Cruise Port Productivity: Upgrading Infrastructure for a Growing Industry

Cruise Port Productivity: Upgrading Infrastructure for a Growing Industry

By Steve Cutler

The cruise industry is growing rapidly, adding new excursions with increasing frequency, building new ships with designs that make some terminals’ existing infrastructure obsolete, and launching mega-ships with incredible capacity.

The challenge for cruise ports to become increasingly productive in order to capture their share of the expanding market is never ending, requiring constant upgrades to the infrastructure of their terminals and employing innovative methods of processing passengers.

Measuring Productivity

Even while a cruise ship’s contents — people — are more precious, in some ways productivity is measured by the same standard in cruise ports as in cargo ports — how expeditiously they can move their contents in and out of the terminal.

“Like in the cargo world, time is money,” says Tom Spina, director of business development at the Carnival Corporation. The port’s success depends on its ability to get cruise ships in and out of port within eight hours or so, by 4 or 5 p.m. at the latest. “After 5 in the afternoon,” says Spina, “you are paying time-and-a-half [to the ship’s ground crew]and a meal hour.”

The miraculous, if routine, task of disembarking a shipload of, say, 3,000 or more passengers and then checking in the same number for the next excursion, all within eight hours, “is all about the infrastructure that is there at the port,” says Spina.

How does the port estimate the productivity they must realize to keep up with the needs of the cruise market? “Really, the clients measure productivity,” says Capt. John Murray, CEO of Port Canaveral, the second busiest cruise port in the world in multi-day embarkations. “We work very closely with the cruise line. They know their ships and what their productivity needs to be.”

“Port Canaveral’s growth has been amazing,” says David Candib, Vice President, Development and Operations at Carnival Corporation, which homeports three of its vessels there. “We [as an industry]tell them we are building additional ships and want to homeport them there, then they find a way to get the infrastructure work done to accommodate our growth.”

Port Canaveral just completed a nearly $50 million renovation of terminal 5, one of its six terminals, and is in the process of upgrading terminal 10. “Terminal 5 and 10 were built in the early ’90s,” says Capt. Murray, “when 2,500 passengers was huge. Now we’ve got ships that hold 4,000-plus passengers with almost twice as many bags and suitcases. We need more laydown area for the bags, more check-in desks, custom signs and security lanes.”

Terminal 5 can handle ships with up to 4,000 passengers. Its primary user will be Carnival Cruise Line, which homeports the Carnival Valor, Victory and Magic at Canaveral. Improvements included a 1,044-space parking garage, 120-foot pier extension and new passenger boarding bridges.

Renovating for Maximum Efficiency

The primary purpose of the cruise port operation is to deliver passengers as efficiently as possible to the stevedores and cruise ship crew who handle check-in and embarkation. This entails receiving passengers’ vehicles if they arrive by car, relieving them of their luggage and moving them through security and customs.

“We are constantly looking for ways to streamline and layout the interiors of our terminals to separate passengers from their luggage so they don’t have to lug or tote large parcels around while trying to make their paperwork available for security,” says Don Allee, cruise port director of the Port of New Orleans, which has been investing tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements.

Port of New Orleans recently added 150 chairs, more embarkation counters, additional X-ray and screening machines, state-of-the-art electronic wayfinding stations and tripled the size of the Captain’s Lounge at the Erato Street Terminal to keep passengers comfortable and happy while they waiting to board their ship.

Go With the Flow

The key to efficiency is maintaining a steady pace. “We want to see a steady flow of embarking passengers,” says Spina. “You don’t want mad rushes because it creates lines at security and check-in.”

While serving as director of cruise operations for the New York City Economic Corporation, which runs the city’s ports, Spina recalls working on a major renovation aimed at relieving bottlenecks at the Manhattan Terminal — “probably the least ideal place to load 5,000 people on and off,” he says. “We changed the entire roadway flow.”

Prior to the renovation, incoming passengers drove up to the terminal, dropped off their luggage, drove to the parking lot, parked their car and then finally walked into the terminal — waiting in lines every step of the way. All this time, “they were supposed to be on the ship enjoying their first margarita,” says Spina. By the time they got on board, he quips, “they were drinking just to take the edge off.”

The solution was simple, if not cheap or easy. No construction in New York City is. They redirected the passenger car vehicle flow to the parking lot at the top of the terminal with a ramp going up to it, so passengers would park first and then make their way to the terminal. “Redirecting the flow of traffic really eased the congestion and saved time,” says Spina.

Embracing New Technology

Port authorities and cruise ships companies both are embracing new technologies in order to increase productivity.

Automated parking systems are the new standard. Utilizing express-pass-type transponders, the systems allow incoming cars and buses to enter the terminal without stopping. As for streamlining check-in, “One of the biggest advancements is online check-in,” says Candib, which allows passengers to print their boarding passes and luggage tags at home. Or they might download their boarding pass to their smartphone.

In another new program pioneered by the airlines, cruise lines are offering early boarding. Carnival’s “Faster to Fun” program is an example. Some terminals, like Royal Caribbean’s at PortMiami, intend to offer digital luggage tracking to allow passengers to follow the location of their bags on their smartphones.

On the infrastructure level, an increasing number of ports are offering shoreside power, which allows ships to turn off their diesel engines and take their electricity from the port’s grid, saving fuel and curtailing emissions while in port.

