Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

With Norwegian Cruise Line's 12th ship to resume service since the global cruise shutdown departing from New York last Sunday, CEO Harry Sommer was in a buoyant mood.

And that was despite the weather than canceled his flight to the city from Miami to see off that ship, the Norwegian Breakaway.

Sommer knows that every ship that re-enters service -- even if it's only at half capacity and perhaps not sailing to some of the marquee destinations the line would normally visit -- carries another group of happy and healthy passengers who will spread the word that cruising is back, and that cruising is safe.  

The industry suffered a hit last March, Sommer told me over Zoom. "It will take some time for the cruise industry to get to the other side of this. The best we can do is make sure we have the strictest possible protocols now to give people confidence.

"Not to cruise tomorrow -- I don't need people to cruise tomorrow," he added. "I'm standing up cruising now to give people confidence to cruise next summer. If they come back next summer, I'm thrilled."

Sommer said that the line was very happy with ships at 50% to 60% capacity and said Norwegian easily fills them "week in and week out around the world," mostly with "enthusiastic past guests."

"We've already had 50,000 guests onboard," Sommer said. "The word will start to get out that this is safe and enjoyable, and we're already seeing some momentum start to build."

Sommer is at least the third cruise line CEO to mention the record guest satisfaction scores of these restart cruises: "The highest guests satisfaction rates in the history of the company," he said, adding that not surprisingly, Norwegian's rebook rate is also at a record level. "Rebook rate is a consequence of a high satisfaction rate. People seem to be enjoying the experience we're providing."

And happy guests, it seems, are happy to spend money. Norwegian parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) recently reported very high onboard spending on early sailings. Sommer said that on Norwegian ships, the improved spending is in the gift shops, on art and especially, on shore excursions.

"I think people in this environment are a little bit more comfortable doing shore excursions with cruise lines, because you have the same levels of safety that we have onboard the ship," he said, specifically pointing out reduced capacities on the tours and protocols like requiring drivers and tour operators to be vaccinated. "I think people are a little bit less confident in going with an independent operator in this environment, so that's helped, as well."

Sommer concedes that bookings took a hit because of the delta variant and that the industry won't get back to normal for a while. But given the line's focus on summer '22, he's OK with that.

"We clearly saw a decline in bookings in the back half of July and most of August as a result of the surge of cases due to delta," he said. "But things are starting to come back. But generally, it's going to be a long road ahead. It'll be months before we return to what we would call full normal -- and that's OK.

"Our goal for the rest of the year is not to go back to full; we love operating our ships at 50 to 60%. It allows us to do it safely; provide a great experience for our guests. ... Our key goal is not to be at 100% full, our key goal is to provide a great experience for our guests, get the ship stood up. And hopefully by early Q3 we get to something that resembles normal."

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