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Respond, rebuild, reinvent, resume: Cruising's pandemic response

'Sometimes the loudest voices do not represent the majority of people,' Anne Madison said
In cruising's response to the COVID-19 crisis, staying the course and ignoring naysayers has been critical, along with being in 'lockstep' with destinations.

'We had to learn not to be hurt by what was being said by certain people or in the media or in editorials, because sometimes the loudest voices do not represent the majority of people. That is true nine out of 10 times,' Anne Madison, SVP global marketing & strategic communications, Cruise Lines International Association, said in a virtual panel.

By staying the course, keeping positive and being proactive, 'We were not distracted by the naysayers. You're not going to change those hearts and minds,' Madison said. 'You have to find out which hearts and minds you do need to change and make sure you're doing the right thing at the right time in order to get to the objectives you set out at the very beginning.'

Resuming responsibly

To foster recovery, CLIA's focus has been on reputation, regulation and legislation, according to Madison. During a 'Lessons in Crisis and Recovery' webinar hosted this week by Discover Puerto Rico, she spoke of the ability to resume operations responsibly.

'Cruise lines and destinations share a special bond, particularly in this health crisis,' Madison said. They have a 'shared commitment to safeguarding the health of passengers, crew and the people in the destinations.'

So it's very important they work together, being in 'lockstep on messaging and the approach ... everything informed by science and medicine.'

Four-phase plan

At the start of the pandemic, CLIA built actions and messaging in a four-phase plan: response, rebuilding. reinvention and resumption of operations.

During the initial response, the focus had to be on doing the right thing and taking immediate action, with the guidance of governments and health authorities.

'You can't pay any attention to the naysayers or critical statements, even those that are completely wrong,' Madison said. All decisions have to put people first. Response is 'the most important [phase] and your biggest investment.'

Madison did not give examples or go into any specifics. But everyone in the cruise industry will recall how lines immediately set to repatriating passengers from ships around the world, a tall task as borders began to close and flights were canceled. Ships were turned away, even from longstanding homeports and even with dying people.

Exactly one year ago, in fact, a public opinion battle was raging after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he didn't want infected people from Holland America Line's Zaandam 'dumped' into South Florida, using up valuable resources. Ultimately, President Donald Trump intervened.

Next came the even more monumental task of repatriating crew at a time when most of the world was shut down in a panic, borders closed, flights suspended and some countries unwilling to take in their own seafarer citizens. Yet too often then, consumer media's view was that cruise ships were holding crew hostage.

Rebuilding and reinvention

Though Madison didn't go into any of that, she went on to describe the phase following crisis response as rebuilding — starting to set the record straight, acknowledging more can be done and managing issues.

That set the stage for reinvention, she said: 'You're collaborating and validating changes with authorities, science-led in this case.'

Providing evidence of reinvention inspires 'trust and confidence, whether it's confidence in the destinations or cruising. It's very, very important. You've got to provide the tools and resources for others to help tell that story and exude confidence ... bringing forth the chorus of voices and the power of partnerships to be able to get the word out consistently, credibly and in a compelling way.'

Reinvention created the foundation for resuming cruise operations.

If things were done correctly in the response phase, Madison elaborated, 'you don't need to get mired in the past because you don't have to constantly go back and defend and rethink what you were doing.'

Lines can support success by resuming operations responsibly — communicating the plan, providing frequent updates, following a phased approach and, the most important, in her view, 'inviting people to come back and experience the change and share it with others.

'People have their own level of risk, and they will decide when it's time,' Madison said. 'You just have to create the groundwork, the planning and the communication to help them make that decision.'

How CLIA's approach changed

At the start of the pandemic, CLIA increased the frequency of its sentiment tracking to know where actions and messaging were resonating.

And while it had been the association's habit to measure economic impact data every year, in some cases, every three years, CLIA immediately started tracking the impact of cruising's suspension. Knowing when to use that data was key, because putting it out too soon would have been tone deaf.

In crisis communications coaching, Madison said the rule is to never go off the record. But she has ended up doing so dozens of times during the pandemic 'at the right time, at the right place, for the right reasons. To educate and inform, not to defend ... with those trusted media that you've built up a relationship with over time.'

And always keeping in mind, the media are not the audience: 'They're a channel to your audience.' she said.

FCCA Americas Cruise Task Force

When it comes to being in 'lockstep' with destinations, the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association Americas Cruise Task Force 'speaks to the coordination and the holistic approach between cruise lines, destinations, ports and health authorities.

'I think it will serve as a model for other areas,' Madison said. 'There's a lot of great learning and a lot of great models out there, but this one is probably the most holistic because it goes from embarkation and testing to what happens on board to how do you interface with medical and public health authorities, to what happens with shore excursions. All these things are very, very critical.'

Cruising's COVID-19 protocols, she added, are 'designed to evolve as the pandemic evolves and in coordination, not in a vacuum but in coordination with the destinations.'

Opportunities for destinations

According to CLIA travel agent members, not only do people yearn to travel, they're planning the 'ultimate 360-degree experience,' as Madison put it. This creates opportunities for destinations to increase their economic benefits from pre- and post-cruise stays.

As well, cruises inspire people to return to destinations for a deeper experience, so there's an opportunity to craft marketing to draw people back.

Interest in smaller destinations

Calling the pandemic a 'reset moment,' the CLIA communications chief believes 'People are going to be looking for places where they can have authentic experiences, even more so than they did before. And they're going to want to know there's safety in that destination.'

The marquee spots will still be popular, Madison said, but there's also a feeling of safety in smaller destinations that haven't had such a great share of the voice before, so now is a chance for them to shine.