During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the cruise line industry, much like the wider travel industry, saw a significant fall in demand. This naturally led to sectors that served it – such as assistance firms – also experiencing knock-on effects.
“By May or June of 2020, all travel-related organisations saw a significant decrease in overall volume of over 80 per cent,” explained Alfred Downey, CSM, Assistance Manager at Allianz Partners USA.
However, following the eventual easing of restrictions and advisories from the start of 2022 onwards – the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made its own cruise ship-related health advisories voluntary in January 2022, and dropped them entirely in March of that year – passengers have returned.
Managing the post-pandemic surge
While the return of passengers to cruise lines, and to the travel industry as a whole, was relatively rapid once restrictions ended – driven in part by the concept of ‘revenge travel’ – assistance companies had prepared to manage this surge in advance.
“Most travel organisations will admit that, when travel returned, numbers seemed to increase overnight,” said Downey. “Supporting this overnight increase was no easy task, though the strategy employed by us was centred around prevention and readiness.”
Downey explained that Allianz Partners USA worked hard to monitor the ongoing situation in preparation for the expected post-pandemic uptick in demand. This included monitoring ‘global infection rates, restrictions, and travel requirements’, and maintaining strong channels of communication with travel partners such as those in the cruise industry.
“Through this, [we] generated forecasting reports to determine potential volumes,” he added. “With this information, both staffing and case handling processes were created to handle shifts in volume.”
By contrast, Elena Donina Glukhman, Business Development Manager at AP Companies Global Solutions, stated that when demand for assistance from the cruise industry dipped during the pandemic, AP Companies remained ‘committed’ to supporting it. Rather than abandoning the sector outright, the company instead ramped up Covid-19-specific support. “We provided essential services like Covid-19 testing in ports of call; supplied Covid-19 test kits onboard ships; assisted cruise lines and crews during hospitalisations; and offered pre-embarkation passenger testing for major cruise lines,” she explained, adding that while ‘adapting to the ever-evolving protocols and requirements was intense’, it was ‘crucial’ for both them and the cruise line operators.
Glukhman agreed with Downey, stating that while the post-pandemic surge in demand was rapid, it was not a complete surprise. “We … anticipated the post-pandemic summer would be exceptionally busy for cruises and travellers, and were well prepared to meet the increased demand.” She explained that AP Companies’ operational model is to always maintain enough resources and capacity to handle a ‘30 per cent increase in volume’.
Fernando Somoza, Chief Operations Officer at Universal Assistance, added that some regions, countries and travel industry sectors ‘were more restrictive, while others were very open even during the pandemic’. Consequently, as life returned to the travel industry, some sectors were further ahead in recovering to pre-pandemic levels than others. This gave Universal Assistance a head start when it came to supporting those that were slower to recover – such as the cruise line sector.
“The cruise industry was [one of] the most affected [by pandemic restrictions], due to the nature of the business and the pandemic’s impact,” Somoza said. “So when the activity resumed, we were well ahead in the recovery in other segments, and didn’t experience problems in addressing [the cruise industry’s] needs.”
Accounting for the loss of revenue during the pandemic
While preparing for the return of demand from the cruise industry was vital, it was also important in the interim for assistance firms to seek out other means of balancing the books during the pandemic. This included the development of new services, improving efficiency, and seeking out new sources of revenue.
Downey said that while the pandemic ‘challenged’ his company, it also encouraged them to ‘think outside the box and look at opportunities outside of the norm’.
Most travel organisations will admit that, when travel returned, numbers seemed to increase overnight
Glukhman agreed. She explained that the drop in demand also led to AP Companies seeking out ‘new clients and revenue streams’. She said: “We had the opportunity to create and promote innovative solutions, such as telemedicine, online mental health services, and Covid-19 management solutions for cruise ships.”
Somoza echoed this sentiment and noted that Universal Assistance ‘took the opportunity to enhance digital capabilities, processes, and partnerships’ during the pandemic, as well as expanding services in domestic coverage during the downturn in international travel.
Shifting back to pre-pandemic health regulations
The growing demand for assistance from cruise ships as the pandemic ended was paralleled by an easing of Covid-19-related health guidance and restrictions in the sector. However, the impact of the restrictions – and indeed the intensity of focus that assistance firms were required to place on them – varied significantly according to how assistance providers operate.
Somoza explained that during the pandemic, Universal Assistance worked alongside the cruise industry in accordance with the guidelines of health authorities in the countries the ships were currently in. While the majority of these regulations have eased, he explained that even during the 2023 summer season, many cruise lines still ‘required passengers to have a negative Covid-19 test result prior to embarking’. For this, his company would provide cancellation coverage for those who could not board.
By contrast, Glukhman explained that as ‘AP Companies operates in ports of call, and in the home countries of crewmembers’, it ‘did not witness significant changes to our services due to shipboard protocols’.
AP Companies was consequently far more heavily impacted by pandemic-era border restrictions – something that has now largely eased globally.
“Since [restrictions] have eased,” explained Glukhman, “our processes have returned to pre-pandemic norms.” She added that there is ‘no longer a need to retain any special procedures or precautions, and the situation has normalised in terms of border access’.
The key takeaway is that when a major global event ... hits the assistance sector, it pays to take a longer-term view
However, Downey said that although ‘many practices have returned to pre-pandemic conditions’, some precautions have remained in use in the cruise industry: “Most facilities have retained standard infection control screenings when accepting travellers, whether it is questions, pre-swab, or swab on arrival.” He noted, however, that some of these practices may have already been in place prior to the pandemic.
Downey concluded: “One positive from the global pandemic is that we have learned a great deal on global infection control. We have also seen huge investments to support infection control, including upgrades to aeroplane ventilation; hospitals increasing their capacity of private rooms and negative pressure rooms; air ambulance isolation pods; and public health education.”
While the Covid-19 pandemic was a shared experience, the specifics of how it impacted assistance companies serving the cruise line industry – and indeed, how they returned as life went back to normal – varied substantially.
For some, it involved seeking out new revenue streams for the duration of the crisis, and closely monitoring the infection rates and travel restrictions to predict when demand from cruise operators might return. For others, the pandemic was an opportunity to improve efficiency through the implementation of new technology, work strategies, or services – improvements that endure beyond the crisis itself.
The key takeaway, it seems, is that when a major global event such as the Covid-19 pandemic hits the assistance sector, it pays to take a longer-term view while still tackling the immediate threat. Even in dangerous waters, a good captain will keep their eyes on the horizon – not just dodging icebergs off the bow, but also looking to steer their vessel into calmer seas.