Another valuable amenity ports can provide is sewage disposal. “The management of gray and blackwater for cruise ships is a problem,” according to Yves Gilson, director of marketing and cruises for the Montréal Port Authority. “You can’t unload while you are at sea — there are rules you have to respect — and once you are in a port you have to pay a lot of money to get a company that will get your gray and blackwater treated. That is the reason our new cruise terminal will offer the possibility of discharging the gray and blackwater to a collector.”

New technology such as ultra-sophisticated global positioning systems on board ships has made sailing to port possible under conditions that would have kept them locked at sea not long ago. “We’ve seen conditions where the river is completely closed to marine traffic, where the fog is thicker than pea soup,” says Allee — “and then here comes a cruise ship into port.”

Dawn of the Mega-Ship

Another new trend testing the capacity of cruise ports is the ever-increasing size of the ships being launched today. Every seven days, for example, in its 12-hour turnaround day, the Oasis of the Seas, one of Royal Caribbean’s mega-ships, offloads some 6,000 passengers and up to 12,000 pieces of luggage and then receives another 6,000. The ship is 237 feet high and its beam is about 220 feet. As of this fall, Ocean of the Sea will be homeported at Port Canaveral, one of few ports, including Port Everglades and PortMiami, that can accommodate a vessel that size.

Royal Caribbean’s newest and biggest ship, Harmony of the Seas, can accommodate 6,410 passengers at maximum capacity. The Harmony, which is homeported in Port Everglades, and its sisters Oasis of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, are in a class by themselves, but the trend toward increasingly large vessels is here to stay.

Responding to the trend, Port of New Orleans, in a $23 million reconstruction of its Julia Street Terminal, converted two separate terminals into one large one. According to Johnny Cefalu, deputy director of the cruise port, “Royal Caribbean at that time was scheduled to bring in Voyager-class vessels [with 3,000-plus capacity], so we saw a need to interlock them together to make them one mega-terminal.”

To accommodate the increase in the number of passengers the renovation also included a much larger, 21,000-square-foot baggage laydown area, an expansive embarkation lobby and a vertical circulation core with elevators and escalators leading to the passenger bridge.

The larger ships come with design changes that demand infrastructure upgrades in many ports. “Where the lifeboats used to be nestled into the shell of the ship, they are now outside the ship to create more space for cabins,” explains Spina. “With that comes a whole host of new issues for ports.” The old-style boarding bridges cannot reach the small space underneath the lifeboats to take passengers off the ship. “The infrastructure improvements in the passenger boarding bridges are important,” says Spina.

Most ports are listening, and installing new boarding bridges. The delivery of a new boarding bridge nearly derailed Canaveral’s ultra-tight construction schedule on Terminal 5. “We had a very aggressive timeline and I think we missed it by one week,” recalls Capt. Murray, “and that was not due to something within our control.” The ship delivering the last piece of the gangway from Spain arrived about 10 days late. Juggling terminals for the Carnival vessel in port, says Capt. Murray, “we found a way to make up that time.”

Staying Productive in the Off-Season

Because most ports, with the exception of those in Florida, are in full swing only six months of the year or less, many port authorities are looking at ways to repurpose their terminals for the off-season.

“Montréal is seasonal,” says Gilson. ”We start in May and we end October. So when you have an infrastructure that is used only five months of the year you don’t make a lot of money out of it. The rest of the year we rent the facilities for conferences, exhibits and meetings to generate revenue.”

The port is in the midst of a $78 million renovation of its 100-year-old Alexandra Pier and Iberville Passenger Terminal. The project is scheduled for completion in time for the 2017 cruise season and gala celebration of the city’s 375th anniversary, “which is going to be a ball, a big party from January 1, 2017 till December 31,” says Gilson. The remodeling will allow the terminal to handle more passengers more efficiently during cruise season and provide expanded facilities for events in the off-season.

Port of Montréal is marketing the new facility for events now. “We are very well located in the heart of the Old Montréal,” says Gilson, “so the view is beautiful and that will attract a lot of interest from the business community and people who want to organize events in Old Montréal.”

At Port of New Orleans, according to Allee, “we’ve looked at other uses for the terminals off-season, but we are pretty selective.” When they do loan out the terminal, “we try to do things that have a maritime application.” They’ve hosted a job fair with a focus on the maritime community. Plus, “we had what we call a ‘tabletop security exercise,’ with state, federal and local law enforcement” — a full-scale security exercise.

Still, Port of New Orleans is considering opening to a wider audience at the new Poland Avenue Terminal, to be constructed at the port at a cost of some $50 million. “Through good engineering and architecture,” says Allee, “we are considering how we can configure it to accommodate special events and create a revenue stream there.”

Of course, the primary business of this or any cruise port will always be to provide efficient boarding for ships in port, and to make the passenger experience as stress-free as possible. And considering the dramatic growth projected for the cruise industry, to handle the increasing demand and stay competitive, says Allee, “if you are not looking five to 10 years down the road — constantly looking at ways to improve the passenger experience — you’re not doing your due diligence.”

A Good Problem to Have

The State of the Cruise Industry Outlook published at the end of 2015 by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) projected that more than 24 million passengers will take sail in 2016 globally, up from 10 million in 2006 and from a mere 1.4 million in 1980, when CLIA began tracking cruise ship passengers.

“Cruise industry executives say that demand for new vessels will outpace delivery,” said the South Florida Business Journal, reporting on a State of the Global Cruise Industry panel at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference March 2016 featuring CEOs of the top cruise lines, including Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.

And, the panel concluded, “There aren’t enough shipyards to meet demand for new cruise ships.”