Richard Fain stays positive and gives shoutout to hardcore cruisers

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Perfect Day at CocoCay will be an important destination when cruising restarts, says Richard Fain.

Much has been made of the encouraging 2021 booking trends that cruise companies are reporting, including Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which this week said that not only are bookings strong for next year but that they are mostly new reservations, as opposed to rebookings of this year’s canceled sailings. 

In an interview with RCCL CEO and chairman Richard Fain, even he admitted he was “a little bit” surprised by the level of demand for cruises. 

“There’s really a hunger out there,” Fain said. “And, yes, there is a lot of uncertainty for the immediate future but longer term, people are eager -- cruising is a special thing and I think cruising has a particular advantage here.”

Like many people, Fain said he is completely alone in his family’s “germ bubble” and has not seen another human being face-to-face for more than two months. 

“We don't allow people in, we don't go out, we’re being careful about it,” Fain said. “My children like to remind me that I’m in the vulnerable category. Which I could do without.”

In Vicki Freed's weekly Coffee Chat, Fain used the example of the aftermath of 9/11 to make the point that while cruising will change, what makes cruising fundamentally what it is will not.

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He said that his particular situation is a good one -- “I have my family around me, I have a nice house, we live in Florida” -- it is “still isolation.” 

“And I think people are eager to socialize again and that’s where cruising comes in,” he said. 

Vacationers could of course choose to socialize at all-inclusive resorts, given the amount of bad press cruising has gotten throughout the Covid-19 crisis, but Fain said that the bulk of people who are now booking are experienced cruisers “who understand cruise and understand how meticulous we are about abiding by health and safety protocols. These people know us and trust us, and I think they think that we will learn enough to make sure we’re doing all we can to protect them.” 

“This has not been the disaster that so many people assume,” he said. “They assumed this after 9/11, they assumed this after the Concordia, they assumed this after SARS, they assumed this after the financial meltdown. The industry is resilient and that’s partially because it adjusts.”

Despite the positive trends, Fain acknowledged concern about the millions of people suddenly unemployed and what that means for discretionary income going forward. 

“There’s no question we’re impacted by economic activity, and there is no question in my mind that you are going to see a weaker economy as we come out of this,” he said. “But this is also a very unusual situation because unlike prior economic downturns, the governments around the world are acting to stimulate the economies. I think that means that the length of any recession will be significantly shorter than it otherwise would be.” 

Like every cruise executive, Fain is constantly being asked when cruising will resume and what it will be like when it does. And like every cruise executive, he doesn’t have an answer. He also pointed out that there is a very good reason cruises have not released plans about their reopening protocols like other business have: they’re not open. 

“I must get 10 emails a day from the grocery store and airlines and all of these people are telling us about their enhanced protocols but the truth is they’re all operating,” he said. “They need to talk about their protocols today because they’re operating today. But we’re not and I’d rather have more time, get it right and make sure we’re doing it cooperatively with the authorities than try to preempt it months before we start operations.”

As to where the first cruises might go, Fain predicts they will likely be shorter sailings from drive markets. The company’s private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay, will be a prominent destination.

“There’s no question that one of the beauties of the private destinations like Perfect Day at CocoCay is we control everything,” Fain said. “Everybody that works on that island works for us. We can establish screening protocols, we can establish hygiene protocols. We can set standards that you can’t necessarily set in other destinations. From a starting point of view, it is nirvana.” 

Fain said passengers will see advanced capabilities of RCCL’s Excalibur technology to enable contactless transactions. 

“In the past, it was a nice thing to have. In the future, it will be more of an essential part of our offering,” he said. “With the new systems, there won’t be anything to sign. It will all be on your phone or your card – it will all be touchless. You will have less physical contact, which in a Covid world is a desirable thing.”

As many have predicted, the buffet as we know it is likely to be gone. But Fain noted that people get used to what seem like major changes at the time. 

“I don’t think anyone says, ‘Where’s the midnight buffet?’” he said. “You haven’t seen the midnight buffet for years and that was long before we had Covid-19. Tastes change and people change, and cruise lines change to accommodate.”

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