Virtual Happy Hour

As COVID-19 continues to sideline the cruise industry, ships and their personnel aren’t the only ones affected. Those of us who cover it — hundreds of journalists, media and public relations professionals — are also in lockdown, perched in front of computers in our homes, dreaming about when we can get back to sea.

But thanks to technologies like Zoom, we can still interact with our colleagues and share information. The latest example was a virtual happy hour, organized by Harrison Liu, Director of Communications for Atlas Ocean Voyages, and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).

It featured a panel discussion featuring Jane Wooldridge, former Travel Editor and currently Business Editor for The Miami Herald, and president of SATW; Brian Major, Manager – Digital Guides Caribbean for the Northstar Travel Group and Jacqueline Gifford, Editor in Chief, Travel+Leisure.

With our favorite happy hour beverage at hand, the first topic they tackled was what can the cruise industry can do regarding the mainstream shaming of cruise travel after ships were at the early epicenter of the pandemic.

“It makes me sad,” said Ms. Gifford. “I’ve been a cruiser for a long time and our readers are passionate about cruising as well.” The challenge, she said, is two-fold. “One, when COVID first hit, pictures of cruise ships and passengers became the messaging whether we wanted it to or not. Second, people don’t understand what being on a cruise ship is like. Those of us who are passionate about cruising have to do a good job of explaining what is so beautiful and lovely about it. And why we love it. Media has to do a better job of clarifying the message.”

Major noted that he took his first cruise in the early 90s, “and in a way, nothing has changed. We were shamed back then,” he said. “It was a niche vacation and it’s become a mainstream vacation, but a segment of travel writers and journalists still say it’s inappropriate or you’re not doing something right.”

In his view, travel agents are a major part of the answer. “Travel agents have always been at the forefront of explaining to consumers what a cruise entails and what a cruise vacation is all about,” he said. “There’s a lot of education that needs to be done about what a cruise vacation really is.”

“It’s a complex question,” said Ms. Wooldridge. “I am a cruise convert. What I have come to believe is that there is a cruise for everyone at some point in their life.” She related how she heard a TV commentator say they would never go on a cruise. “That’s irresponsible. My job is to report and help people understand what an experience is so they can decide.”

“There are so many wonderful experiences you can only get on a cruise ship,” she continued. “For the next year or two, the industry has a big job to do about how they are going to make it safe.” Convincing people who have never cruised “has always been an uphill battle for cruise lines — now it will be a bigger battle. The cruise companies have an important role to play.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ms. Gifford. “There is a cruise for everyone,” she said. “As an industry we need to keep hammering that home. Cruise lines offer access to places at an affordable price you sometimes can’t get on land. Think about the overall value of the cruise experience. You get so much for what you’re paying.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Wooldridge hopes the cruise lines can implement immediate test results and offer “a definitive way to get people off who are sick. That would make everybody more comfortable and safer.”

“Consumers want assurances, like cancellation policies,” said Ms. Gifford, as well as safety protocols for both passengers and crew, noting “there needs to be an industry-wide response.”

All three panelists agreed the cruise industry needs to speak with one voice. While CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) fills that need partially, the panelists noted that having a unified response to address issues would go a long way with both messaging and instilling consumer confidence.

Another point they all made was the need for reporting that is both truthful and accurate. “Now, more than ever, consumers need information that is reliable,” said Major. “We need to tell the story truthfully.”

While no one has a crystal ball, they know the desire for travel isn’t going away. “Travel has transformed us,” said Ms. Wooldridge. “I would hate to think who I might be without travel.”

Ms. Gifford even made a bold prediction: “When we come out of this, travel will be like the Roaring 20s. People will spend all their money on travel. Just know it’s going to be rough for a little bit.”

Roaring 20s? I think we can all drink to that.

Cover photo: Lemon drops on Crystal Serenity, credit Gerry Barker



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