Is it a terrible time to take a cruise? The feedback from current cruisers says otherwise
It's a terrible time to take a cruise. Or so you might think from reading some of the stories circulating about quarantined passengers and disrupted sailings.
But if that's the case, the president of one of the world's biggest cruise lines isn't seeing it in the feedback he's getting from customers.
Holland America president Gus Antorcha told TPG on Monday that the company -- a bit to its surprise -- has been seeing its highest customer satisfaction levels ever lately.
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"We have record net promoter scores right now," Antorcha said, referring to a guest satisfaction rating based on survey responses that's widely used by companies of all types. "I mean, it is unbelievable the satisfaction levels we're seeing."
Speaking one-on-one with TPG from his home, Antorcha noted he had just visited three of the line's 11 ships over the weekend to meet with crew and passengers, and he saw the unusually high satisfaction among current customers for himself.
One of the vessels, Rotterdam, had just recorded a net promotor score of 80 for its just-ended sailing -- an astoundingly high number. Net promoter scores can range from -100 to 100, and a score between 0 and 30 is considered good for many companies.
"It's quite amazing ... how happy the guests are," Antorcha mused.
Antorcha's comments on the state of cruiser satisfaction these days, which came in passing during a conversation to discuss the company's extension of COVID-19-era policies, don't line up with some of the stories that have appeared about cruising in recent weeks.
But they're consistent with what TPG has been hearing a lot lately on background from other top executives at cruise lines. And it matches up with many of the comments about current sailings that are being posted at large cruise fan sites such as those found on Facebook.
"Just off from Carnival Freedom today, and I’d like to say the experience felt normal outside of a light passenger load and mask-wearing," a member of the COPs Cruisers Opinion Page on Facebook wrote Sunday, in a post referencing a Carnival Cruise Line ship that was typical of recent posts at the private group of nearly 25,000 cruisers. "It was a great eight days."
In another typical posting, a member of the 18,600-member Holland America Line Fans group at Facebook on Wednesday said she felt more comfortable on a cruise this week than at home.
"We are on the Rotterdam right now," said the poster. "I was very sceptical about going on a cruise now because of what the media is saying. I feel safer on the ship than at home in Florida."
When asked about the discrepancy between some of the recent stories about unpleasant cruises and the customer satisfaction levels he's seeing, Antorcha was careful not to be overly critical of the Fourth Estate.
"As far as what mainstream media covers, I don't know. You know, that's on them. They piece together whatever narrative they want," he said. "But as far as what's occurring on our ships, I can tell you that guests are thrilled, because I have the data, and I'm on board and I'm [talking to] them."
That isn't to say that there haven't been disruptions to current sailings due to the surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
Yes, more passengers have been testing positive for COVID-19 on ships, and they've had to be quarantined as a result, Antorcha noted. And ships have been missing ports at times as various destinations tighten their entry requirements due to the pandemic, he said.
Related: Everything you need to know about COVID-19 on cruise ships
It's just that most passengers on ships right now seem to be taking it in stride, he suggested.
Pressed about what he thought was driving the high satisfaction scores, Antorcha said he thought a big factor was just that cruisers are so happy to finally be back cruising, after more than a year of having the entire industry shut down.
Notably, many of the people cruising during the latest COVID-19 surge are cruising regulars who just want to be back on ships and aren't too put off by an itinerary having to be adjusted due to a port closure, or the implementation of new onboard COVID-19-related protocols.
They're also people who understand there's a small risk that they will test positive on a sailing and be quarantined in their cabins.
People who would be more bothered by those sort of things have been canceling their sailings and taking advantage of relaxed cancellation policies at many lines.
Antorcha noted that the cruising regulars who are cruising right now also understand the industry well enough to understand that the health protocols on ships are much more rigorous than what is found at travel destinations on land and other land-based venues.
Like many major lines, Holland America is requiring that every single passenger be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. Passengers also must wear face masks in indoor areas of ships.
Related: Omicron wave could fade fast, says health expert
While some passengers are testing positive for COVID-19 and being quarantined on Holland America vessels, the numbers are relatively small compared to the total number of passengers on the vessels, Antorcha suggested. And case rates are notably below what has been taking place on land.
TPG's conversation with Antorcha came in the wake of the line's decision last week to extend its COVID-19-era flexible cancellation policy for another five months, through the end of September.
The "worry free" policy, which originally was set to expire in April, allows passengers to cancel a cruise without penalty up to 30 days before departure. The policy covers any sailing booked before March 31.
As part of the extended policy, passengers also can cancel for a full refund right up to the day of embarkation if they test positive for COVID-19. They also can buy special insurance that would let them cancel for any reason up to 24 hours before a sailing.
Holland America last week also said it would continue to operate with all of its previous COVID-19-related health protocols in place.
Antorcha said the extensions of such policies were designed to give people thinking about booking a cruise the confidence to make the reservation.
Related: The 5 destinations you can visit on a Holland America ship
Like most lines in recent weeks, Holland America has seen a downturn in bookings related to the surge in COVID-19 cases associated with the omicron variant, Antorcha said.
"Whenever there's a spike, there's a slowdown in bookings," he noted.
Antorcha wouldn't discuss specifics about the current downturn in bookings, noting rules on financial disclosures for public companies (Holland America is part of Carnival Corp., a publicly-traded company). But he said the impact of the current wave of COVID-19 cases was "more disruptive" in several ways than earlier waves.
Offering up an example, Antorcha said ports have been more cautious about ship arrivals during the omicron wave than they were during the delta wave, resulting in more cancellations of port calls.
That said, he noted the disruptions to cruises over the past couple of months haven't been nearly as big as the disruption to flights. And Holland America has been able to adjust.
"We make adjustments to ports if needed. We oftentimes add another one as a replacement," he said. "Our guests have been incredibly understanding."
The extension of the COVID-19-related policies, particularly the health protocol policies, weren't just designed to reassure would-be passengers, Antorcha noted. It also was meant to reassure the ports the line's ships visit.
"We want to make sure that we're ... focused on the safety not just of our guests, not just of our crew, but the communities we visit," he said.
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