Shortly after Allan Brooks started his new job in Canada, he sailed into the storm of all storms.
For Montreal-born Allan Brooks, the job was an exciting opportunity to return to Canada with his wife and two young children after living in the United States for several years – where he built a resume at the Royal Caribbean Group that, to this day, amounts to 22 years of industry experience – and lead a dynamic team.
But then, about three months into his new gig, that storm hit – the COVID-19 virus, then known as the “novel coronavirus strain” that originated in Wuhan, China, and later escalated, under the watch of the World Health Organization, into a global pandemic.
It was a recipe for disaster for the cruise industry as ships around the world, suddenly faced with an unprecedented global crisis, calculated next steps in getting passengers and crew home, safely, while mitigating the spread of a highly-contagious disease that, at that time, was still a mystery to many.
The distressing news reports that began to unravel – stories about cruise passengers being quarantined at sea in their staterooms for days on end – combined with the tidal wave of cancellations and postponements that followed is, perhaps, a moment in time that most cruise professionals would rather not revisit. It was awful for everyone.
But it was at this very moment, on the morning of March 6, 2020, that Allan Brooks breezed into PAX’s downtown Toronto offices to meet the team and share his vision for Celebrity’s season ahead.
While the fate of the cruise industry was still unknown at this point, anxiety and tension was running high in trade circles as the shadow of the coronavirus seemed to thicken by the hour.
Had Brooks, just maybe, accepted a new job at the wrong place, wrong time?
No – the newly-named director got his start in Vancouver’s theatre and improv scene and spent more than a decade running on-board entertainment for Royal Caribbean International (he was once a cruise director for Allure of the Seas).
He was also once a senior manager of on-board programming for Celebrity, working out of the brand’s head office in Miami, and later relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina to oversee the field sales of some 500 travel agents.
No, Brooks was used to thinking on his feet and rolling with the punches, which is maybe why his aura that morning, despite the doom and gloom circulating online, was refreshingly optimistic.
“I’m hoping, in the next couple of weeks, this subsides. I’m putting it out into the universe!” he exclaimed, stressing the importance of crew and guest safety and being flexible with customers and travel agents when faced with a crisis.
Brooks may not have gotten his wish in the end, for as we all know, COVID-19 went on to batter the travel industry and suspend cruise operations for an entire year. The virus is still impacting business today.
But a promise of safety and flexibility, from the very beginning of the pandemic, was honoured, as Celebrity went on to develop user-friendly policies around cancellations, rescheduling, best-offer guarantees and extending credits as part of a program called Cruise with Confidence.
“It’s about giving the best option to clients,” Brooks would later explain, noting how Celebrity now allows guests to cancel a cruise and receive 100% credit up to 48 hours before a sailing.
Support for the travel trade was also critical.
Celebrity’s long-standing relationship with travel advisors is one “built on trust,” Brooks says, and the essence of that is expressed in the Celebrity Commitment, a one-stop shop where partners can access company updates, rewards and training tools.
Protecting trade commissions, too, was “huge,” Brooks said, considering that not all brands have been able to do so.
Back in business
Which brings us to today – one year after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a “No-Sail Order” on all cruises out of U.S. ports, as Celebrity (and others), still without a green light to sail in American waters, plans to resume operations in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Offering seven-night itineraries throughout August, the “revolutionized” Celebrity Millennium will sail to Aruba, Curaçao, Barbados, Tortola and St. Lucia, while offering Dutch, French and Caribbean experiences from its homeport in St. Maarten.
Celebrity Cruises' President and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo called Celebrity's return to the Caribbean after more than a year away a "significant moment for us" that marks the "measured beginning of the end of what has been a uniquely challenging time for everyone."
Celebrity is also returning to Europe as Celebrity Apex, the second ship in the brand’s Edge Series, makes her long-awaited debut in Greece in June.
It’s an exciting reboot backed by the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, in addition to health and safety measures devised by the Royal Caribbean Group’s Healthy Sail Panel, and comes as welcome news after a one-year pause.
“We are thrilled to be returning to service and getting back to doing what we love,” Brooks said, reconvening with PAX one year after our first meeting. “It has been a long year for everyone and we are in the business of vacations, which is something everyone needs right now.”
“We will continue to work towards offering the safest and cleanest vacations on earth.”
“Not a lab environment”
One could spend hours dissecting what health and safety means to a cruise line in today’s new world – the industry’s ability to operate depends on following protocols.
Celebrity, in tandem with parent company Royal Caribbean Group, is one of the first companies to commit to fully vaccinated sailings, where both guests and crew ages 18 and over must be vaccinated against COVID-19.
With enhanced sanitization, air filtration, testing and screening procedures, in addition to on-board medical and travel coverage, outlined here, Celebrity has gone “above and beyond” in its communications with the CDC, Brooks told PAX.
“I’m confident with what we’ve put in place,” Brooks affirmed.
One advantage Celebrity has with its new Edge-series ships, such as Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex, said Brooks, is that they have “been designed for social distancing.”
“Whether or not they’re at 100 per cent capacity, Edge and Apex are designed to make guests feel like there’s not many people on board. When you reduce [capacity] down to 50 per cent, people are for sure going to feel like they have enough comfortable space.”
But it’s going to take time “as confidence builds up” in the marketplace, Brooks noted, and part of that conversation includes a guarantee that Celebrity’s pandemic-era cruises will, in fact, still feel like cruises.
“We’re making sure that it’s still a vacation. Not a lab environment,” Brooks said.
