The head of Royal Caribbean in the UK, Ben Bouldin, took time out to talk to us about safety onboard, 2021 bookings, whether Anthem of the Seas will make it to the UK this summer -- and when we might see a return to cruising.

Q: Will there be a phased return to cruising?

The enormity of the task means there’s no way we’d be able to go back all at one time even if we wanted to. If you think about the number of crew who need to be positioned right back round and brought onto the ships. It’s an enormous task to stop a cruise industry and then restart it, so phased for sure, no question. When? How long is a piece of string? This is really the question I get asked all the time and it’s a really difficult one.

Q: Could things start up in China first?

Everybody in the world is looking at China and trying to figure out how they avoided a much higher death toll. But the reality is, things are getting back to normal in China. I mean our office has been back for over 50 days now and we haven’t had any new cases. People are flying domestically and planes are full and people are sitting as they were before, restaurants are opening up, but I guess the big difference is they are all wearing masks.

By and large there is definitely a sense that things are getting back maybe not to normal but a new normal for sure. So I can see the possibility of China opening up before other parts of the world, but when China opens up I do not know, but sure it could open up before some other parts of the world.

Q: How about Italy?

Italy is more of a curveball. It’s starting to relax some of its isolation rules but it’s still pretty stringent. The challenge with Italy is, while it is a drive up market it is also a massive fly-cruise market for us. And sourcing from the U.S. is really significant. I think that’s a little further away, I mean obviously we’ll get back there but I don’t think that’s as far up the priority list.

But as I said all we're doing is scenario building and modelling and what we did two weeks ago is now irrelevant. When we all saw this coming in late Feb./early March I thought we’d be building a recovery plan that said we back at full tilt in May, I mean how wrong I was. And then you think maybe June and then you think maybe July, so, so much uncertainty.

Discussions are ongoing in many markets about how realistic it is to get back by various different scenarios and those conversations are taking place with governments all around the world and port authorities and tourist boards. Take Singapore for example. Singapore is very keen to get cruising back and up and running, but equally there are some challenges doing that and they recently went into a new lockdown.

Q: When will cruising restart?

Naturally there are a lot of people around the world both keen to get cruising back, obviously none keener than us, but we also have to do this properly. There can be no false starts, it’s got to be considered, the wellbeing of crew and guests has got to be at the forefront of our thinking and we have to make sure that our first guests we welcome back not only have a fantastic vacation but we all have to come back healthy, fit and well. Until we are 100 percent confident we can deliver that, we won’t. We will get back and when we do our plans will be really bold, you can trust me on that.

Q: Are people opting for a future cruise credit (FCC) or a full refund?

It’s around 60:40 FCC vs refund. Which is pretty good, but obviously we made our FCC programme pretty attractive -- you get 125 percent.

FCCs vs. Refunds: Your Questions Answered

Q: How are 2021 bookings looking?

There’s definitely a pulse, but I’m not going to kid you, I don’t think everybody’s out there booking holidays at the moment so I’d be naïve to think otherwise, but there’s a pulse, there’s a pulse on ’21 for sure.

But I do expect a big bounce back when people have more answers to more of the questions that they are asking. We’ll be climbing the walls having been at home for so long!

Q: What destinations are people booking?

We’re seeing quite a lot of interest in the Caribbean, we’re seeing a lot of interest in Alaska, we're seeing some good interest in long haul and ex-UK. I think people are waiting to see what’s happening in Europe, understandably so, and I think there’s definitely signs of interest creeping back and we’re doing quite a lot of work at the moment to just understand what the demand is in the industry and what the demand is for our products.

Q: Will we see Anthem of the Seas in the U.K. this summer?

Anthem is really well booked for 2020 and beyond the sailings we’ve cancelled [till June 11] she still is, so it’s not like anybody’s been dropping out, so we’d love to give those guests the chance to sail from Southampton this year, however I honestly don’t know the answer… we really need to see how this situation plays out before we make any promises or commitments.

If you’re asking me if I’d personally like to see Anthem sail this summer then I’d love her to and I’m always looking to see if there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I do still believe there will be demand for her and I believe that demand is very strong. So don’t rule it out, but it’s very difficult to say at the moment. But we’ve obviously got the CDC guidelines which take us till the middle of July.

But we do have the challenge of the timing. The longer this rumbles on the less of the summer season exists. Certainly from Royal’s perspective, Europe is not a big winter destination for us, so that only heightens my appetite to do something late summer, but we’ll see, we’ll see how it plays out.

Q: What’s happening with Allure of the Seas’ summer season?

A: We’re just waiting to see if we can get Allure into Cadiz into the shipyard. We were meant to be doing our event post the drydock and amplification programme on May 10, so clearly we’re a long way short from where we want to be, just by nature of the fact the shipyard’s closed.

Q: What are the new safety protocols you are considering?

A: There’s an awful lot that we are having to consider, so you’ve got everything from how the guest transitions to you, i.e. how they arrive at the port. You’ve got the whole check-in procedure, health screening, testing, the whole piece around making sure your guests are fit and healthy and well enough to cruise. The you’ve got the whole impact onboard around hygiene standards, cleanliness, medical facilities, the medical staff. And then you’ve got this whole social distancing thing -- what can you do and what can’t you do? It depends on what degree the industry thinks it needs to act.

It’s everything from the number of people in the cabin, what’s the future of self-service buffets, how many people in the restaurant at one time, what’s the space between tables, the casual dining facilities, how many people sit in the specialist dining restaurants, how many people in the theatre at one time, the FlowRider -- I mean there are so many different variables we’ve got to consider.

The other thing is we don’t know the stigma attached with social distancing when we do come through it – are we all going to wear masks all the time? We don’t know how long that’s going to go on for.

Cruise Industry Prepares New Health Framework for Future of Cruising

Q: How do you convince people – particularly the first time cruiser – that cruising is safe?

The hygiene and cleanliness standards and the safety protocols we have to keep our guests fit and well are some of the highest in travel. And we always strive to deliver well beyond the minimum levels expected in this area. And I genuinely think we have to do a lot of work to reassure people that cruising is a phenomenal place to spend your vacation and we will look after you better on board one of our ships than anywhere else you will travel and that’s really something we’ve got to strive to deliver.

Q: Do you have a message for CC readers?

Many of your readers have been hugely supportive. And we will need our Crown & Anchor and loyal guests who I know are really keen to come back quickly, and we will need them to be our first guests back and our brand advocates and the champions of our product proposition. And it will start to come back from there.

I would just like to say a massive thank you to all the people who have shown unwavering support for us as a cruise line and for the industry as a whole. We need all these cruise advocates to be our fans. It’s been really heart-warming to see so many messages of encouragement, optimism and faith. And I love getting messages from my Crown & Anchor members telling me how much they are looking forward to coming back, it’s a nice tonic.

I’d like them to know we are doing everything to ensure that we can come back, keep them safe and deliver them truly outstanding holidays. And I appreciate their patience while we work through that process very very diligently. But I can tell you now, from [CEO] Richard Fain all the way through the organisation we are absolutely committed across all four of our brands – Royal, Celebrity, Azamara and Silversea – that when we come back we will extremely well placed to do so and we’re desperately keen to get to that place as quickly as is plausible.