COVID & The Cruise Industry!                         (May 16, 2022)

What recovery looks like and how the consumer is benefiting!

As a person who works in management and leadership training efficiencies with a background in the bar and restaurant business, it’s virtually impossible to dine, stay in a hotel or take a cruise without evaluating the quality of services and product during the experience. The opinions expressed are simply mine.  The bottom line to this article is, “if you ever wanted to experience cruising”, now is the time to book for maximum value at the most reasonable rates. Go book your first cruise or your first long (14 days plus) cruise.

While not considered a full-time cruiser, my wife and I have ventured out on approximately a dozen cruises over the past 8 years or so. While not cruising during the COVID pandemic, we have cruised “post pandemic” for a total of 26 cruise days between Jan. 15, and May 8, 2022, embarking on three different cruise lines over that 112-day period.

General Information:

Typically, just over 50% of the estimated 28.3 million cruising the oceans of the world in 2019 were from the United States (estimates based on projections using numbers from the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) ). USA citizens represent 5 times more cruisers than the next ranked country. We are the bulk of the cruising population, plain and simple. Cruising in 2020 and 2021 was virtually non-existent. Health concerns continue to affect the cruise industry. It is because of this, opportunity is knocking!

The FCCA stated that their members have a combined order for 50 new ocean-going vessels between 2018 and 2025.  While that may have been delayed a bit due to the pandemic, the FCCA acknowledges that cruising is a growing industry.

Prior to the pandemic, cruising was growing at the rate of over 4% per year (FCCA report). It appeals to a wide audience, from young to old.  

The most popular cruise destinations are: (Per FCCA)

Caribbean/Bahamas
Mediterranean
Other markets
Europe w/o Mediterranean
China
Australia/New Zealand/Pacific
Alaska
South America

My evaluation of the cruise industry is based on what I perceive as the six different areas of operation which include, but are not limited to, the following:

Ship operation and maintenance
Hotel operations
Food and beverage operation
Entertainment offerings and delivery
Excursions  
Casino operation (if applicable)

Ship Operations and Maintenance:

As of this writing, the COVID requirements placed and/or recommended to the industry seem to vary from country to country. It appears the industry is attempting to satisfy both the comfort level of the consumer while at the same time, dealing with the wide range of requirements, recommendations and regulations put in place by confused, yet well-meaning governments and pseudo governmental agencies including the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and The World Health Organization (WHO).

Each of the 3 cruises we took required a negative Covid test within 1-3 days of embarkation. One of the cruise lines require the negative test and then tested us again, just prior to boarding. All wanted to see our shot records. The good news was that there was no requirement for masks on the last cruise.

As of May 2022, different ports (cities & countries) have different requirements regarding masks. Some on tenders and buses and nowhere else. A couple spots were still officially requesting masks indoors but with little to no enforcement. It seemed most are relaxing all such requirements.

The maintenance of the ship at the surface level such as unsightly rust markings from the salted sea air on balconies and gutters of the different decks seemed to be slightly more than I’ve been accustomed to seeing in the past. I assumed that was the result of the ships sitting dormant for many months without a full maintenance staff in operation during the shutdown. In any event, all three of our cruise lines did have, what seemed to be, many workers cleaning, scraping, and painting throughout the ship. This gave us confidence.

It appeared to me that Ship Operations in terms of the captain and officers in charge of the ship, including security, were intact and unchanged. I suspect that’s because the cruise lines were able to keep their officers and experienced staff on payroll or otherwise engaged during the Covid shutdown. In any event, I, and the group I traveled with had the utmost confidence in the operation of the ship and I believe you can too. 

Hotel Operations:

In this section we’re talking about the cabin you’ve booked and all related services.  In a hotel, we have location/view, maid service, room service and price to consider. On a cruise, we have location/type of cabin, a steward, room service and price.  Most that have cruised on a regular basis, figured out their personal preference for the front, mid or aft (aft = rear of the ship)  of the ship within a cruise or two. There are pluses and minuses for each location.

The five basis types of cabins are the inside, ocean view, balcony, mini-suite, or luxury suite. Within those five basic variations are many more classifications.

We found the organizational side of the hotel operations in slight need of help.  As an example, we booked two aft cabins with larger than normal balconies, side by side on deck 15 of a particular ship. This was the highest deck of aft facing balconies offered.

While my wife and I had already been on 12 cruises, it was the very first cruise for the couple we were traveling with. I had arranged the cabin locations with the ship’s booking agent. When we arrived, it appeared that five people were booked into the cabin next to ours, the couple we were traveling with and another three people we did not know.

The steward was confused and had the cabin set for the party of three. All our friend’s info had clearly confirmed that this was their cabin.  We had booked them together almost a year earlier.

So, their first experience on a cruise ship included moving them twice over the first several hours on the ship before they had a comparable cabin which turned out to be just one cabin removed from ours and still at the aft of the ship but now, not next to us.  At the first move, they were told they had been given an “upgrade”.  That room, while yes, it did fit the “Mini-suite” category, was mid ship with a tiny balcony and appeared old and tattered compared to the original cabin. Plus, now they were on a different deck in a different area of the ship than us. They came away from that feeling like they had been fed a line to cover some sort of mistake.

Next, with Covid as the reason, we were told on each of the ships that only one cabin service was being done per day rather than the normal service of the cabin in the morning and turndown service in the evening.

I later learned via interview with hotel management that most or all the cruise lines are experiencing a “manning” problem (cruise industry lingo for staffing). Turns out the pandemic has created various visa problems for many of the international staff that normally staff the ship and positions. This is primarily impacting 2 areas, the hotel operations and the food and beverage operations.

