry was producing prior to the pandemic.
But the lessons from the pandemic shouldn’t be forgotten once that point is reached, she added.
“The resilience we demonstrated during the pandemic is going to be vital for so many of the other challenges that are coming.”
During the annual President’s Panel, Cruise Planners’ Michelle Fee welcomed four major cruise line presidents for a state-of-the-industry update—MSC USA’s Ruben Rodriguez, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Harry Sommers, Princess Cruises’ John Padgett, and Royal Caribbean’s Michael Bayley.
All four members of the panel were optimistic about the short and long-term prospects of the industry, including the most recent news of the CDC’s removal of the cruise travel warning entirely.
“I’m encouraged,” Sommers said. “It’s been a long two years and over the course of those two years there have been low points and high points,” he added, explaining that there seems to be “stability” now that there wasn’t moving forward.
“I can’t read the future and I don’t know what it’s going to be in two months or three months. If things continue I see a road to normalcy by the summer,” Sommers said.
Rodriguez added that part of his optimism is coming from the fact that even with inflation, with less discretionary spending for consumers and higher costs for operators, “guests still want to get back out there, they want leisure time together.”
“For all of us and all of our travel partners, the ability to bring those who are new to cruise is better than ever,” he added.
According to Bayley, Royal’s research shows that the net promoter score among its cruisers, a data point that measures consumer satisfaction with their cruising experience, is the highest it has ever been.
And while that is coming from a lot of past guests and repeat cruisers, he’s confident that the high level of experience available onboard will continue to drive first-time cruisers, which is
“Honesty and truth of such a phenomenal vacation proposition are going to change people’s minds,” he said. “We just have to work together, we have to communicate and coordinate. We have to get people back on a cruise.”
In terms of what’s driving the consumer right now, the panel said that it’s still a high level of discretionary funds available, which has led to a “record level” across onboard spending according to Bayley.
That goes with people booking multiple vacations at once—according to Sommer, Norwegian has had some cruises where 60% of the guest onboard book their next cruise while they’re onboard the ship.
Booking trends are also starting to return to normal, though there is still a lean towards closer-in and closer-to-home sailings, according to Rodriguez.
Going forward, Padgett said that one trend that is not going away is the want to connect and stay connected whether that’s to work or to home life.
“Something that is a thread through everything is connectivity, connectivity, connectivity,” he said. “From a Princess standpoint, we really pride ourselves in having great connectivity.”