It was refreshing to hear some honest talk about parts of the cruise industry where there is room for improvement. More, please.
Seatrade Cruise Global is generally seen as the annual gathering where industry players meet with suppliers and destinations, announce new suites or onboard activities, and — of course — talk about how the future is bright for cruising.
But at the conference this year in Miami Beach, we found some frank discussions among the fluff that offered blunt assessments of areas that could be improved — around big topics like sustainability and diversity as well as slightly smaller concerns such as dinner buffets — and constructive ideas for making things better.
Some tough talk came from professionals outside the industry, while other criticisms came from high-ranking executives right in the middle of the action.
Sustainability Beyond Lip Service
Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Norway-based expedition line Hurtigruten, challenged other operators to reduce their environmental impact on the destinations they visit.
“Ask for more from the cruise industry, demand more,” he said. “As an industry, we need to understand and acknowledge something really important: We cannot bring more pollution, more crowds, more risk to areas that need less. The cruise industry can operate in a sustainable way.”
His 14-ship line has eliminated single-use plastics, stopped using heavy fuel oil, and is preparing to launch a hybrid electric-powered ship. Skjeldam said Hurtigruten also puts sustainability demands in contracts, such as requiring electric buses if charging stations are available.
During a panel on sustainable travel, moderator Thomas Illes pointed out that some environmentally friendly practices might be affordable for cruise lines that charge a lot of money, but less so for mass-market lines whose passengers pay less.
“As along as we have people who want cheap holidays, and cruises are good value for the money … what’s going to force the cruise lines to change?” he asked.
Skieldam said he expects to see something that cruise lines hate: a new tax on passengers.
“The governments can force an environmental tax on passengers,” he said. “What I am certain about is if we don’t start being proactive on this, the taxes will eventually hit us.”
Stuart Level, Royce Caribbean Cruises’ vice president for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, pointed out that progress is already in the works. He said the newest versions of the Oasis-class ships are 25 percent more efficient than those built 10 years ago.
“Sustainability is something you tackle over long periods of time,” he said.
Food for the Masses
A group of land-based chefs who have done cruise partnerships tackled the topic of “elevating cruise cuisine.” And not surprisingly, the standard buffet took a beating.
“I like Taco Bell, so I’m not that hard to please,” said Scott Linquist, chef-owner at several Miami restaurants including Coyo Taco and Les Banh Amis. “When I walk through a buffet of 500 items and I eat the ground beef taco every single day, that’s a problem. If I look at cold cuts that aren’t even really cold cuts, that’s a problem. I would cut the choices and increase the quality of a smaller number of items.”
He recalled touring a ship’s galley and learning that bakers made something like 40 different types of bread. His reaction: “None of them are really that good, so why don’t you stick to one or two?”
Linquist said the sense he got was that cruise ships were trying to be everything for everyone. “And when you try to be everything to everybody, you fail,” he said.
Top Chef winner Jeremy Ford, executive chef at Miami Beach restaurant Stubborn Seed, said one successful effort he saw was a small taqueria on a ship.
“I think it’s setting up these little restaurants … little street food things all around the ship, that’s how you’re going to increase the quality while feeding everybody,” he said.
While multiple cruise lines offer special experiences and venues that cater to foodies, Ford said he thinks the average cruiser who doesn’t take advantage of those options deserve an extra effort.
“How do you make the food that’s coming out with the domes on it stacked seven high?” he said.
Linquist, who was tapped to take part in a “Culinary Cruise” on Princess Cruises last year, said he felt like the goal was to promote the idea that the onboard dining is better than travelers might expect.
“I don’t know if that’s really a good place to come from,” he said.
Diversity at Every Level
Every year at Seatrade, the leaders of the world’s biggest cruise companies take the stage for an opening “state of the industry” event. And every year, that group is made up of several men.
In a new twist this year, the event was followed up by three women who head up major cruise brands: Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises. The panel was a replica of one that appeared at Skift Global Forum last year.
“I think it’s about time, because this event has been going on for more than 30 years, and we finally made it onto the main stage,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, on Tuesday at Seatrade.
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity Cruises, said her company has moved from having just five percent of woman on the bridge to 20; four women work as captains. But the line is also trying to hire more woman for technical, safety, and other roles. She said that one key is to find women who are studying at maritime organizations but not opting in to the cruise industry.
At Carnival, Duffy said a pair of twin sisters from Italy work on the bridge on two different ships, but the company is still focused on recruiting a wider range of employees for a multitude of jobs on ships and shore.
“We have continued to do more to ensure that we do really engineer the diversity that you want around the table,” she said.
Princess Cruises President Jan Swartz said her line has a second officer who first came to sea as a spa therapist but decided she would rather “drive the ship.”
“I think we have a lot of work to do to create opportunities for women, particularly on the deck and technical side,” Swartz said. “It gives me great pride that we are creating those opportunities for people to pursue their dreams. It’s early days; we have a lot of work to do.”
In a nod to the kinds of questions that women in leadership roles often get asked — but men rarely do — moderator Lucy Hockings, a BBC World News presenter, asked the men onstage first how they have juggled fatherhood and careers.
MSC Cruises Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago said he hardly sees his own kids, ages 8 and 11, because he travels so much.
“I can’t wait to spend Easter together,” he said. “Family is very important.”
Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., told a story from early in his career when his wife had to leave for training for her job and he was left with his 1- and 3-year-old daughters. He had to miss a major presentation because he had to pick his daughters up.
The next day, he said, he was praised for taking care of his kids.
“I know women out there are rolling their eyes like crazy saying, ‘What the heck is that?'” he said. “That really happened early in my career, and it dawned on me how many times my wife had to do that, and all women.”
For her part, Duffy said later that her husband decided to become a stay-at-home dad when their children were younger. It was such a rare choice that a magazine wrote a cover story showing Duffy with her suitcase and her husband at the door.
“This next generation is better for it,” she said. “Because they don’t have the same stereotypes or expectations about what mom does or what dad does. We’re all in this together; it’s a team sport.”
Duffy had an extra reason to be proud Tuesday. Her 33-year-old daughter — who works in the cruise industry — was in the crowd listening to the discussion.
Photo credit: A group of cruise executives are shown at Seatrade Cruise Global. From left: BBC World News presenter Lucy Hockings, Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy, Celebrity Cruises CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, and Princess Cruises President Jan Swartz. Seatrade Cruise Global