ONBOARD THE PRIDE OF AMERICA -- Travel advisors looking for space on Norwegian Cruise Line's Hawaii-based Pride of America this year will need to act fast: the cruise line said space on the ship is sold out through October.
And while that's partly because travelers have shown a willingness to spend up this summer, and concerns about testing requirements are pushing travelers to stay domestic -- and the Pride of America is a fairly unique cruise option because it is an entirely domestic itinerary -- it's also because the ship will remain at less than 50% capacity due to the staffing issues that are plaguing the industry and nation.
Unlike any other ship in the NCL fleet, the Pride of America is U.S.-flagged, and as such must be crewed by Americans.
On a sailing for press and travel advisors this month on one of the ship's seven-day roundtrip Honolulu itineraries, the vessel sailed with 1,194 passengers, about 40% of its maximum capacity. Only two specialty restaurants were open, and reservations were hard to get, even for guests in penthouse suites.
"Our issue with Hawaii isn't with demand -- our issue is with crew," said NCL CEO Harry Sommer at a press conference onboard. Where normally the Pride of America would have about 930 crew members, he said the ship was sailing with just under 550. Guest capacity has been limited to 1,100 to 1,200 guests as a result, he said, "and we'll stay at around that for the rest of the summer."
With every sailing closed out now through October, "demand is a good problem to have," Sommer said, but one he wishes NCL didn't. NCL is doing everything possible to find staff, he said, but even after hiring, training and certification takes three or four months.
"We will ramp up slowly, I'd hope by Christmas. As they come on, we'll open the other restaurants, but we are not going to compromise the guest experience," he said.
Who should book Pride of America?
The Pride of America is unusual in several ways: Its Aloha State itineraries, for example, cannot be replicated by other big-ship lines.
But that's not the only thing that sets apart the ship and needs explaining when selling. While the vessel has never looked better, after being newly refurbished and looking brighter and airier than it used to, it's an older ship, built in 2005, and it's one in its class, a unique design. Its Hawaii sailings are more focused on its four-island itinerary and less on its onboard entertainment: There is no big show, casino, race cars or giant water slides.
Such bells, whistles and nightlife are not on the agenda, Sommer said. And still, the Pride of America's daily rates are among the highest in the fleet.
"If you measure profit by per day, this is our most profitable ship; we're the only cruise line doing proper Hawaii cruises," Sommer said. "And we did a massive upgrade; the ship looks beautiful.
"Things like racetracks or theater we don't think would resonate here; no one would show up."
Derek Lloyd, vice president of sales for parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said in an interview that where a seven-day Caribbean cruise might spend 35 or 40 hours in port, "here you are looking at 1,200 hours, so the dynamic on the ship is quite different. There are no days at sea, and that changes the way people interact with the ship.
"Everyone is at a minimum three-hour sleep deficit," he added. "And this is a really, really busy itinerary; people are out biking and hiking and driving the road to Hana. So travel advisors need to tell their clients this is not a Caribbean cruise on another set of islands; it's a very unique product and it needs to be sold as such."
And with hotels in Honolulu and Maui at $800 a night plus a resort fee, he said, "this is realistically the closest thing to an all-inclusive in the Hawaiian Islands. We're a much better value than other options."
That, Lloyd added, should be the selling point. "Travel advisors need to focus on the value, not on the price," he said.
A Tampa-based travel advisor, who will do $6 million or so in revenue this year, about 80% from cruises, agreed.
Despite not having all its venues open, the Pride of America is "absolutely a great value," he said. "I have a family reunion in Hawaii, eight rooms in July, and it is running close to $60,000 not including food. People who are cruisers want to do Hawaii, and there are no all-inclusives in Hawaii. We are seeing four islands in seven nights. This is your only option."
He was among advisors who said it is key to match this ship to the right client.
"This trip is perfect for a river cruise customer," he said. "The itinerary is excellent. But it's not Wonder of the Seas. It's not much fun for kids. It doesn't feel like there's a lot to do at night; there's one show at 7:30 and after the late dinner everyone goes to bed. You have to be into the destination, the excursions."