How the first black cruise experience aims to resurface at sea after the pandemic
Friends of Festival at Sea, a luxury cruise segment focused on small groups traveling to global destinations, was due to make two trips to Southeast Asia and Southern Africa before the pandemic. Like many cruise lines, when its parent company Blue world travel led by founder Patricia Yarbrough learned of new outbreaks overseas, after working with clients to reschedule flights, routes, etc., the organization has adapted to new travel destinations with a hope in sight.
However, as cases of Covid-19 skyrocketed and news broke regarding the breaks of entities like the International Association of Cruise Lines (CLIA)—With over 50 member cruise lines, representing over 95% of the global cruise industry — Festival at Sea had to change its plans and decided to suspend all cruise travel. Blue World Travel Founder Yarbrough shares: “As a result of these cancellations, on Friday March 13, 2020, the world as we know it has changed dramatically.”
Festival at Sea had less than a day to digitize its agency’s operations and switch to remote work. “In less than 24 hours, our Marketing Director, Anthony Gould, was able to purchase laptops for staff and install video and Slack telecommunications devices for work. We instituted daily online office meetings to make sure we were always able to take good care of our clients. The most difficult adjustment was a huge number of emails that had to be distributed among the employees to answer questions about whether the summer cruise was going to be canceled and what would happen to their deposits, ” explains Yarbrough.
During this period, the organization was able to effectively transfer over 1,800 passengers on its next departure. Below, this founder shares more of her agency’s journey through the pandemic and plans to reopen the doors in the coming months.
Keeping its doors open amid the pandemic
Reports indicate that about 41% black-owned businesses may not be able to survive the pandemic. Yarbrough expresses: “As I look back on my 43 years in business, nothing like this has ever happened before in this country. ”
Fortunately, the founder attributes her ability to perpetuate the business to a few key elements:
- Have working capital. With a 43-year-old agency, the founder created an emergency funding pool to address unforeseen situations.
- Have good banking relationships. The agency’s banking relationships and its extensive line of credit at the time the pandemic began also helped a lot. Along with these relationships, “the staff responsible for accounting and overseeing accurate documentation has made a world of wonders,” says the founder.
- Ask for help. Like many organizations, Blue World Travel agency requested PPP loans when they became available. The agency also applied for and received grants through means such as the Small Business Administration (SBA). The organization’s strong accounting history has allowed it to quickly pivot to support loan and grant applications.
- Ensure ongoing relationships with customers. By offering a virtual Festival at Sea cruise (FAS), the agency has been able to maintain the 29-year-old spirit of the cruise company. “We were able to stay in touch with our cruise lines by presenting a series of Festival at Sea online events during our postponed cruise week. We featured events via Facebook and Instagram such as our signature Bon Voyage Party, comedy show, worship service, Gospel Jazz brunch and cooking demo, business networking event for women and a farewell party at the pool, ”explained Gould, Director of Marketing. These events served to remind clients of the agency’s brand and spark interest for the following year.
Take precautions when launching cruises after the pandemic
“We know that many people are looking for a safe return trip. Right now we have three different cruises: Festival at Sea 30th Anniversary, Friends of Festival at Sea Bahamas and Friends of Festival at Sea Southern Africa, ”Yarborough shares.
Currently, cruise passengers have not yet returned to sea shipping and are navigating the implementation of changes that will be part of the new experience. The CDC is currently leading the charge of the directives implemented to ensure the safety of cruisers. In November 2020, the CDC framework for conditional navigation order, has applied strict Covid-19 protocols to allow organizations to resume navigation. This included rigorous testing in the months leading up to vaccine deployment. However, now that a vaccine has arrived, some cruise lines are announcing that they require passengers to be vaccinated before going to sea.
Yarborough also shares this sentiment: “We think vaccinations will be part of some cruises soon. In fact, our friends’ sailing in the Bahamas in October 2021 will be a fully vaccinated trip. She went on to share, “There have been discussions nationwide about whether African Americans would actually participate in receiving Covid-19 vaccines in large numbers. Our organization wants to make sure people are aware that vaccinations can be the key to our ability to return to some form of normalcy. ”
During International Women’s Day, Blue World Travel sent a special email to guests highlighting the role 3 African American women have played in the vaccination movement. Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett, a 35-year-old African-American viral immunologist who is the lead scientist on the team that developed the Moderna vaccine. Sandra Lindsay, the first person in the United States and African American to receive the Covid-19 vaccine outside of initial trials. Finally, Loney Clinton Gordon who, in the 1940s, contributed to the discovery of a bacterial culture virulent enough to make a vaccine against whooping cough. The agency hopes the messages will encourage more people to get vaccinated to allow a safe return to sea.
Blue World Travel’s Unique Post-Pandemic Cruises
The first Black cruise experience celebrates its 30th anniversary with three culturally inspired cruises. These cruises include:
- Friends of the Festival at Sea Bahamas Sailing. The Friends of Festival at Sea program is for groups who appreciate the luxury cruise experience. These groups sail to unique destinations around the world on some of the best luxury cruise lines. These are “all-inclusive” cruises, not full ship charters, but they provide attendees with an intimate forum to celebrate African American heritage and travel to destinations that inspire the exploration of cultures around the world. Friends is launching a fully vaccinated luxury cruise aboard the Crystal Serenity to Nassau, Bimini, Harbor Island, Great Exuma, San Salvador and Long Island.
- 30th anniversary at sea festival. After launching the first Festival of Sea voyage in 1992, Blue World Travel chartered an entire ship each year to create an onboard environment conducive to black culture and camaraderie. By celebrating family, music, dance, religion, comedy, literature, art and more, guests can explore their African roots. It has become the most popular African American cultural cruise in the United States. The 30th anniversary navigation will take place in July 2022.
- Friends of Festival at Sea Southern Africa Sailing. Blue World Travel’s third trip in December 2022 will be to South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. On a 15-night trip, passengers of African descent will have the opportunity to return to their homeland to connect with the African diaspora. It has always been an important destination for Blue World Travel customers, as identified by customer surveys.
The entrepreneur’s hope for the future of cruise travel
“Your integrity is more important than your wealth. Always take care of your customers first, ”says Yarbrough, founder of Blue World Travel.
When Blue World Travel’s Festival at Sea Charter was canceled, the agency ensured all customers knew their deposits and payments were secure. Immediate notifications were extended and full refunds provided, guests praised the agency for the way their funds were protected and returned to them.
Yarbrough shares: “To put it simply, this pandemic was a test of the strength and integrity of our business. As a result, we are seeing an influx of business from people planning future cruises and vacations. As we explore new territory, we hope that collectively, as an industry, we can effectively make cruise travel safe for all passengers for years to come. “