Cruise sector must overcome ‘big PR problem’

The cruise industry has a “high-profile PR problem” that must be overcome for the sector to recover, according to the former boss of Azamara.

Larry Pimentel stepped aside from his role as chief executive and president of the Royal Caribbean-owned line in April, as the group was forced to make cuts to survive the Covid-19 crisis.

But speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, he said: “Let’s face a fact; the cruise industry has a high-profile PR problem which was created in this pandemic when ships were in the news all over the world.

“Now today, for weeks and weeks, I haven’t heard anything about ships, because this is not a cruise ship virus. This is a global pandemic and it was regrettable, but if the truth be known, ships were used as an example in the media as a petri dish for this [virus].”

Pimentel said the way for the sector to recover its reputation was through “trust”.

“Without a doubt, people are going to want to explore again,” he said. “They’re going to want to sample the food and drink of different cultures. But they also need a sense of reality. And that sense of reality is they want to know they’re going to be safe. They want to know how they’re going to be protected.

“It’s a question of trust. They have to trust their [travel] counsellor gave them the proper advice and they have to trust the cruise lines. And the lines have to step up and be really specific about the protocols that they are going to roll out which will allow people to be safe.”

Pimentel stressed the cruise industry would get through the current crisis, but through responding to the science, and by being thorough and transparent about the new protocols it brings in.

“This [pandemic] is a big problem. I do not want to minimise it. But this industry is innovative and I know it will be persistent. I am a believer in the industry getting to the other side through science and through best practices. Then the retailers are going to have to educate themselves on what’s happening and how will it be [taking a cruise],” he said, adding that it will be much more complex than a guest having their temperature taken.

He said research since Covid-19 showed the biggest fear amongst consumers was getting stuck on board a cruise ship.

“People have to feel like they’re not going to be contained that they aren’t going to get stuck. There’s so much data about not wanting to be stuck, or being in a situation where they feel uncomfortable,” he said.

Pimentel lamented that “the industry’s response to certain things, in some cases [during the crisis] wasn’t good”.

But he argued: “In some cases, it had nothing to do with the industry. It had to do with local authorities trying to do the right thing by their own citizens. We were all walking on eggshells in an environment we had no knowledge of.

“In my final month, there were countries who said, ‘No, it’s a cruise ship; we don’t want the cruise ship to come into port’, even though there was nobody on the ship with Covid. Some of these local stories were horrific,” Pimentel said.

He said, as a result of situations like that, people need assurances but that there also needs to be “serious protocols” from governments who “gather together” to agree whether ships are going to be received or turned away by ports.

“We’ve got to overcome this big public relations challenge,” he said.

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