Slow return, high demand
As to how many Canadians will get the Celebrity treatment in the Caribbean or Greece this summer remains to be seen.
Canada’s vaccination rollout, unlike the United States, has been sluggish at best, and the country’s air, testing and quarantine restrictions are still among the strictest in the world.
As of March 27, only 1.76 per cent of the Canadian population had received two full doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, so most citizens don’t even quality for a cruise yet.
For Celebrity’s Canadian team, this might make it difficult to chart a clear path forward, but Brooks accepts that the situation is beyond his or Celebrity’s control.
“We will get there and we will travel again soon – once vaccinated,” Brooks told PAX, noting how the demand for cruises in Canada is still strong, despite the circumstances.
“We have seen bookings pick up for 2022 as travellers are looking to secure space early. Demand will continue to grow and we will soon get back to a full fleet of new luxury ships.”
“We knew this was going to be a slow and deliberate return and we are happy to be taking the first steps back to cruising.”
As Celebrity’s Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice-president of sales, said in trade webinar back in May 2020, the brand’s return is “not going to be a light switch approach.”
“When we come back, we’re going to stagger [ships], and we’re also not going to go to 100 per cent capacity,” Ritzenthaler said at the time.
There’s also a bigger picture to consider here, beyond getting back business, and that is the recognition that people, worldwide, have suffered great losses as a result of COVID-19.
As much as the industry would love to see business come roaring back, there’s something to be said about taking a slow and mindful approach.
“Cruising will be back,” Brooks said, “but I don’t think the business of cruising needs to be rushed back to risk a tragedy. We have to take our blinders off and understand that this is about humanity. It goes beyond travel.”
“We have to think about those who are vulnerable.”
As head of Celebrity Cruises Canada, Brooks wants to get to a place where he, his team and trade partners can talk about cruising with customers in a “comfortable and respectful” manner, given that travel is still a sensitive topic for some.
Sailings for Fall and Winter 2021, and getting vaccinated as soon as possible, lead the bulk of conversations these days.
“People are looking for info and want something to look forward to. That’s been the sentiment,” Brooks said.
Embracing a new identity
Until the time is right, Celebrity customers and partners have lots to look forward to as the brand re-enters the market with a renewed sense of identity, having dropped its “modern luxury” title for what it now calls “new luxury.”
Celebrity, founded in 1988, introduced its amplified Edge Class ship, Celebrity Edge, in 2018 (its first new ship in a decade) which set the brand on a dramatic new course.
“Celebrity Edge wasn’t just a new ship – it was a new style of cruising. It’s a boutique hotel,” Brooks says.
Building on Celebrity’s reputation for being classy without being stuffy, and for attracting travellers who enjoy immersing themselves in new experiences, Edge, with visionary spaces designed by award-winning Kelly Hoppen and game-changing features, like The Magic Carpet, a cantilevered, “floating” platform that transforms into different venues at various deck levels, “set a new precedent” for the industry, Brooks said.
Celebrity Edge, Celebrity Apex, the 2019 launch of Celebrity Flora – an expedition ship that sails exclusively along the Galapagos Islands – and Celebrity Beyond (coming in 2022) all add to another major initiative still underway: The Celebrity Revolution.
This is a $500 million dollar-plus redesign of Celebrity’s fleet that will – and already has, in some cases – update, or “Edge-ify,” ships into modern-day masterpieces.
Celebrity Millennium, Celebrity Summit, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Silhouette, and more, are all part of the project, which is expected to ramp up in 2021 after pausing amid the shutdown of 2020. (Click here to see which ships have been transformed and which ones are on deck).
If Edge-series ships and the Celebrity Revolution have achieved anything, they have given Celebrity a stronger sense of identity – perhaps more than ever.
“Celebrity is about an upscale experience. It doesn’t fall into the contemporary cruise sector,” said Brooks, referring to the brand as a “premium luxury” product.
When Brooks started his role as Canadian market sales director, one of his main objectives, he told us, was to inject a renewed sense of enthusiasm about Celebrity and, collectively, “do a better job at bragging about who we are and what we’ve done.”
Brooks is already pretty good at bragging (in a good way).
One particular Edge-era ingredient that gets him going is "The Retreat" experience – a “cruise within a cruise,” as he says, that features stunning suites, a private restaurant, and an exclusive lounge and sundeck – all supported by butlers, one-on-one attendants and concierges.
“It’s a whole other level, within a luxury product,” he says of the high-end upgrade, which first appeared on Celebrity Edge. “It costs more, but when you look at the value perks, it’s the way to go.”
Celebrity’s new all-inclusive price structure, too, has elevated the brand. Coming out of the pandemic, “the biggest thing will be to keep things simple,” Brooks said.
All of this, combined with “the same look and feel” of Celebrity’s website and marketing, will help people “better understand who we are,” he said.
READ MORE: Celebrity sails into all-inclusive territory
That’s not to say Celebrity didn’t have any it-factor before Edge came along – their ships have always had a certain je ne sais quoi about them.
The difference now, Brooks explained, is that “we’re in a position to attract a broader audience because we have an identity,” and when the pandemic is over, “we’ll be aligned to speak about the brand more confidently.”
And after one year of watching the coronavirus take control, you can bet Celebrity Cruises Canada will need travel advisors on board to sail out of the storm.
“It’s been eye opening to see the resiliency and importance of travel partners,” Brooks said, reflecting on the past 12 months.
“Travel advisors are the frontline of our industry – they’ve all had to have difficult conversations with their team, and their customers, while sustaining a business throughout all of this.”
“I’m really proud of our partners in Canada that have stuck by us.”
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