(9:30 a.m. EDT) -- A major milestone in the resumption of cruise took place Monday, as a blue-ribbon panel created jointly by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean Group unveiled its recommendations for ensuring cruises keep passengers healthy and safe.
After four months of meetings and discussions, the panel outlined 74 recommendations that included a range of items from health screening to education, monitoring, tracking and ventilation. RCG and NCLH will use the recommendations in forming their cruise line protocols. This would be another step toward resuming cruising, which has been on pause globally since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Cruising has made a promising return on a limited basis in Europe, with MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises sailing in the Mediterranean, and several smaller lines and river cruise lines likewise have started sailing in Europe as well. In fact, many of the protocols recommended by the RCG-NCLH Healthy Sail Panel have taken inspiration from or helped inform the procedures in Europe.)
Cruising's biggest advocacy organization, the Cruise Lines International Association, followed the Healthy Sail Panel announcement with one of their own: Its member cruise lines are putting forth a thorough and radical set of protocols (including COVID tests for anyone on a ship), which will be reviewed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While many logistics have to be worked out, the optimism for return is palpable among industry leaders.
Cruise Critic caught up exclusively with Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, to talk about the Healthy Sail Panel, its recommendations and cruising's resumption.
Cruise Critic: What was the process like, from convening the panel to working with them over the past four moths?
Richard Fain: I think you'll find that it's impressive how thorough they were. And the thing, what I think is different about it is, No. 1, it's so thorough, and No. 2, it's so transparent. They explain the process, they explain the arguments on both sides and they did it in front of the CDC. They did it in front of CLIA, in front of other cruise lines. So I think, I'm very impressed with the work they do.
The first thing we did was we set out to find the best person who could act as chair in the United States. And I will tell you that we came down to a list of two people and one was former Utah Gov. and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, and one was former Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Scott Gottlieb. ... Those were our two first choices.
And by chance, I spoke to Gov. Leavitt first, and I was in awe. And so I asked him to chair the panel and he agreed. And then, I was calling other cruise lines to tell them that that's what we were doing. And Frank Del Rio said, "Well, that's a coincidence because we've just hired a guy by the name of Scott Gottlieb." And I said, "Well, he was one of our two first choices." And so we said, "Well, we're both trying to do the same thing. Let's try and do it together," and that's what we did.
So we got the two of them, we asked them to assemble the Avengers, assemble a team of experts, of superheroes that would help us make this happen. ... And then they came up with their recommendations.
CC: Are there any lessons that you learned during this process or from this panel that you think can be applied to other parts of the industry?
Fain: Well, the industry has been very collaborative and so I think the panel will help inform everybody. And I think it has because as the panel was coming up with these recommendations, the other cruise lines were there and either were at the panel meetings or we talked to them after the panel meeting. So we were sharing our learnings as went straight through the process.
I think one of the things that was very interesting was the very methodical approach to they took the risk and the concept of layered risk of layered, steps to protect against the risk. So it's not relying on a silver bullet, but it's a series of things which complement each other.
CC: And a lot of what seems to be coming from this is being practiced in parts in Europe. Did that serve as informative to the panel at all, or is it simply coincidental?
Fain: Not coincidental at all. Before they started in Europe, you have TUI Cruises operating in Europe, you have MSC, you have Costa. And I think soon, you're going to have AIDA. And we talked to them, the panel talked to them, the panel talked to our people. So the experience that we had in Europe, first of all, the panel, the knowledge that we had acquired, was able to inform our protocols in Europe and then the experience in Europe and how people reacted to things and how things work and how they were implemented, very much helped the panel in reaching its conclusions.
CC: You talk about cooperation, and a partnership between Royal Caribbean and Norwegian is not unprecedented but certainly unusual outside of the bounds of CLIA. How did that work, and why did this seem like the right opportunity to partner?
Fain: Well, I think we had two companies that were trying to achieve exactly the same thing and that worked extremely well. It's two companies that compete like crazy, and each of us are bound and determined to crush the other one, commercially. Just in case you're interested, we will win that battle. But aside from that, we both understood that the whole industry needs to move in the right direction. And we wanted the strongest protocols, so that we knew that we were doing everything we could to protect our guests and our crew and the communities. That's a big part of this.
And so we had the same objectives. We worked amazingly well together. I'm really quite shocked because we're very different personalities between the two companies. Every company has a personality, and we're quite different personalities, but we were both so determined on what the ultimate objective was, that it worked out extremely well. And sometimes Frank would say, "Richard, I think you're right." And there were even times when I said, "Frank, I think you're right."
CC: What should we expect for next step?
Fain: So the panel is giving recommendations to the Royal Caribbean Group and to Norwegian. It has given those recommendations to us. Obviously, we've embraced them. It has told the CDC what recommendations is given to us. It has told us and the CDC that they think with all these protocols, it's prudent for us to start opening up. So the next step is for us to submit the detailed protocols officially to the CDC, which we'll do fairly soon. And then hopefully the CDC will say, "That's good. We're not really surprised, we've been participating in this process and we're pleased by it."
And so our hope is we'll work with them. And obviously ... we would expect that there would be back and forth, as there has been in the past. They would have some ideas and we would have some ideas and there may be modifications made, but we would expect in due course, they would say, "Yes, we agree with the panel. And we think that's a good basis for you to move forward." But the next step in that process is for us to formally submit the company's proposals.
CC: And what is the timeline for that?
Fain: We haven't said, but it's soon.
CC: The report and suggestions are very comprehensive. Along with what CLIA introduced, do you think these will address the areas that the CDC has outlined as areas of concern?
Fain: As I said, the panel looked deciduously at what the CDC has said in the past. They've looked at the learnings from other incidents in the past. This is a very different world than it was six months ago. The knowledge of the virus, the knowledge of ways to combat it, knowledge about human behavior, the knowledge that the technology, all of these things have advanced at frankly, an accelerating pace.
So the panel looked at all that collective information from the CDC, from other cruise lines, from wherever, and assembled its recommendations based on that. And by the way, one of their recommendations is we keep looking at those things and keep learning from them. And you know that's one of our mantras at Royal Caribbean, which is continuous improvement.
CC: Is it fair to say we can expect that this is going to be a continuing process?
Fain: Absolutely. As long as we have a COVID-19 pandemic, you can assume that we're going to learn more. We're going to learn some new ideas that we can do to improve things. We'll also learn about some substitutes. So instead of this, we can do that.
CC: Is November cruising a realistic timeline for a restart?
Fain: So we haven't put timelines on this. We don't know enough about it to do that. But yeah, I think the idea that we could be having cruising in November, under a very strict set of protocols, is absolutely in the cards.
Closing thoughts from Fain: We're quite excited about this. I mean, these people put their heart and soul into this, and I think they did an amazing job. I'm blown away by how much they cared. I think they said from the beginning that they wanted it to be transparent. They didn't want this to be something that was done in closed rooms, with nobody observing, without people seeing the balancing that had to be made and the decision process. And I must admit that's not the way I'm used to seeing things happen, but I think it was very effective. And I think we got a better result because of it.