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Op-Ed: Cruise… The Day After

Op-Ed by Ioannis Bras, CEO Five Senses Consulting

It’s been more than a month since the pause on cruise worldwide due to COVID-19 and what we initially thought would be a small pause looks like it still has a long way to go with most companies planning to restart operations in mid to late June. The cruise companies as well as the whole tourism sector have been forced to prepare for an even bigger impact which will be deep and will cause a serious economic problems for everyone.

In this phase, one could say that the questions outnumber the answers as to how the rest of the year will develop. The biggest challenge that the companies have come face to face with, is not how they will program their next trips but how, when and where their ships will be able to refuel, get supplies from and give out waste to etc. but also when they will be able to anchor or/and berth into ports, reducing this way the cost of operation as on most of them there is only some crew and they are on the water for over 25+ days without any confirmed case. Additionally, some companies have to face serious issues with their crew change as many governments are hesitant to allow for repatriation.

It is obvious that today’s situation could not have been predicted as the world wide lockdown for such a long period of time was not even a case scenario. It is also a fact that at the beginning of this pandemic the companies were planning to keep the majority of crew on board hoping that the “storm” would pass quickly and soon part of operations would start again. The reality made the companies re schedule fast and a large part of the crew have returned home, as even if the situation gets better it is still uncertain how many and which ships will return and on which itineraries throughout the world. There have been reports that possibly a 20-30% of the world cruise ships will not sail again for the rest of the year.

In this unique situation the companies will have to re schedule their whole strategic plan following a special risk management assessment as they will have to figure out solutions for their recovery through four basic areas. 1. Economical 2. Operational 3. Structural 4. Procedural

The larger companies of the industry are expected to use various techniques which will help them stand on their feet and these include: reducing expenses, postponing renovation programs, using available cash flow, seeking new loans and requesting increase on available credit. Also existing debt towards them could be “sold” in order to increase the available cash flow. It is also certain that the reservation departments have re-opened, offering very generous discounts and flexible terms in hope that many loyal customers will deposit large amounts of money on future cruises receiving extra amenities and credits as a bonus towards their loyalty in today’s difficult times.

Analysts claim that after six months of total inactivity, large companies will start facing major problems, whereas small companies are reaching this situation much sooner.

Which, however, would be the first step towards the reverse of this situation? This varies, even though the best news would be the confirmation of the availability of the vaccine or/and official news on the real effectiveness of one or more of the medications that treat the symptoms and are being tested today in various parts of the world. A next step would be the relaxation of measures making us all stay at home, and the next to allow for flights and travel to start once again. Even like that, quite a few loyal customers and even new ones will want to make their reservations as a cruise can and does offer unique experiences and many different places on one trip.

Many companies have found new ways of communication and smart marketing via social media even by creating  web tv channels where news, experiences and a lot more subjects are presented, hoping this way they can communicate the message “we are here waiting for you as soon as the situation allows it”.  This also helps the morale for both the crew onboard and the fans of cruising around the world

Covid-19 and the travel industry

The big question that remains is how the companies are going to convince even their loyal customers that their ships are ready and safe to offer unique experiences again. All the services, safety measures, protocols must be re visited and re scheduled according to the new reality. New standards and procedures regarding the checking of crew and passengers for COVID-19 must be created, either concerning temperature checks and/or rapid tests which they will be carried before embarkation but also on board when needed as a standard requirement from now on (as soon as this is possible of course), or the disinfection procedures which will be followed on a daily basis on a very tight and intense program to cover all possible areas (rooms, hallways, public Areas, WC, lifts, theaters, restaurants etc.). Furthermore, better hospital-like infrastructure must be created on board the ships and larger and well prepared medical teams who will accompany the ships must be hired. Cruise is an experience but most of all it is psychology and the above measures-suggestions will be tomorrow’s “guarantee’’ that the situation is handled and the crew and the passengers are COVID-19 free.

There are technological solutions on how to make areas more clean and safe but more importantly, all of us are now more educated, I hope, on how to maintain our personal hygiene in more detail, for the benefit of everyone.

If we take a glimpse into the future we will see that soon after the announcement of the relaxation of the measures there will be difficulties in retrieving the crew, problems with visas and air travel and of course difficulties in re-scheduling the itineraries from the beginning as many areas will still follow their countries guidelines and instructions for restarting cruising.

Therefore, it makes sense that in the beginning there will be test sails to nearby destinations even perhaps within the country of homeporting of the cruise as the recent experience of needing to repatriate passengers and crews from foreign counties must not be repeated. In addition, we may not see long trips and the first with cruises to be 3, 4 or 5 days long depending on the geography and the distances between the destinations. One more thing that we must forget about is open buffets whereas there will have to be a different seating configuration. There will definitely be disinfectants everywhere as well as directions for our personal hygiene but also for the safety check when entering and exiting each port.

One more important factor is the way each country faced the cruise companies through the period of their greatest challenges. This will determine their future strategy and support towards these specific markets. Greece has given and will continue to give its safe assistance to the cruise companies even though some news portals and a small percentage of the public may not want that as they fear the rumors and are effected by the fake news. However, better coordination and quicker decision making on setting international standards a ‘’Code of Covid’’ if you like on the ways the Ships, Ports and Passengers are disinfected will be crucial to ensure maximum safety for all.

One thing that the crisis has definitely taught us is that people who can manage situation like these are required. A National Coordinator for Cruise is required that together with a small flexible team of experts will be able to help and coordinate the speediest recovery possible.

The procedure of readjusting the itineraries, if all goes well, are expected to start mid-May in order to begin itineraries end of June, beginning of July. All destinations including Greece which are interested and have the ability to talk to the decision-making centers and the itinerary planners must take action in order to secure the maximum traffic for their destination for the rest of the year. It is certain that destinations which will have the necessary technical know-how as well as the best organization will manage to recover faster. A lot of destinations have already planned or have acquired special equipment which prevents the spread of SARS-CoV-2 with body temperatures measuring of all incoming passengers before they enter the destination, through specially-made boxes which will be placed outdoors and also regular disinfection of Terminals, WC, parking areas etc. Initiatives as such increase the feeling of safety for the destination and will help during the selection of the destinations in the after COVID-19 era and need to be communicated to all cruise lines.

Covid-19 and the travel industry

When the time comes, Greece and the Greek people must support the cruise which starts from the country and especially the companies which have supported small destinations and the islands. Let’s not forget that the cruise industry, many decades ago, supported the Greek Tourism and highlighted global destinations which today are the countries moving power in the global tourism market, on social media but also the international jet set.

The cruise industry will come out of this crisis stronger, with better services and new protocols but at the same time this recovery will take time and hard work.

Let’s hope that May will give us the news we are all expecting. Until then, #StaySafe.

* Ioannis Bras is the founder and CEO of Five Senses Consulting & Development, a boutique consulting company that specializes in Cruise Development for Ports and destinations and Digital Destination Marketing projects.
From 2010 and for 6 years he was the head of Heraklion Port Authority S.A. and he was also the Vice-chairman of Hellenic Ports Association. His prime focus was the strategic planning and development of the port and destination, emphasizing on the Cruise Business and the promotion of relationships with all stakeholders. Results of these efforts, among other things, are the eighteen national and international awards he has won.
He is also the Project Manager responsible for the creation of 33 Seaplane bases for the Region of South Aegean in Greece.
Mr. Bras has degree as a Structural Engineer and MSc in Project. 

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