As Royal Caribbean and Celebrity announce plans to return to the Caribbean this summer, many questions remain about when cruising will fully restart.
Ensemble Travel Group hosted an agent panel as part of its Restart Sessions video series to get expert insight on the state of the industry and whether consumers are ready to cruise.
Participating in the panel was Winnipeg’s Megan Reimer, Owner of Cruise Vacations, alongside two U.S.-based advisors, DeeAna Archer, Owner of Archer Luxury Travel and Jeff Sturman, Owner of Best Cruises.
Moderated by Gene Sloan, Cruise Editor for The Points Guy, here are some of the key takeaways from the panelists:
How have you been managing your business as well as your clients during the pandemic and the suspension of cruising?
Reimer: In the early days of the pandemic, you couldn’t even say the “c” word – people didn’t want to hear about taking a cruise. But now with so many more people getting vaccinated and a sense that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we are seeing a lot of people interested in using their credits as well as new bookings.
I also started a newsletter – but whenever I mentioned anything about travel, I got lots of opt-outs. So I tried to just connect with clients on everything BUT travel. I’m starting to introduce some domestic travel ideas within Canada, and reminding people about using future travel credits. I’ve also been doing fun virtual events that have been very successful as a way to stay connected with clients.
Archer: Up until recently, we had stopped sending anything – offers, our newsletter, etc. People just didn’t want to hear about travel. But now things are insane and we are booking a lot of travel and our clients are travelling now.
Sturman: Up until a month ago, people didn’t want to hear from us. When we sent out offers, we got opt-outs instead. We used this time to really organize our business spending a lot of time cleaning up our database so that we can reconnect with clients who have travelled with us before and who we know are ready to sail again.
How do you think cruising will be different?
Reimer: We are all used to the new normal in our daily lives and cruising will be different for a while, too. I think that at least in the beginning with the first sailings, we’ll see a lot of safety and health protocols that will be reduced as time goes on and the numbers show that the virus has stopped spreading.
Sturman: Things are always changing as we go through different phases of the pandemic. I think there will be strict protocols in the beginning on the first sailings, but that as time passes and the pandemic starts to fade, those will likely be slowly lifted.
Archer: I think there will be more emphasis on in-room or more semi-private experiences as people will look to be with fewer people or just the group that they’ve travelled with such as extended family or a group of friends.
What is your advice to clients who want to cruise again?
Reimer: Book now. Get your name on a list and put down a refundable deposit – there is literally no risk in doing so. But if you wait a year and think you’re going to get the cruise and cabin you want at the price you want, you’re going to be disappointed.
Sturman: We also have to be honest with our clients about what we don’t know.
Archer: I’m using this experience as an opportunity to get clients cabins they never might normally get. We are booking a lot of our clients in suites with private pools, decks and experiences they can get right in their cabin so they don’t have to interact with other people if they don’t want to.
What are your thoughts on how the U.S. and Canadian governments have handled their response to the suspension of cruise travel?
Reimer: We were certainly surprised that there would be no ships here until next year. But I think we’re just resigned to the fact that it’s out of our control. I also think that for some clients, there was a sense of relief that they didn’t have to make the decision themselves of whether or not to go.
Sturman: I believe you have to trust the science. It’s hard to get angry if this is what the experts think is necessary.
Archer: I think that if the cruise lines feel confident about their ability to sail safely, we should trust them to make those decisions. I also think that there are options that would and could make it safe. For example, just cruising to the cruise line’s private island with no other stops.
Are you seeing increased interest in River Cruising or Smaller Ships?
Reimer: We are booking a lot of river cruises, but these are mainly people who have previously taken them. We are seeing a lot more interest in the smaller ships. One significant change since the pandemic started is that I have not booked one inside cabin. Everyone wants a balcony or some kind of outdoor space.
Sturman: My ocean cruise clients are not necessarily interested in changing to river cruising, but we are seeing increased interest in moving to a smaller ocean ship experience.
Archer: Most of my clients are reluctant to book river cruises right now and it’s mainly because they are still concerned about the travel restrictions to Europe. We are seeing more interest in the Caribbean and Bahamas. Even for those travellers who are sailing on the larger ships, we are focused more on the “ship within the ship” experience.
Are your clients ready to go now or do they want to see how it goes with those first sailings?
Reimer: For Manitobans, I think they will wait a bit. While cruisers are the most loyal travellers, they just aren’t ready just yet – but we think things are going to be crazy in 2022.
Archer: Now! I have a list that is pages long of people who want to be on the first cruise. They don’t care what they will have to do, even for those who are vaccine-reluctant will get it if it means they can take a cruise.
Sturman: It’s a little different here in the Northeast. Our clients – who skew a little older – really want to get away, but they aren’t ready to go now and are happy to wait until 2022.
***Please note responses were edited for brevity.