Friends of Festival at Sea, a luxury cruise segment with a focus on smaller groups traveling to global destinations, was scheduled to embark on two voyages to Southeast Asia & Southern Africa prior to the pandemic. Like many cruise lines, when its parent company Blue World Travel led by founder Patricia Yarbrough learned of new outbreaks abroad, after working with clients to reschedule flights, itineraries, and more, the organization adapted to new travel destinations with hope in sight.
However, as Covid-19 cases skyrocketed and news broke out regarding pauses by entities like the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)—with more than 50 cruise line members, representing over 95 percent of the global cruise industry—Festival at Sea faced a change of plans and decided to pause all cruise travel. Blue World Travel founder Yarbrough shares: “following these cancellations, Friday, March 13, 2020, the world as we know it changed dramatically.”
Festival at Sea had less than a day to digitize its agency’s operations, and switch to working remotely. “In less than 24 hours, our Marketing Director, Anthony Gould, was able to purchase laptops for the staff and install video telecommunications and Slack to work devices. We instituted daily online office meetings to make sure we were still able to properly take care of our clients. The hardest adjustment was an enormous number of emails which had to be divided between the employees to answer questions about whether the summer cruise was going to be cancelled and what would happen to their deposits,” Yarbrough expresses.
During this period the organization was effectively able to rollover more than 1,800 passengers to its next sailing. Below this woman founder shares more on her agency’s journey through the pandemic and plans to reopen doors in the months to come.
Keeping Its Doors Open Amid the Pandemic
Reports convey that roughly 41% of Black owned businesses may not be able to survive the pandemic. Yarbrough expresses: “as I look back over my 43 years in business, nothing like this has ever happened previously in this country.”
Fortunately, the founder attributes her ability to sustain the company due to a few key elements:
- Having working capital. With a 43 year old agency the founder created an emergency pool of funding to offset any unforeseen situations.
- Having great banking relationships. The agency’s banking relationships and extensive line of credit at the time the pandemic began also greatly assisted. Alongside those relationships, “staff overseeing bookkeeping and monitoring accurate documentation has worked a world of wonders,” the founder shares.
- Applying for assistance. Like many organizations, Blue World Travel agency applied for PPP Loans when they became available. The agency also applied for and received grants through avenues like the Small Business Administration (SBA). The organization’s strong bookkeeping track record enabled it to quickly pivot to support loan and grant applications.
- Curating ongoing relationships with clients. By offering a virtual Festival at Sea (FAS) cruise, the agency was able to keep the 29 year spirit of the cruise line going. “We were able to stay connected with our cruise guests by presenting a series of online Festival at Sea events during our postponed cruise week. We featured events via Facebook & Instagram such as our signature Bon Voyage Party, a Comedy Show, A Worship Service, A Gospel Jazz Brunch & Cooking Demonstration, a Women’s Business Networking Event, and a Farewell White night Pool party,” shared Gould, Director of Marketing. These events helped remind clients of the agency’s brand and generated interest for the following year.
Taking Precautions While Launching Cruises Post-Pandemic
“We know that many people are looking for safe reentry to travel. Right now, we are featuring three different cruises: The Festival at Sea 30th anniversary, Friends of Festival at Sea Bahamas & Friends of Festival at Sea Southern Africa,” shares Yarborough.
Currently, cruise lines have not yet returned to sailing at sea and are navigating the implementation of changes that will be a part of the new experience. The CDC is currently leading the charge for implemented guidelines to keep cruisers safe. In November of 2020 the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, enforced strict Covid-19 protocols to enable organizations to resume sailing. This included rigorous testing in the months prior to the vaccine rolling out. However, now that a vaccine has arrived, some cruise lines are announcing that they will require passengers to be vaccinated before setting sail.
Yarborough is also aligned with this sentiment: “we feel that vaccinations will be part of some cruises soon. In fact, our Friends Bahamas sailing in October of 2021 will be a fully vaccinated voyage.” She continued by sharing: “there has been some discussion nationally about whether African Americans would actually participate in receiving Covid-19 vaccines in large numbers. Our organization wants to make sure that people are aware that vaccinations can be key in our ability to return to some form of normalcy.”
During International Women’s Day, Blue World Travel sent out 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 that is the lead scientist on the team that developed the Moderna vaccine. Sandra Lindsay, the first person in the United States and an African American who received the Covid-19 vaccine outside of initial trials. Lastly, Loney Clinton Gordon who in the 1940’s helped discover a bacteria culture with sufficient virulence to make a vaccine against whooping cough. The agency’s hope is that these messages encourage more people to get vaccinated to enable a safe return to the seas.
Blue World Travel’s Unique Post-Pandemic Cruises
The first Black cruise experience is celebrating 30 years with three culturally inspired cruises. These cruises include:
- Friends of Festival at Sea Bahamas Sailing. The Friends of Festival at Sea program caters to groups who enjoy the luxury cruise experience. These groups sail to unique destinations around the globe on some of the best luxury cruise lines. They are “all inclusive” sailings and are not full ship charters, but they give participants 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 onboard the Crystal Serenity to Nassau, Bimini, Harbour Island, Great Exuma, San Salvador & Long island.
- Festival at Sea 30th Anniversary. After launching the first Festival of Sea voyage in 1992, Blue World Travel each year has chartered an entire ship to create an onboard environment conducive to Black culture and camaraderie. Through celebrating family, music, dance, religion, comedy, literature, art and so much more, clients are able to explore their African roots. It has become the most popular African American cultural cruise in the United States. The 30th anniversary sailing will take place in July of 2022.
- Friends of Festival at Sea Southern Africa Sailing. The third sailing for Blue world Travel in December of 2022 is to South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique. On a 15-night voyage passengers of African descent will have the opportunity to return to their motherland to connect with the African diaspora. This has always been an important destination to Blue World Travel’s clients, as identified through guest 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 Blue World Travel founder Yarbrough.
When Blue World Travel’s Festival at Sea Charter was cancelled, the agency made sure that all customers knew their deposits and payments were secure. Immediate notifications were extended and complete refunds were provided, guests commended the agency on 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 company. As a result, we are experiencing an influx of business from people making plans for future cruises and vacations. As we encounter new territory we hope that collectively as an industry we can effectually make cruise travel safe for all passengers for years to come.”
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