September 10, 2013 Updated September 11, 2013
But Carnival Cruise Lines President and CEO Gerry Cahill would rather that passengers never have to see the results of the $300 million in improvements the company has pumped into the fleet's safety systems.
Carnival's investment targets safety, customer comfort in worst-case scenarios and the company's reputation, which took a hit in February, when an engine-room fire on Carnival Triumph disabled the ship at sea. A month later, Carnival Dream's emergency diesel generator malfunctioned, prompting the line to cut short a cruise and fly passengers home from St. Maarten, an incident Carnival's Chief Marketing Officer Jim Berra called "the low point" for the line in 2013.
The money is no small sum, even for the largest cruise company in the world. But in an exclusive interview with Cruise Critic in Miami, Cahill emphasized the company's commitment to safety, reflected on how the company handled Triumph and talked about what the line would do to “get back to being Carnival.”
"We have to be certain that we can provide a safe, comfortable vacation for our guests every time," Cahill said.
Safety and Comfort Enhancements
When fire broke out on Triumph, the fire-suppression system put out the blaze quickly.
"It actually revealed the quality of the fire-suppression system," said Antonio Colotti, chief engineer onboard Carnival Breeze.
But the fire also disabled Triumph's propulsion and most hotel operations, and stories soon emerged from passengers who described nonfunctioning toilets, elevators and air conditioning. So, when Carnival reviewed the fire and decided to make serious changes to its fleet, it did so with an eye on both safety and keeping hotel functions up and running.
The list of enhancements the entire fleet will undergo is extensive, and it required a complete review of each ship. Essentially, though, all enhancements fall into one of three buckets: fire prevention, detection and suppression; operating redundancies; and emergency diesel generators. The last of these is specifically aimed at ensuring that, even if a ship is disabled, items such as ventilation, toilet systems and elevators still will function.
Currently, only Sunshine and Triumph have received all the enhancements; Breeze awaits only a second emergency diesel generator, which will be delivered this month. The rollout schedule for the rest of the fleet still is being determined, according to Cahill, but should be completed within a couple of weeks. (Cruise Critic will post the details on the schedule as soon as they're released.) Because of the extensive nature of the enhancements, the rollouts themselves will continue through 2014 and into 2015.
That, of course, means individual ships will be out of service for weeks at a time throughout the year, something Cahill hopes the company can take advantage of by simultaneously installing the line's heralded "Fun Ship 2.0" upgrades. Fun Ship 2.0 is Carnival's concept geared toward upgrading and branding the line's entertainment, bars and restaurants. Features include Guy's Burger Joint, The Punchliner Comedy Club Presented by George Lopez and the EA Sports Bar.
"The spaces should have personality …" Cahill said. "We've hand-picked employees to work in certain spaces (based on personality fit)."
Carnival Breeze and Sunshine currently feature the full Fun Ship 2.0 experience, and four other ships -- Liberty, Conquest, Glory and Triumph -- have a number of the 2.0 elements, too. To a lesser extent, Magic and Dream, also have some 2.0 features, according to Mark Tamis, Carnival's senior vice president of Guest Operations. Tamis said Carnival plans to roll out 2.0 features to the entire fleet eventually.
A Continuous Process
Carnival was swift in announcing the planned safety enhancements, which it unveiled in mid-April, but Cahill calls safety reviews of the fleet, to which he's dedicated much of his time over the past six months, a "continuous process."
To that end, the company formed a Safety and Reliability Review Board, comprising outside experts, including two retired U.S. Navy Rear Admirals, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and a former senior vice president with Delta Airlines, who will work with Carnival technical experts to review and improve safety policies. Onboard the ships, crew will continue to undergo regular training. And the company has worked with Cruise Lines International Association in its review of safety across the cruise industry. Subsequently, CLIA and its North American member cruise lines adopted a Cruise Passenger Bill of Rights, in part as a reaction to the incidents on Triumph and Dream.
"When one of us has a problem, it hurts us all." Cahill said, adding that the cruise lines share safety information freely. "We don't compete when it comes to safety."
While the Triumph fire has taught Carnival a great deal about its engine room and necessary changes, it's also prompted the company to reflect on how it communicates with the media and public in such instances.
Looking back, Cahill said the company could have better communicated its efforts and plans.
"We were focused on getting guests back; not on telling the story," he said. "We were just focused on doing the right thing."
Carnival shut down its social media efforts for a period after Triumph returned to Mobile, Alabama, something Berra describes as a reset, a chance to figure out the best way to proceed.
Cahill points out that behind the scenes, Carnival teams on land were working 24/7 to assist with the process of communicating with passengers and their families as well as coordinate a safe return to port and beyond. For example, employees flew to Progreso, Mexico, where Triumph initially was to be towed before winds pushed it north, prompting a decision to tug it to Mobile. Employees were on a charted boat sailing through rough waters on their way to meet Triumph, but the wind shift meant the charted boat didn't have enough fuel to reach the ship and return safely. Instead, seasick staffers spent some 20 hours at sea, eventually returning to Mexico. Some of those same employees flew back to HQ in Miami and ultimately to Mobile, as passengers disembarked.
"A (social media) pause, in hindsight, wasn't the right thing to do," Berra said, highlighting that the company has since solidified its use of social media to communicate directly with its consumers. Carnival, for instance, has added a "News and Updates" tab to its Facebook page where it responds to feedback, takes questions and posts news releases.
While the rollout of safety enhancements will remain Carnival's priority, Cahill said the company is also working on "getting back to being Carnival."
That means focusing on the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades and trying to rebuild the brand's reputation -- especially with novice cruisers who aren't already loyal to Carnival, a group, Berra said, whose perception of the line was most damaged. Carnival's about to unveil a major ad campaign in which its loyal customers -- sourced heavily through social media -- talk about why they love Carnival. The campaign will be featured on TV as well as online, with a video set to debut at the end of September. The company also has struck a deal to serve as the official cruise line of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Carnival is investigating faster and cheaper Internet onboard its ships. It's also looking at improving the quality of its inclusive dinner experience, something Tamis calls an "integral part" of the cruise experience. Cruisers across multiple lines have said main dining room quality has suffered with the rise of alternative for-fee restaurants, and Tamis said while Carnival will continue to develop more alternative restaurants, it will improve the main dining room experience and make it more contemporary.
"The best thing you can do is to … continue to improve the product," Cahill said.
--By Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor