Five-star service to improve the passenger experience

Jacqui Griffiths explores how operators and suppliers are working together to deliver seamless services
Five-star service to improve the passenger experience
Holland America Line’s Bill Sharp says proactive participation in developing an all-round port is a must

By Jacqui Griffiths |

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Port-side partnerships are critical in delivering the unique experience cruise guests expect. “We know that guests typically expect a seamless process at the pier upon embarkation and disembarkation as well as in port – so we’re developing processes to ensure we can deliver that experience,” says Craig Milan, vice president of Itinerary and shore excursion development at Virgin Voyages, which is due to launch first ship, Scarlet Lady, in 2020. “Our guests – we call them sailors – will want to immerse themselves in authentic local experiences while in port, so we’re being careful about how we select both the ports we will visit and the excursions we’ll offer while we’re there.”

Collaboration with portside operators will be essential to creating the Virgin Voyages guest experience. “We need to ensure that a touch of Virgin is incorporated into the onshore experience for our sailors, which translates to rock-star service, attention to detail and the ability to deliver the unexpected,” says Milan. “It’s critical that ground and cruise operators openly work together to achieve their goals, staying abreast of the latest technology and operational developments.”

Bill Sharp, vice president of port and shore operations at Holland America Line, says the regional appeal and strategic location of ports is important, as well as the facilities and rates they provide. “The port must be able to maintain and expand facilities to accommodate larger ships and, in the case of turnaround ports, terminal capacity,” he says. “It also needs to provide all the required services, such as waste removal, fresh water and competitive labour.”

Proactive participation in developing an all-round port is a must, says Sharp. “We look for ports that actively support shore excursion vendors and retail businesses that complement the port and region. For turnaround ports, it’s essential that they deliver competitive port and stevedoring rates, first-class hotels for pre- or post-cruise guests, modern transportation equipment to transfer the guests to hotels, airports and pre- or post-cruise destinations, and international airports that provide sufficient flights to strategic destination airports.”

Carnival Cruise Line exemplifies how collaboration with portside providers can yield dramatic results. When its research identified embarkation/disembarkation among the top six drivers of overall satisfaction for cruise guests, it decided to improve its entire turnaround process. “Our improvements have cut the total time invested by the guest, from arriving at the terminal to arriving in their stateroom with their luggage, by 47%,” says Terry Thornton, senior vice president of port operations at Carnival Cruise Line. “Our changes to the embarkation and disembarkation process alone have improved our overall guest satisfaction scores by over 10%.”

Allowing passengers to choose their own debarkation time, rather than allotting a time based on their shipboard location, has cut congestion in the port. “Some 80% of our passengers were not leaving the ship at their allotted time, leading to congestion as luggage and crowds accumulated,” says Thornton. “Now, 80% disembark at the time on their tag, so people and luggage flow much more smoothly.”

Smooth disembarkation set the stage for timely embarkation, with enhancements such as automated check-in processes and onboard collection of guests’ stateroom keys reducing queuing in the terminal. “Guests simply check-in and then go through security before they board,” says Thornton. “We also eliminated an entire step of the luggage-loading process, replacing large portside loading cages with smaller trolleys that can be used onboard the ship. It’s a safer, more efficient process; guests get their luggage before dinner and the ship departs on time. That’s important to guests because they feel their vacation truly starts when the ship sails.” 

Thornton says ports are increasingly conscious of the guest experience and their support has been invaluable to Carnival Cruise Line’s efforts. “The ports we work with have been very supportive with things like changes to check-in counter location and escalators to help us facilitate the guest flow,” he says. “They’ve helped us make sure the systems we use for embarkation communicate well with shipboard systems. We also work closely with them to ensure smooth traffic flow to the terminal.”

Carnival is now working with Customs and Border Protection to enable more efficiency improvements. “We’re investigating how facial recognition technology can help reduce the number of guests who need to stop at Customs and Border Protection,” says Thornton. “We’re also looking at ways to enhance our online check-in to eliminate the need for scanning and photography at the terminal.”

Monitoring quality is critical to great service, and passengers and crew members provide the best measure. “Each guest and crew member is part of the Silversea family and their feedback is essential in maintaining high standards for all services provided in ports,” says Elisabetta De Nardo, vice president of port and destinations operations at Silversea. “When a luggage handler, security services provider, terminal operator, port agent or another port-based operator fails to meet Silversea’s high standards, we hear about it from our guests, our ships’ captains and our hotel directors.”  

Silversea sets strict procedures for its portside business partners to follow and works with them to make continuous improvements. “Our shoreside service providers and business partners know that direct contact and periodical meetings offer the best solutions for improving our services in a way that is sustainable for both parties,” says De Nardo. “Many of our partners have detailed, confidential customer satisfaction questionnaires which help us improve the guest experience. We have also introduced ‘secret shopper’ visits at key destinations/turnaround terminals, to ensure each port service is performed with quality and in compliance with international regulations. To maintain a safe and efficient service, we collect safety certificates and evidence of maintenance; monitor luggage delivery times; and control the flow of traffic and personnel where applicable.”

Ultimately, that teamwork builds excellent service quality. “There is always a margin to improve, and all our partners strive for excellence,” says De Nardo. “Our vendors and suppliers don’t work for Silversea, instead they work in partnership with us. Providing high quality services in destinations that can become overcrowded requires cooperation and effort from everyone, including the city, the port, the tourism board and the Chamber of Commerce. When it comes to ‘back stage’ port services – such as fresh water supply, waste removal, towage, gangway positioning and stevedoring – people like our captains, staff captains, chief engineers, hotel directors and store keepers are our lifelines.” 

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