Carnival looks back on five years in Aus
Jasmine O’Donoghue talks to Carnival Cruise Line’s vice president and general manager Australia Jennifer Vandekreeke on the line marking five years of sailing down under this year.
Jennifer Vandekreeke has stood proudly at the helm of Carnival Cruise Line since it first started sailing out of the country and was responsible for establishing the brand in the Australasian market.
When she first set foot in Australia to examine if the market was right for Carnival Cruise Line, there were two things which stood out.
“Carnival and Australia were meant for each other”, she said, admitting her second impression was “I need to move here”.
“I’m just so overwhelmed and grateful for the support that we’ve seen from our guests and our travel agent partners and honestly, from the media as well,” Vandekreeke said.
“I think it’s just been really positive and they’ve understood who we are and what we’re about and they’ve really embraced it in a way that I did not think was going to happen.
In true Carnival family-fun style, the brand has decided to claim an entire “birthday year”, with “all sorts of little things” planned over the course of the year.
“We’re all about having fun and nothing’s more fun than a birthday party,” Vandekreeke said.
Carnival kicked off its birthday year with the world’s longest conga line at sea.
The festivities arrived in Australia on board Carnival Spirit, where over 1,500 passengers hauled themselves out of bed for some “conga-ing” on the top deck at sunrise on 17 October — five years to the day from when the ship first arrived in 2012.
Since entering the Australian market Carnival has always aimed to be very clear about who it is for.
“We’re free spirited, family friendly fun, that’s who we are, that’s what we do and you really see it through every single step of the product,” Vandekreeke said.
“We are who we are, and I wasn’t going to make any big changes to the product when we came here because I do think there’s a great fit between Carnival and Australia.”
Before Carnival first deployed Carnival Spirit down under, it made several modifications to “Aussify” the vessel.
The Green Thunder waterslide and a children’s play area were added, along with the adults-only open-air deck Serenity, local cuisine, beer and wine, a cruise director from Sydney, Australian comedians in the comedy club and Aussie dollars as the onboard currency.
“One of the big things we missed is Australians won’t lay out in the sun,” Vandekreeke explained.
“We actually took 500 lounge chairs off the ship, we were used to American guests who would lay three along.”
As lounge chairs were progressively swapped out, Carnival learned the Aussies who weren’t sitting around sunning themselves instead threw themselves into every activity on offer — from bingo, to Harry Potter trivia and a paper aeroplane making competition.
Vandekreeke admitted one challenge Carnival faced was that “Australians won’t whine”.
“Everybody would seem like they were perfectly happy on board and if things weren’t the way they wanted, Aussies would just power through and make the best of it,” she said, adding that because of this, it took around six months to get guest satisfaction scores to the same as in the US.
Fast forward to 2016 and both local ships were ranked number one in the entire Carnival Cruise Line fleet.
The executive has witnessed the Australian cruise industry boom, and with it, an increased level of sophistication in agents’ and guests’ understanding of the expanded cruise options.
“There is a cruise line for every type of experience,” she stated.
“The next frontier for all of us that we’re all working on is helping guests personalise the type of experience they want to have on board so that it’s the right experience for them.”
Vandekreeke highlighted the arrival of Legend as a really big moment, along with Hamish and Andy’s “people’s cruise” in 2016.
She pinpointed one of her biggest challenges was explaining Australians to her American counterparts, for example why people don’t have time to book a cruise during Melbourne Cup week, or why teriyaki or chicken schnitzel is a must on a sushi menu.
Carnival Cruise Line recently announced it would increase its deployment to two ships sailing full time in Australia in 2020, a move Vandekreeke said was in response to strong demand.
The decision on which two ships would be announced in May, but she said it was comfortable to say Carnival Spirit would be staying in this market.
Vandekreeke also highlighted Legend would enter drydock in May, after which she said there wouldn’t be as much of a difference between the two ships.
Vandekreeke all but ruled out sending one of the two LNG ships Carnival has on order down under any time soon, noting they were significantly larger ships and the impact on the guest experience of sending 5,200 guests to the likes of the Isle of Pines or Mystery Island.
“We’re going to these absolutely stunning, beautiful, pristine destinations and you need to think really carefully about the guest experience where you are one of thousands and thousands of people on that island and whether that’s the type of guest experience that people want,” she said.
Looking forward, Vandekreeke’s goal for Carnival is clear.
“We just want to be Australia’s favourite cruise brand. We will always continue to work really hard to ensure that the guest experience that we’re providing on board is the perfect fit for our guests.”