Carnival recovery to focus on ports in drive markets

Carnival recovery to focus on ports in drive markets

Carnival Cruise Line will fall back on a tried-and-true strategy when the line eventually resumes service: It will bolster deployment throughout its network of homeports in mainland U.S. drive markets.

The line has always been the leader in U.S. homeport deployment, but it doubled down after 9/11, when many Americans were scared to fly.

When cruise ships sail again out of U.S. ports, all but three of its 23 ships (24, after the Mardi Gras comes on line in February) will be sailing from U.S. mainland ports. One vessel will be based in Europe seasonally and two in Australia.

And even the ships Down Under will rely on the Aussie drive market. 

Fred Stein, vice president of deployment for the line, said that two ports outside the mainland U.S. will lose a Carnival ship in the reshuffle: San Juan and Barbados, where passengers had been able to join seven-day San Juan cruises. Stein said the redeployment is directly tied to the effort to “focus more on our drive market business in North America.”

By getting rid of its older and smaller Fantasy-class ships — the Fantasy and the Inspiration are being dismantled, and the Fascination and Imagination are moving into long-term layup — and adding both the 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras and a sister ship to the fleet later, by 2022 Carnival will have fewer ships but more capacity deployed in its North American homeports. 

While an increased emphasis on homeport deployment is part of Carnival’s return-to-service strategy, it has long been a major focus for the line. It was the first, for example, to base ships in Tampa, Fla.; New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; and San Diego. It expanded into Charleston, S.C., and Baltimore as it added new ships to the fleet. 

“Historically we have deployed from 18 North American homeports, and that has been very successful for us,” Stein said. “It delivers a lot of drive-market guests. We’re very popular with families — for families of four to buy an airline ticket on top of a cruise is very expensive.”

Coming out of the pandemic, the strategy is even more important, Stein said. 

“It makes more sense now,” Stein said. “Not having to get on an airplane gives an advantage during the initial startup phase once all the protocols are put in place.” 

Among the winners in Carnival’s U.S. homeport strategy will be California, which will get newer and larger ships and departures from more ports. San Francisco will get more options, with Carnival offering its first Alaska cruises from that port. In another first for San Francisco, four-day “long weekend” trips to Ensenada, Mexico, will be scheduled.

In Long Beach, Calif., it will replace two Fantasy-class ships with the Carnival Radiance. The departing Fantasy-class ships were built in the early 1990s, whereas the Radiance will have recently completed a $200 million upgrade. 

“On an overall basis, California is growing,” Stein said. “It has a much higher breadth of choices, and we’ve upgraded the hardware significantly.”

On the other side of the country, Fort Lauderdale will lose some capacity in favor of Miami, which Stein notes is only 25 miles down the road, a distance that’s not a significant factor to cruisers.

Carnival’s one ship that sails seasonally in Europe is its only one that will depend on a fly-in market in 2021. Most of those passengers are sourced from North America, Stein said. 

“That’s where our strength is and where our largest pool of past guests are from,” Stein said. “And as they graduate through cruising, Europe is a bucket list item. It skews higher to the past guest market.”

Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com, said that the strategy works well for Carnival because of its focus on families and the value-driven market, as well as its long experience and success with homeport cruising. 

“We will see a bigger demand for homeport cruise than we will for cruising that requires that extra flight to get to the cruise,” he said. “We’ve seen that in the past. There is some direct correlation now to what happened around 9/11 when people felt more comfortable a little closer to home, being able to park their car and get on a ship.” 

And the early, short cruises from U.S. homeports, Hamawy said, are about more than revenue. 

“In the near term, everything will be about stepping stones, going back to basics and taking it slow and easy,” he said. “They are not just looking at [these initial cruises] from a revenue point of view. They are looking to show people it’s safe to cruise again. They are looking to change minds and they need to sail out safely and show consumers you’re not going to have outbreaks.”

He did note, however, that Cruise.com has seen a surge in Europe bookings for 2021. 

“There are companies like Royal, Princess, Holland America, Celebrity — they are all doing well with Europe,” he said. “People want to travel again. I think things will reopen and this will turn around a lot quicker than people know. Next year looks very strong for international travel.”

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