One-on-one with CLIA’s outgoing President and CEO

10 minutes with Cindy D'Aoust

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The outgoing global head of the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA), Cindy D’Aoust, was in Australia last week for the annual Cruise360 conference held at the Hyatt Regency Sydney. D’Aoust has been with CLIA for the past four years, three of which as President and CEO, based in Washington DC where she lobbies with the US government over pressing cruise issues.

LATTE sat down with D’Aoust to hear her thoughts on some of the cruise industry’s growth opportunities, challenges, and changes that have affected the cruise industry during her term in office.

Cindy, earlier this year you revealed you’d be stepping down from your role at CLIA. Before we get to that, can you tell LATTE readers about your background and how you got into cruising?

I’ve been in the travel and tourism industry for probably, I hate to admit, probably about 30 years.

Why would you hate to admit that?
I’m starting to tally up how old that makes me! I started in the meetings and events space, in the incentive world, moved into corporate air and then went back into large meetings and events. I was then in the hotel industry for a while and then came to cruising.

Where are the cruise destination growth hotspots at the moment?
Certainly, Australia and New Zealand are very, very important to the growth of the cruise industry. Alaska, a lot of interest in Asia as a whole, so the great news is everything is really continuing to grow. Still, the North American Caribbean is the number one market, but I think the more important story is the group in the different types of cruises. When you look at not only the mass-market cruises but the expeditions, the luxury brands, river, all of them are enjoying just tremendous growth and I think that goes back to what we always speak to and that is there is literally a cruise for everyone.

What about products?
I think Jennifer [Vandekreeke, Carnival Cruise Lines] said it really well this morning in that there are so many varieties of choices on a ship. There are varieties in the destinations and I think for me the thing that is most exciting when we talk about products – aside from the innovations on the ships, which are fantastic – is related back to that cultural heritage and the immersion opportunities both actually on the ship with speakers and experts teaching about the culture and heritage of the destination you’re about to visit. Also, the lines have done a tremendous job in working with restaurants and local villages and communities to create unique, one-of-a-kind experiences that recognise and honour the local heritage and culture. I think we’re going to see more growth in that area because that certainly what this industry’s guests demand. They’ve had such a high bar for innovation and the cruise lines have been just so amazing, there’s just not another industry that I work with that’s so good at listening to the guests and then anticipating and exceeding their expectations, but I think this call, this desire for a personalised, unique, customised experience, and then done in conjunction with local heritage and culture is where we will continue to keep seeing growth.

How is the overall state of the cruise industry at the moment?
We’re in great shape. We are very, very happy that we’re continuing to grow. We don’t see any signs of it slowing down. I think as part of the broader tourism the opportunity that we have to continue the growth of tourism is to make sure that the destinations that we visit are welcoming to guests. They are thriving, they are happy and we’re committed to that, so to me, there is nothing but great opportunity ahead of us.

We’re in great shape. We are very, very happy that we’re continuing to grow. We don’t see any signs of it slowing down.

Outside of sustainability and environmental issues, what are the greatest challenges facing the cruise industry, now and into the future?
I think the unknown. Certainly we don’t control geopolitical issues. But the great news is that we are well positioned so if we need to change our itineraries and things like that we are able to do so. So I think it is with Steve [Odell, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings] said it is, the unexpected. There will be disruption, but it will be positive disruptions as we find new propulsion systems, new energy fuel sources and things like, so I think there is still going to be significant change, but most of it will be very, very positive.

Can you identify some of the major changes that affected cruising in your term as CLIA CEO?
Certainly the focus on sustainability is number one and it is something that we’ve recognised and really agreed that we want to be the leaders in our commitments. In my comments I talked about how there’s really no other industry whose business model depends on the splendour of the oceans in the seas, the pristine beauty of the destinations we visit and maintaining the heritage; that is our business model. So for me personally, I would say the times as CEO, the recognition and agreement by the cruise lines is that this is an industry commitment that they want to make is probably the most important work that we have achieved.

Can you tell me more about the Tourism Cares and National Geographic relationships?
I would say that there is potential in some of these areas and there’ll be more, but if we talk about it in a broad sense, when we look at our agent community, it is such a great opportunity to get them actively engaged and demonstrating the work that we as an industry are committed to. There are some brilliant organisations and associations around the world that are already engaged in giving-back events and we want to partner with them, look at where there is a good match and sustainability initiatives and priorities, and use our community to really get involved and to show that leadership that we’re committed. We’ve worked with Tourism Cares over the last year. We do three events a year where we go back and work with a specific destination on a project that is important to them. I think in 2019 we are going to be working specifically with Puerto Rico, so it’s that focus on making sure that we are giving back as an industry.

What are your thoughts in regards to the Australian Apprenticeship Support through TAFE New South Wales collaboration? Is there something similar to this already in existence in the United States or other markets?
I would say the goal is global but how we actually achieve it will be different in every market. It’s a pretty exciting partnership, we are very, very thrilled to be able to announce it here. When I think about professional development and CLIA’s goals they are two-fold. One to raise the professionalism of the travel agent community, to make sure they are the best business managers and most successful community they can be, but also we have a commitment to try to identify and build a new pipeline of talent for the cruise industry as well for the travel agent population, so I think partnerships like this achieve both those goals and we’re really excited to see how it goes. Whether it’ll look exactly like that in North America – we already have licensing agreements with colleges and universities to get a curriculum out – I think we will continue to form new partnerships. Asia is another great market for educating and raising the professionalism and really a new model for travel agents. I think it will look different in the regions, but consistently have the same two goals to truly ever elevate the profession and build a pipeline of talent.

So universities in the US already offer such a program?
Yes, we have agreements with some universities in North America and we’re working on some more.

How important is the travel agent to the cruise industry? It’s a fairly obvious answer, right?
It is, it is for me. There’s really not a more important expert in the process. CLIA provides a lot of education to our travel agents around building a business process and the cruise lines do a tremendous job of educating them on their products. Their agencies educate them on how they want to operate the business, but the reality is the strength of the travel agents. They go out and experience these cruises. They know it’s not just about the cruise. It’s about the hotels that are in the area that are similar to guest preferences, it’s about the airlines that service the itineraries that they are working on, it’s the need for a visa, it’s really being that counsellor to walk you through the entire process. But someone said it in one of the comments today: we refer to travel agents as matchmakers. If you get the right person matched to the right experience, they will always come back. If you don’t, there’s a good chance they won’t try cruising again. And that’s what travel agents bring: that knowledge both of the guest – what they are going to celebrate, experience – and then the myriad of options that we have, because a lot of options does make it more difficult for you to get it right on your own, if you don’t have that expert.

So going back to my first question, what is your reason for parting ways with CLIA? Did you wake up one morning and think you’d just had enough?
No, no and I will tell you that I haven’t had enough. I have a family that needs my attention right now and so in the short-term, I recognise that the travel that is required to actually do this job is not something I can do in the short-term, so sometimes you have to make those decisions. It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made and I hope that I will stay engaged in not only this community, but hopefully with CLIA, but right now there are decisions at times you have to make and this was one.

Cindy, thank you for your time. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

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