Far from formulaic

Far from formulaic

Cruise lines agree on the basics but diverge on other issues, as Susan Parker discovered when she interviewed some of the industry’s key decision makers on the planning process

Take five cruise lines – Windstar Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Disney Cruise Line, Paul Gauguin Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises – and each clearly has its own particular style of cruising and specific needs. However, when asked to name the most important considerations when planning itineraries, representatives of these lines all list passenger feedback and costs as their main concerns.

Steve Masters, marine operations manager for Disney Cruises, says passenger feedback on previously operated itineraries and ports is “paramount. At the top of this list has to be our passengers’ safety and cruise enjoyment.”

Matt Grimes, who manages planning and operations for Viking Cruises, says: “Where our guests want to go is the number one criterion.”

And at smaller ship operator Paul Gauguin Cruises, VP of product planning and revenue management Oscar Abello says what is very important is “the overall guest experience offered by a call in a particular port and its contribution to the voyage as whole. We pay close attention to our guests’ reactions to ports and closely monitor their feedback and reach out for their input.”

SeaDream Yacht Club VP of voyage planning, destinations and land programmes James Cabello says: “We have great interaction with our club members and we take into consideration their feedback while planning future itineraries. Naturally we also look at destinations that are smaller and better suited to our yachting style.”

Masters says costs are a “massive consideration” with increasing fuel costs meaning thought has to be given to time inside ECAs and trying to operate at an economic speed when designing future itineraries. Cabello adds: “Like everyone else, we find costs naturally play a role in the itinerary planning and development.”

Beyond guest satisfaction and the bottom line, however, the cruise lines have a wide range of concerns and priorities that are particular to each company’s business model.

Susan Salvin, product manager for Windstar, notes that while she can “dream up wonderful itineraries,” particularly with the fleet increasing from three to six ships, realism is key, with time, fuel and distance being very important criteria in the planning process. In this respect she mentions that there is a need to also look at infrastructure in the regions vis a vis how long the ships must go before refuelling, offloading garbage and other practical tasks, as well as provision of airlift for turnaround ports, which may well be in more remote places.

Cabello points out that anchoring is very important for the brand, giving passengers the chance to enjoy the marina platforms and water toys. Travelling at slower speeds and staying later in ports are part of the SeaDream pace, “which sometimes equates to itineraries with fewer miles.”

For Paul Gauguin Cruises, Abello flags up the importance of the location with respect to local activities, sights and town/city centres, navigation requirements and restrictions. Grimes says Viking wants to be in the city centre but with competitive port costs. He comments, however, that “there is a value to being in the right place”, just as some tourists would rather pay extra to fly directly into Venice than take a low-cost airline to Treviso.

Disney’s high repeat rate means it is keen to offer new destinations wherever possible but also leverage its own facilities such as its private island, Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas. Masters says: “This often has the highest guest satisfaction scores of any of the ports we call to.” The company conducts a clinical review of past passenger feedback and ensures the use of its own infrastructure in its deployment whenever possible to maintain satisfaction levels.

For Windstar, “pretty much the whole world is opening up”, says Salvin, with the addition of the three Seabourn ships. “As we grow with these ships our cruising will be extended into regions, for example where zodiacs might be the way forward,” she explains. She cites strong relationships with good operators as being important to delivering the product and also creating tours. “More and more they are realising that it is very important to involve the local communities. People want to learn about where they are going. That whole exposure is important. We don’t want to herd masses of people but to have a special experience.”

Cabello too asks for more port and community involvement: “Cruising in general has become so mainstream that we miss some of the old traditions of small bands playing and having the locals stop by to wave goodbye.”

Turning to the logistical side of a call and what ports might do to assist, Masters highlights congestion as a problem that can compromise the passenger experience. “If the lines know early enough that there are days that should be avoided they can try to plan around this.” However, he adds: “Quite often you don’t know that there is a problem until far too late to be able to make a change without huge cost or passenger inconvenience.”

Grimes agrees, reflecting on how busy the Baltic and Mediterranean are getting. “The infrastructure in some ports doesn’t seem to keep up with the rate at which change is being introduced. We are always waiting for these ports to play catch-up,” he says.

Abello comments that while it is not an issue in many ports, he would like to see others “really work with the port agents and ground operators to streamline the guest experience while in port, especially logistically.”

Grimes says that there are some ports that engage with the cruise lines more readily while others are “a little inflexible in their approach.” He asks: “Try and understand what some of our challenges are.” As far as homeports are concerned, he has had a good experience with those Viking will be using: Stockholm, Barcelona, Venice, Istanbul and Bergen. Of the latter, which is less well-established for turnarounds, he says: “They have had a very open dialogue with us in terms of what we need and what they can provide.”

This article appeared in the Itinerary Planning Special Report. To read the full article, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.

Susan Parker
By Susan Parker
10 December 2014

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