How Cruise Lines are Preparing for a Post-Pandemic World
It’s no surprise or secret that the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a major economic blow to cruise ship lines. Some of the earliest, most gripping stories of COVID-19’s spread outside of China involved quarantined cruise ships searching for safe harbor in the viral storm. After some initial scrambling to bring home everyone already at sea, most cruise ships have been in port and empty of passengers, awaiting word that it’s safe to sail again.
Miami is the home port for many of the cruise lines in the Western Hemisphere, especially those sailing to the Caribbean and South and Central America. It’s also the headquarters of Horizon Air Freight’s cruise ship division and home to our dedicated cruise industry warehouse facilities, which include refrigerated and frozen storage for the millions of pounds of food we move to cruise ships in a typical year. (It’s one of the more specialized of our more than 30 consolidation centers positioned strategically around the globe.) But as we write this, Miami is also a hotspot of coronavirus cases, so we don’t anticipate cruise operations will restart there anytime soon.
“They really need to get the whole state under control before Miami-based cruise lines start thinking about cruising again,” says Alex Durante, Horizon’s director of global sales.
Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the CDC announced it was extending its No Sail Order until September 30, so, at least for U.S.-embarking cruise ships, the wait continues.
That doesn’t mean that nothing is happening aboard their ships. We’ve been shipping a lot of food to feed onboard crew members who were temporarily banned from disembarking due to quarantine regulations. We’ve also shipped a high volume of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect onboard crews, and, in one recent case, we shipped thousands of pounds of PPE to an entire shipyard to protect workers renovating a cruise ship in dry dock. Masks, gloves, face shields, hand sanitizer, disinfecting aerosol sprays: we’ve been getting it all delivered on-board to cruise ships around the world, even in remote ports, to keep their people safe and healthy as they prepare for what’s next.
Of necessity, we’ve developed some rapid expertise in hand sanitizers and disinfectants, then passed that along to the cruise lines we serve. Sanitizers and disinfectants with high levels of alcohol are classified as hazardous freight, making them more complicated and expensive to export. We’ve been recommending alternatives with lower levels of alcohol paired with other chemicals that help to fight germs and viruses.
“Buy non-hazardous,” says Durante, “and it’s a lot more cost-effective and efficient to get it to you.” It saves our customers money — they can see the savings on our automated financial reports — while still keeping everyone safe.
Smaller Adventure Lines Sailing Soon
Some of the boutique cruise lines we serve — especially those offering adventure cruises to remote areas — may start sailing again sooner than the larger lines, with embarkations from countries presently safe and open. (A few have already started.)
“If we’re shipping them ammunition to protect themselves from polar bears,” says Durante, “the barriers to reentry are probably lower.”
These smaller lines can keep all their passengers together during excursions, and it’s easier to test and screen everyone in the controlled, manageable environments they’re able to provide.
“If they’re cruising to Antarctica, French Polynesia, Greenland, or other safe areas,” says Durante, “they’re likely opening sooner.”
A Longer Wait for Large Cruise Lines
For the larger cruise lines, however, and for any lines sailing to or from countries still under heavy restrictions, the wait continues. In the meantime, most are already planning ahead for a post-pandemic world.
There are still a lot of unknowns. Will cruise lines screen passengers before they board? If so, we may be shipping them a lot of forehead thermometers and test kits. We know we’ll be shipping more gloves, masks, and sanitizers for the foreseeable future. Will buffets be replaced with table service dining? If so, that may impact the food and service equipment we’re shipping.
“Whenever the CDC and the governing bodies in other countries give the green light to start sailing again,” says Durante, “we have the infrastructure in place to support them. Whatever they need, our global team of marine logistics experts will get it to them, when and where they need it.”
From Keeping an Overhaul On-Schedule to Shipping Food All Over the World
Horizon first started supporting cruise ships several years ago when we handled some emergency overnight deliveries from Germany to the Bahamas to keep a major ship overhaul on schedule. The supplier knew Horizon due to previous urgent shipments we handed for them and recommended us to the cruise line as the forwarder who could get the parts there on-time.
“The shipowner was very happy,” says Durante, “and he asked, ‘Who did these emergencies? I never expected we’d see those parts on time.’”
The same cruise line’s logistics department then asked Durante if Horizon could help with their food deliveries. They were shipping 7,000 pounds of food per week from California to French Polynesia. “They wanted to buy wholesale in the U.S. instead of paying a fortune in port,” says Durante, “but the shipments were causing them a tremendous amount of trouble.”
Horizon and our Los Angeles partner put together an arrangement with a refrigerated and frozen warehouse in California, then set up weekly consolidated delivery schedules of food and beverages from various West Coast vendors. More than three years later, we’re still shipping 7,000-10,000 pounds of food via air for them each week.
That initial opportunity led Horizon to launch our cruise ship division, with a dedicated team and facilities initially assembled by Durante. From our new state-of-the-art refrigerated and frozen warehouse facilities in Miami and L.A., to providing up-to-the-minute statuses of every single purchase order electronically, our services were immediately in high demand. We started shipping food to cruise ships all over the world: millions of pounds of it each year.
“We went from spare parts,” says Durante, “to shipping high-end wine, lobsters, ice cream, and porterhouse steaks. Anything and everything the guests wanted, we made the necessary logistics arrangements to get it to them.”
That eventually led to keeping cruise ships supplied with everything else they needed, from engine parts to watches and pearl necklaces for their onboard jewelry stores, with all deliveries timed to their global fleets schedule.
Unlike other commercial maritime industries, the cruise industry needs two very distinct kinds of support from a maritime logistics company.
The technical division of a cruise line is very much like the technical division of a container ship company, a fishing fleet, or any of the other maritime sectors Horizon serves. We get them the parts and supplies they need to keep their ships running safe, able, and on-time.
Then there’s the hotel or hospitality division, which has far more in common with a hotel in a major urban center than a tanker ship or offshore rig. For cruise ship hospitality divisions, in addition to food and beverage items, we ship a lot of toiletries and cleaning chemicals, promotional merchandise such as mugs and T-shirts, key cards, and equipment and supplies for onboard entertainment.
“If you can ship perishable food,” says Durante, “and are able to successfully and consistently navigate through the complexity of what these shipments entail, then all the rest is easy.”
Sailing to See the World Again
At Horizon, we work every day with people who spend their lives traveling through the awe-inspiring beauty of the open seas while experiencing the many cultures and countries of this wide world. Most people don’t have such opportunities in their daily lives, but cruise ships can give them that experience, that adventure.
This is a challenging time for cruise lines and for the world, but throughout Horizon’s 50 years in business, we’ve seen the commercial shipping industry rise to many such challenges before. We’ll get through this one together and emerge stronger than ever.
We look forward, for many reasons, to the day when the pandemic is brought under control. And we look forward to the time when cruise ships can get back to what they do best: give people adventures, vacations, and entertainment at sea. Whenever the time is right, we’ll be there to support them.
This article is sponsored by Horizon Air Freight. Horizon keeps fleets shipshape and on-schedule with global marine logistics by air, land, and sea. Critical marine spares, supplies, and equipment from any vendor worldwide: consolidated, expedited, delivered door to deck. Whatever you need, wherever you need it, we’ll get it there on time and on budget. With more than 50 years of experience, we keep more than 3,000 ships safe, able, and sailing. To learn more or to request a quote, call 800-221-6028 or visit haf.com.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.