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NCLH test cruises could start early January, full fleet ramp-up may take 6-9 months

CRUISE Frank Del Rio.jpg
'We've got the liquidity, we've got the know-how, we've got the history behind us. We're going to get over this,' Frank Del Rio said
Some cruise operators may be able to start their trial sailings in December, however Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is looking to early January.

'It's not a race for us. We want to get this 100% right. We're stressing flawless execution,' NCLH President and CEO Frank Del Rio said Tuesday. He added there's still a lot to be clarified with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the nuances of the conditional framework for returning to service.

Del Rio couldn't venture a guess about when the first revenue sailing might take place.

Though things are 'still very fuzzy, very fluid,' he estimated it may take six to nine months until the full NCLH fleet will be on the water. So 2021 will be a 'transition year' on the 'road to normalization' in 2022 and '2023 forward is normalization.'

There are still ample uncertainties, with the virus surging, travel restrictions or bans, limited airlift and ports needing to open. However, Del Rio pointed to the recent flurry of good news — the CDC's framework, the promise of the Pfizer vaccine and others, testing breakthroughs and today's announcement that the Eli Lilly coronavirus antibody therapeutic received Food and Drug Administration approval.

'Wind to our back'

'We now have some wind to our back. We've got that flywheel going a little bit,' Del Rio told analysts on the company's third-quarter earnings call. 'The encouragement, the excitement level hasn't been this high in a long, long time. We're encouraged, but still there are a lot of obstacles to overcome.

'We've got the liquidity, we've got the know-how, we've got the history behind us. We're going to get over this.'

Liquidity less $300m toward health initiatives

Available liquidity is approximately $2bn. Liquidity was $2.4bn at Sept. 30, less $1m in customer refunds payable and an estimated $300m in health and safety initiatives, to be spent over two to three quarters, according to CFO Mark Kempa. 

Bookings up on vaccine news

Bookings on Monday, when the stock market soared to a record high on news of the Pfizer vaccine's promise, were 'pretty good,' Del Rio said. In contrast, there wasn't much of an uptick when the CDC announced its framework the last Friday in October.

FCC redemption 50%

On a companywide basis, about 50%  of future cruise credits have already been redeemed, including nearly 50% for Norwegian Cruise Line, nearly 60% for Oceania Cruises and approximately 75% for Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

About 70% of bookings for 2021 are new cash bookings, not using FCCs.

Del Rio said consumer demand is evident across all offerings, with no one geographic area or source market materially outpacing others. Not surprising, loyalists are overrepresented, comprising about 60% of 2021 bookings.

Contrary to the perception that more mature consumers are reluctant to travel, recent booking records at Regent show 'Our older guests have a continued appetite for luxury travel, even for long and exotic cruises, once the immediate impact of the pandemic subsides.'

Digital marketing revelation

One revelation during the suspension of cruising and most marketing efforts has been digital marketing's clout, Del Rio said.

'Digital marketing is a real venue. It's not just kids buying things on Amazon or Instagram. People are buying cruises worth thousands and thousands of dollars online and we think that's a trend that the pandemic might have accelerated ... We'll continue to manage our business and manage our workforce to this kind of digital transformation that we find ourselves in.'