Look to the Past to See the Future of Cruising
First published in The Maritime Executive, May 2020.
“Cruise shipping seemed dead…”1
“…the city was ready to consign its cruise industry to Davy Jones’ locker…companies went out of business and the remaining liners sailed like ghost ships, full of fear and bad jokes”2
“The already hard-hit cruise industry faces further curtailment”3
“Contending the future of cruise shipping in New York is at stake…through increased fees that could wipe out the cruise business here”4
Sounds like that could be in today’s news headlines.
The passenger shipping industry has been here before. Passenger travel significantly declined in the 1960s with the introduction of mass air travel and affordable package holidays. Available data shows passenger figures dropped by 60%. Many thought passenger travel was finished and the ships might as well be sold for scrap metal or tied up and used as hotels because demand was declining.
What does this have to do with the current Covid-19 crisis? It reminds us of the incredible resiliency and fortitude of the cruise industry. It reminds us that those who are passionate about the product will find a way to succeed. And it points to the need to innovate to better meet the challenges of what is happening ashore.
The cruise industry emerged through a combination of targeted marketing, innovation, and consolidation. Many new brands launched, some failed, many succeeded, to the point at least 62 brands were operating globally at the start of the pandemic. What helped was the resiliency of the industry to adapt the onboard experience to better reflect societal changes happening ashore.
The move to ‘cruising for all’ led by Carnival Cruise Line and others including Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Norwegian Caribbean Lines in the 1970s helped solidify a holiday experience that anyone could enjoy regardless of socio-economic background. Changing the relationship with travel agencies also had a huge impact as cruise lines moved to dealing directly with travel agents rather than tour operators which helped maximize capacity.
Imaginations were ignited with the popular TV show ‘The Love Boat’ which introduced thousands to the cruise experience. Cruising began to be seen as something for everyone, and not only a niche market. And significantly, the onboard experience innovated. Balconies began to appear in ship design and become affordable. Itineraries expanded and became port-intensive to maximize what passengers wanted. Ports were developed around the world. The onboard experience became full of choices, with experiences that have become commonplace. 18 dining options? Standard now, but this would have been inconceivable prior to the mega-ship coming onto the market.
Ship design and experience have often reflected not only the technological advances in engineering but also rapid cultural, societal, and economic changes happening ashore. Cruise ship design has reflected the cultural and social norms of the time. This can be seen in the move to two-class ships in the 1930s and the move to one-class cruising in the 1970s. The Blue Riband became a symbol of nation building and reflected the power relations and political and economic dynamics ashore. The global recession in 2008 affected the industry through the introduction of passenger fuel surcharges and weak consumer spending with more people looking for last-minute bargains at that time. The industry met those challenges and thrived. Recent shoreside technological advances have also changed the way passengers interact and experience a cruise. Look no further than wearable devices and the use of smart technology, and how this is transforming the passenger experience not only onboard but streamlining embarkation too.
Covid-19 presents wholly unprecedented challenges and many barriers to resuming anything near normal operations. Hurdles to be crossed right now include navigating through travel bans, mass global uncertainty, tourists’ fear, and unknown demand let alone the operational and technological challenges of meeting the CDC and other requirements.
Ships tied up. Declining demand. Barriers to access ports. Government red tape. The present seems bleak.
But let’s look to the past and find hope for the future. Even when many said passenger shipping was finished and no one would want to sail anymore, through re-positioning itself and focusing on the passenger experience, the cruise industry developed into the astonishing success it is today. The emergence of cruising as a mainstream vacation was a result of innovations in ship design, radically different onboard experience, and new emerging port destinations. Although market conditions were very different to the current circumstances, we can still draw on the remarkable strength of the cruise industry back then to reinvent itself.
More confidence needs to be instilled in consumers pointing to the longevity and history of innovation in the cruise industry. Several shipping lines were founded in the 1800s and have made it successfully through the Crimean War, World War I and II, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, 9/11, and many other global difficulties. The focus needs to be on the legacy of strength and resiliency. ------------------------------
1 (The Miami Herald, May 23, 1980) 2 (The San Francisco Examiner, October 4, 1970) 3 (Chicago Tribune, Dec 31, 1962) 4 (Daily News, New York, May 16, 1969)