Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Cruise Shipping Miami - Day 2

After the strong but relatively sedate opening day to the world’s largest annual cruise convention, the second day is typically a much more dynamic, almost frenzied, affair as the main Exhibition opens, multiple press conferences take place (often at the same time!), and we have the State of the Industry address.

This latter is eagerly awaited by everyone in the industry and never more so than in the wake of the terrible Costa Concordia accident on January 13. It is a chance to hear from the key cruise chief executives and learn how they see the past, present and future of the business, often in fairly lively fashion.

Sometimes, they can be a bit snippy towards each other; often there is some robust jousting as all try to make a point or two at the expense of their rivals; but mostly it is an upbeat and almost rabble-rousing cry to the rest of the industry – the agents, suppliers, builders, port authorities and destinations – to be positive and forward-thinking in the months ahead.

Usually, they have a lot to be bullish about, with just about unbroken passenger growth across the board in the past 10 years and lots of nice, shiny new ships to be proud of.

But this year they had to deal with the 600lb gorilla in the room – the terrible circumstances of January 13 and the ongoing negative image of cruise safety has been raised in some areas of the media, with subsequent drop-offs in cruise bookings and the loss of all that heady positive momentum.

And deal with it they certainly did, starting with the first three speakers, who all mentioned Concordia in some way, most notably Carnival Corporation vice-chairman and chief operating officer Howard Frank (below), who not only made the proper acknowledgement of the profound impact of the incident but then went off-script to deliver a heartfelt defence of the Costa brand and its many loyal staff. The crew of Concordia, he insisted, were the “true heroes of this tragedy, and, as time unfolds, all their stories will be told.” Robust, feisty stuff.

Where that leaves the villain of the piece, Italian Captain Francesco Schettino – or Captain Gutless as many media have dubbed him – is anybody’s guess. But Frank did also go on to give a big shout-out to the people and country of Italy for their strong support in the wake of the incident.

Moderator Christine Duffy (above), the head of Cruise Lines International Association, also addressed the issue head on, but by pointing out cruising’s excellent safety record prior to Concordia and highlighting the industry’s strong growth since 2000 – when numbers have doubled worldwide – and the prospect of some 231 ships under the CLIA banner by 2015, representing 360,000 beds.

That led in to the main round-table (actually, a U-shaped table) discussion moderated by Duffy and featuring six senior cruise line heads, Gerry Cahill (Carnival Cruise Lines), Adam Goldstein (Royal Caribbean), Dan Hanrahan (Celebrity), Kevin Sheehan (Norwegian Cruise Line), Stein Kruse (Holland America) and Pierfrancesco Vago (MSC).

Each was given an opportunity to talk on the subjects raised by Duffy (probably carefully crafted beforehand, but still deftly handled by the CLIA chief, after only a year in the job) and each one made some significant, positive points.

The first three topics all covered health and safety issues either directly or indirectly related to Concordia, but then things gradually transformed into discussions on the new Environmental protection Agency Regulations that begin in August (and are dramatically reinforced in 2015), requiring ships to use low-sulfur fuels close to the mainland in the USA, Canada and Europe. Then it was on to new ships, the ever-popular subject of globalization, the travel agent community, destinations and reasons for optimism.

The two-hour session (below) flew by, and then it was on to a round of press conferences and interviews during the ‘lunch’ break (if swallowing half a sandwich and a coffee at lightning speed can be considered ‘lunch’!) .

We had the opportunity to talk to David Dingle, the chairman of Carnival UK (all the 5 main Carnival brands sourcing passengers out of Britain – P&O, princess, Holland America, Carnival and Cunard), on the subject of recent events and the effects on the UK market, and he was convinced cruising is already bouncing back and will get a major boost from two events this summer – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June, which will feature a Cunard tribute, and P&O’s 175th anniversary event in Southampton on July 3, which will feature all SEVEN of the line’s ships for the very first time.

A dizzying round of press conferences then followed, from Princess Cruises (announcing more details of next year’s new ship, Royal Princess), Hong Kong (mainly about their amazing new passenger cruise terminal due to open next year), Singapore and Indonesia (about cruise growth in south-east Asia and Singapore’s new terminal opening later this year) and then Copenhagen.

We also had a wonderful meeting with American Cruise Lines chairman Charles Robertson, who is eagerly promoting the advent of the new Queen of the Mississippi on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers this August and told us of the company’s growing interest from the UK and Australia. This dramatic classic paddle-steamer will bring traditional upscale river-cruising back to the Mississippi but also offer the most luxurious accommodations and style of any American river-cruiser.

It is a superb and should appeal to lovers of all things stylish in the river-cruise field, especially as the line has just placed an order for ANOTHER paddle-steamer as a result of the demand they are seeing for the Queen of the Mississippi.

The afternoon session saw us listening to David Dingle again, as part of the Opportunities In A Changing Europe workshop session, looking at the many reasons for continued growth in European cruising – and the challenges, like the EPA and some potentially serious taxation issues from the lame-brain mandarins of the European Community in Brussels who, if they have their way, will tax every cruise line out of European waters.

Short-sighted doesn’t even begin to describe it, but suffice it to say these unelected buffoons think cruising should be subject to VAT and other sales taxes for things like drinks on board, and cruise lines should also pay EXTRA taxes on things like the shore excursions they sell and casinos they run.

How do you spell barmy? How about B-R-U-S-S-E-L-S.

Another two hours went by quickly and then it was time for us to take a quick look at the exhibition floor, notably some of the destinations with high-profile booths, notably Hong Kong, Alaska and Chile. There is a LOT to take in here and we will be back on Thursday for a more in-depth look.
Finally, we had been invited to a press reception at the Van Dyke Café on nearby Lincoln Road with Norwegian specialist cruise line Hurtigruten, one of our big favourites here at World of Cruising. It was mainly their US office but it was good to hear that this innovative adventuring company with the authentic Norwegian style has a strong following on both sides of the Atlantic and they continue to see good growth especially for their Arctic and Antarctic voyages.

Then it was time to grab a quick bit of dinner and head back to our hotel (the wonderful Grove Isle Resort & Spa in Coconut Grove) and get some work done before turning in for the night. Tomorrow, we start at 8.30 with a Norwegian Cruise Line press conference before heading into a morning session on Luxury Cruising.

Definitely two to look forward to…