Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Anyone working at a cruise line this year has had to learn to do the opposite of what they normally do: cancel cruises instead of book them, anchor ships instead of sail them -- and, for at least one person in shore excursions, come up with tours that don't feel like tours.

A little background:

When cruise ships first resumed service in fits and starts last summer, one of the biggest changes from the pre-Covid era was the shore excursion bubble rule: During port calls, people are only allowed to disembark if they're on official cruise line tours with fellow passengers.

As per CLIA's return-to-service protocols, many lines have these rules in effect for their ships launching this summer, even on ships where all passengers and crew are fully vaccinated. Other lines are taking more a hybrid approach, basing the decision on the ship's destination.

Windstar Cruises is keeping to the CLIA mandate with its ships launching in Greece and the Caribbean, both on June 19. 

That mandate has changed what Kelly Hubbard, director of product development for Windstar, normally does for a living. Not only does she now have to come up with tours that operate under entirely new restrictions and guidelines, but she has to try and satisfy guests who would normally wander on their own.

"We have a very high take-rate on Windstar tours," Hubbard said. "But after their tour, guests want to be able go into towns and explore on their own."

As a result, Hubbard and her team are trying to not only create bubble versions of their regular excursions but create new tours that reflect the kind of activities people would do solo.

They have been working with local tour operators to find stores that will offer exclusive times to shop; private local dining experiences; and places that will rent out sections of local beaches blocked off for Windstar guests, with access to chairs, umbrellas, drinks and even organized beach walks.

"We are trying to think, what would our guests do if they could go on shore on their own?" she said. "And we've created tours around that. We know our guests. They want to sit in a cafe. They want a local taste: they want tapas in Spain."

Hubbard said some of the tours that have evolved from the new rules are lower-cost options for guests who might want to do multiple tours in one day, such as a walking tour with no indoor visits.

Another example of such a tour is being offered on Windstar's Caribbean cruises that visit Jost Van Dyke in the British Version Islands.

"When people go to Jost, they want to go to Foxy's Bar," Hubbard said. Prepandemic, she said, people often took a tour in the morning and would then "wander over to Foxy's. It's absolutely iconic, and it's a short walk from the tender pier."

On cruises this summer, the line was able to reserve a section of Foxy's. For $29, a group goes to the bar with a guide; participants get one free drink and then can order from the menu.

Hubbard said the line was able to arrange the tour because it has long held private events at Foxy's.

"They're willing to work with us," she said. "It's all about relationships."

She and her team know that like so much else this year, it's possible that excursion restrictions will be lifted any day. 

"Things change on a weekly, on a daily basis," she said. "Windstar is small; the line is nimble enough that we already have a Plan B in all of our ports. We can go back to having free time [during port calls]. We're ready to go."

And for people like Hubbard, after more than a year, she is thrilled to finally be doing what she loves again, even if it's a modified version.

"Our guests love the destination that they're in, so finding tours for them is always challenging, but that's the fun of our jobs," she said.

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