(2:30 p.m. EDT) -- Several leading cruise figures have painted an optimistic picture of where the cruise industry may one year from now, in October 2021, at the closing event of this year's Virtual Seatrade industry conference.
Speaking on the panel were MSC Cruises' President and CEO Rick Sasso; Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network; Royal Caribbean VP Digital Jay Schneider; and Dee Cooper, SVP Design and Customer Experience with Virgin Voyages.
The panel's optimism echoed that of other leading industry figures, including Carnival Corporation president and CEO Arnold Donald, who in a corporate earnings call Thursday again expressed confidence that a safe, measured restart to cruise in the Americas was not far off.
It also echoes what cruise industry executives communicated during Seatrade's opening keynote address on Tuesday morning: that the overall trend was one of positivity, both in terms of restart, testing and health and safety protocols, and the health of the industry moving forward in unprecedented times.
"Travel becomes even more a need than a want or a luxury," said Signature Travel Network's Sharpe, noting that COVID-19's restrictions have only made people want to travel more. "It used t be that travel was lumped in with luxury goods. Now it's really one of the core things that people and families in particular need."
"I think we're going to return to a very healthy cruise environment," said Sasso of the one-year outlook into 2021. "We will adopt to those things that are required of us for COVID safety but we are ready to manage them. MSC is looking forward to adding more ships to the worldwide deployment, and I think it will be happening over the next weeks and months."
Sasso noted that while MSC's restart will, as other lines have intimated, has been a gradual one, the line hopes to be back to full deployment by October 2021.
"We have another ship starting on October 19 in Europe and another in Europe over the next month in a half," said Sasso. "We hope the North American version of that starts very soon. We hope that as an industry this will evolve, and it will evolve sooner than we thought even a month ago."
Virgin Voyages' Dee Cooper agreed, noting that pent-up demand spoke highly of the industry's continued resilience. Virgin Voyages first vessel, Scarlet Lady, had just made its first media preview voyages when the pandemic shut down cruises. That pent-up demand to sail a brand-new ship is still something Virgin is seeing into 2021.
"I think the sad but great thing is there's loads of untapped demand to go back sailing," said Cooper. "The Virgin brand attracts a lot f people that love it. We have the cruisers that love getting on the new ships, and there's loads of pent-up demand to get on those new ships."
Royal Caribbean's Schneider referenced the increased reliance on technology in the pre-COVID times as an example of how the industry is already equipped to handle new requirements for physical distancing and touchless procedures at embarkation.
"You see this being developed in the airline industry today," said Schneider. "We were already doing touchless boarding and mobile boarding. All of this was designed to get people on ships faster and on vacation faster. You really want to get on the ship and breathe the sea air, not the terminal air. The technology was really designed to remove friction from the vacation experience."
MSC's Sasso pointed out that the new health and safety protocols being developed by cruise lines will make cruising even safer than it was before.
"We've been able to stop anyone who tested positive for COVID from boarding", said Sasso. "No boarding. We even had some guests, where during a shore experience, decided to sneak away from our bubble and we denied them back on the ship.
"We're getting rave reviews from our guests and governments. You'll be safer going on a cruise than you will be going to the supermarket, and we proved that on the MSC Grandiosa."