Problem solving for the perfect itineraries

Rebecca Gibson asks executives from Costa Cruises, Marella Cruises and V. Ships Leisure how they overcome the challenges of planning the perfect itinerary

Problem solving for the perfect itineraries
Marella Cruises’ ships take guests to destinations around the world, including Fort-de-France in Martinique

What are the top challenges you face when it comes to deciding which ports and destinations to include on your itineraries? How do you resolve these issues?

Federico Bartoli, itinerary planning director at Costa Cruises: We prefer to talk about priorities rather than challenges when we’re designing itineraries. Our three mandatory priorities when it comes to evaluating whether a port or destination should be on our itineraries are: safety and security, feasibility and accessibility. If we find two ports that offer the same level of these three attributes, we’ll choose the one that offers the most interesting onshore experiences for our guests. We never lose sight of the fact that our mission is to provide unforgettable holidays.

Neil Duncan, head of trading and planning at Marella Cruises: Port congestion is one of the biggest challenges, but it can be solved if cruise operators plan sailings well in advance – at Marella Cruises we’re already working on our summer 2021 itineraries. Another of the main problems we encounter when planning itineraries is that most ports aren’t developing their infrastructures at the same speed as cruise lines are introducing new ships to the market. To resolve this, cruise operators must improve communication and collaboration with the ports and destinations they want to visit to ensure that everyone works together to provide the best possible customer experience.

Hugues Lamy, director of port operations at V. Ships Leisure: Our first challenge is to build itineraries that alternate between busy and relaxing destinations, all of which need to offer a high-quality experience to guests. Another challenge is dealing with the berthing policies of all the different ports, as well as congestion and the growing number of regulatory policies that govern how vessels must be operated in different regions of the world.

Can you outline the main barriers to visiting certain ports and suggest what changes these destinations could make to win more cruise business?

Bartoli: If you look at industry trends, it is clear to see that there will be huge growth in the global cruise fleet over the next few years – both in terms of the size and number of ships. Once they’re in service, we’ll face issues with finding ports that have adequate infrastructure for hosting our vessels and welcoming our guests. Consequently, we’d suggest that ports and cruise lines improve their relationships so we can work together to ensure that infrastructure grows at the same pace as the global cruise ship fleet.

Duncan: Ports should decide which cruise operators they want to attract and then do their research – there’s no point in a port wasting time talking to a cruise line if it has no ships sailing in that region or if its vessels won’t fit in the harbour. It’s also vital that ports collaborate with the local tourism board and attractions so they can create a strong portfolio of reasons for cruise ship operators to visit their destination. Geopolitical issues can be a barrier to growth and, unfortunately, the Black Sea, Turkey, Red Sea and North African regions have suffered from this in recent years. However, these areas are likely to return to the cruise map soon because they have some amazing landmarks and attractions that our guests would love to see.

Lamy: Many ports are facing pressure to limit the number of cruise ships from local communities. When destinations try to accommodate too many cruise ships in one day, or even in one season, it starts to negatively affect the passenger experience for several reasons. Often, the local community begins to resent the cruise industry for interrupting their daily lives and this can be reflected in the way they interact with passengers when they’re exploring the destination. Over-tourism can also cause flora and fauna to deteriorate, which impacts the environment and makes the destination a less attractive proposition for cruise guests. Consequently, ports must find sustainable ways to grow their business.

What challenges do you face once you have designed an itinerary and how can ports and destinations help you to avoid these issues?

Bartoli: After we’ve defined our deployment plans internally, the first issue we face is that every port has its own specific berthing policy, which can make it tricky to finalise an itinerary. Some ports take a first come, first served approach, whereas others ask cruise lines to submit berthing requests during a specific time period and then we have to wait to find out whether we’ve been given a slot. It would be much easier for cruise operators if ports followed some common guidelines. In addition, we must ensure that the ports we’ve chosen to visit will be able to provide fast, seamless and high-quality services – and make it easy for us to organise shore excursion departures. Ports are the first and last touch points for our guests, so the way they handle processes can have a significant impact on the overall customer experience.

Duncan: A key issues we face is when a port authority changes or cancels scheduled calls at the last minute. If this happens, we must quickly find a suitable substitute port that our customers will still enjoy visiting, or in the worst-case scenario, compensate our guests.

Lamy: Once you’ve built an itinerary, it’s important to carefully plan the logistics so that operations run smoothly and efficiently. It’s essential to collaborate with port authorities to achieve this – when everyone works together, it’s much easier to deliver the best possible cruise and onshore experience to passengers.

Itinerary planners play an essential role in the success of every cruise line, but what part of your job role gives you the most satisfaction?

Bartoli: I love to find ways to delight our guests. Costa Cruises enjoys working hard to make our guests happy and we ensure we keep their needs – and the valuable lessons we’ve learned from past cruises – in mind when we’re designing our itineraries. This helps us to continuously fine-tune the travel experiences we offer and keep our guests coming back to Costa Cruises.

Duncan: My favourite part of the job is taking customers to new destinations and giving them an experience that they enjoy. We recently introduced itineraries departing from Malaysia and Thailand that feature calls to multiple destinations which you just wouldn’t be able to do on a single holiday – including Singapore, Bangkok in Thailand, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi and Penang in Malaysia. Feedback from our guests has been very positive to date with many commenting that they would not have had the chance to visit these destinations in their lifetime otherwise.

Lamy: V. Ships Leisure operates both boutique cruise ships and expeditions vessels, so we’re always working to try and identify new destinations that deliver high levels of guest satisfaction. We’re very proud when we receive positive comments from the passengers and management teams sailing on the ships – it shows that we’ve successfully built consistent and interesting itineraries.

This article was first published in the 2019 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
20 February 2020

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