Because of the visa problems and Covid stoppage, it has been difficult for the industry to get staffed back up. This has manifested itself with other countries than usual supplying a workforce and less experienced personnel being represented in the international mix. The result seemed to be slightly poorer service.

On one of our three recent cruises, after a cabin move of our own because of excessive noise inside the walls (pipes banging), we enjoyed the experienced service by a steward from Indonesia. This was the excellent service and pampering that cruise lines have become known for and what you can expect when booking.   

Food and Beverage Operations:

This area of operation, in my opinion, was the most affected.  Again, via interview with officers in charge of food and beverage, it is first a staffing problem. The cruise lines have had to make some adjustments which include what might be referred to as “Simplified Operations”.

An example of this might be as simple as the purchasing of a precut and breaded chicken strips for use in the chicken fingers rather than the fresh cutting of the chicken on the ship and breading it in their kitchens just prior to frying or baking the fingers.

I am not certain of the short staff percentage, but it clearly exists, and I suspect a lack of experience on cruise ships could also be affecting some of the kitchen and wait staff.

The issue the industry is experiencing was particularly noticeable in their “specialty restaurants”.  We typically opt for one or more evenings in the specialty restaurants. It could be the steak house, the Italian room, hibachi, French, or any other specialty restaurant.  These typically have an upcharge, from $28 to $95 per person and are well worth the upcharge for the experience and quality.

During our 26 days of cruising, we went to four upgrades and canceled a fifth. Of the four we went to, one was amazing (as is our usual experience and what you can expect), one was good, one was bad,  and one was really terrible in both quality of food and service. It lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes with periods of 20 and 30 minutes at a time with dirty plates and not a server in sight and empty wine glasses.  Very disappointing for a meal that should have been a 2-hour experience.  

Also, perhaps because of the number of passengers (all ships were running 40% to 70% capacity), not all the buffet sections were open. At times it seemed as though the buffet staff was short as well.

In addition to the above, whether you had purchased the “beverage package” or not, it was often difficult to order a drink throughout the ship. This seemed to be a consistent problem on all 3 cruises.

Entertainment offerings and delivery:

Boom, this was a homerun.  The entertainment on all three cruises was fantastic. From the various lounges to the main lobby bars, bingo games, trivia, to the various indoor and outdoor events and to the comedy clubs and big production shows in the big showroom.

In this area, it’s like they have not missed a beat. Again, I interviewed to find out why this area seemed to be in full operation. It was explained that most of the entertainer’s hail from the USA or Canada and there is little or no visa issues with these countries. Plus, they are like vendors/contractors signing on for services which creates a simpler administrative process for hiring.  The performers can easily fly to meet the ship at different ports with little or no difficulty.

Excursions:

The excursions seem to be back up and running at almost 100%. The variable in delivery is the country or port where the excursion is taking place. If that port is still having some mandatory lockdown or distancing requirement, the excursions have been modified, switched out for another, or canceled but otherwise seem in full operation.

In any event, remember, when booking excursions in new and different countries, it’s recommended that you book through the ship, even if the cost seems a bit higher than what may be available on a google search. Why? If there is an issue with timing on getting back to the ship, or other problem, the cruise line takes responsibility. If you’re out there booking on your own, you could get left and it’s your responsibility to figure out how to rejoin the ship, if possible, or get home.

Casino Operations:

The Cruise industry casino operations also appear to be in full swing.  They have machines and live games from craps to blackjack to three card poker and more.  It is typically a fun experience for the avid and new gamer alike.

The ships generally open the casino once they are a full twelve (12) miles off the coast of whatever country they’ve left and remain open while in international waters.

If you do happen to enjoy gambling, often there are cruise opportunities which make the trips so affordable, it’s hard not to go.

An example of this might be our neighbors who joined us on one of the three cruises. While not huge gamblers, because of their past play and the state of the “recovering” cruise industry, they received an offer for a 14-day cruise for $100 per person plus they received a $100 cabin credit. Yes, they had to pay port fees and gratuities on top of the $100. In the big picture, they paid about $400 a piece for a 14-day cruise….An unbelievable GREAT deal.

The Cruise Industry Payoff and Recommendations:

Yes, the industry has a few issues to resolve. They are pros and they will get that staffing issue solved and regain the (Covid) safety confidence of their cruisers.

In the meantime, which may last for the next 12 to 18 months, opportunity is knocking on some great deals to cruise all over the world. I am seeing some ridicules pricing for some of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean and the Bahamas not to mention Mexico and other parts of the world.

Here is the deal. There is a cost associated with leaving the port for every ship which does not change. Whether they are 50% full or 100% full the fuel to power the ship is the same. The cost of staffing the ship remains almost the same and there are many fixed costs which exist regardless of the number of passengers.

The cruise lines would rather sail with a full ship, knowing that passengers may purchase drinks, excursions, specialty restaurants, or even play in the casino which all generate additional revenue for the cruise line.

The bottom line:

If you have ever considered taking a cruise or booking your next cruise, right now might just be the best time for value you will see for years to come!

My philosophy, go out and live a Big, Happy, Crazy Life!

Take advantage of the cruise industry recovery period and kind of help them at the same time! It might just be the beginning of the greatest adventure of your life.    

 JC Melvin
Speaker, author, trainer                                                                                              
CEO, Leadership Trainers International                                                           
www.LTInetwork.com

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