Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Cruise executives talk a lot about building up cruising's share of the overall vacation market. The World Travel & Tourism Council reported that in 2019 there were 1.4 billion tourist arrivals worldwide; that same year, the number of people who took a cruise was 29.7 million, or about 3%.

John Padgett, who was last week named president of Princess Cruises, told me that cruise lines are looking to take more of the vacation pie in the wrong way. And the first thing the industry should do, he said, is to stop competing on "features and amenities."

"They're not defendable, strategic advantages," he said. "If you take cruise line versus cruise line out of it, and talk about cruise line versus the travel industry, how can a cruise ship ever put as many attractions and amusements and venues that you can on land? So really, you're setting the cruise industry up always to be second to a land choice."

Padgett would know. He spent 18 years with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. But he was also Carnival Corp.'s chief experience and innovation officer for the last seven years, and he has come to believe that cruise should sell what land-based vacations can't as easily compete with: service and destination.

"What I've always wanted to do is make the cruise experience the apex travel vacation experience," Padgett said.

"And I think you do that by of course having great ships; of course by having plenty of great food beverage, entertainment, recreation, activities, everything you do. But really compete on service differentiation that I think we can do on cruise ships better than anyone else."

At Princess, that will mean focusing more on what he says in the exceptional service that Princess' Medallion-class enables, making the line what he calls "the vanguard of that space, really delivering that personalized service at scale and at an exceptional value. I think that's the key."

Padgett's Disney experience also makes him a believer in the unique nature of cruising's destination experience. He cited Alaska, which is central to the Princess portfolio, as a prime example.

"When you think about amazing experiences, there's fanciful and there's authentic," he said. "Disney offers the most amazing fanciful experiences in the world, bar none, without any question. But when it comes to authenticity, Alaska is essentially a giant Central Florida in the authentic world. There are rapid rides, authentic train rides, real towns that still function as wild west towns, real wilderness lodges. There are real animals: bears, eagles, moose. Everything that you see is amazing. And then the Alaskan culture in all the ports, and they love to engage, and it's an experience that is, honestly, transformative."

Padgett says he's stunned at how little visitation the Last Frontier gets, especially when compared to Florida.

"I hope that everyone that enjoys the fanciful experiences will also love to come to see those authentic experiences in Alaska with Princess," he said.

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