John Heald is unique in the cruise industry. In 2007, when he was the cruise director on Carnival Freedom, John was asked to write a blog about the new ship. It was an immediate sensation and his blog was expanded to cover everything related to Carnival Cruise Line. By 2016, the blog had received some 19 million hits and now throngs of followers read his postings on Facebook.
Other cruise lines have unsuccessfully attempted to follow suit. This is because John's personality comes through in his writings, reflecting both his sense of humor and his sincerity.
“The one thing that I have always asked Carnival and the one thing that I am very lucky they allow me to do is be myself. It is never going to be everything in the garden is rosy all the time type of thing. It needs to be truthful, it needs to be honest, it needs to be emotional and it needs to be something the guests can connect to. I think a lot of the corporate pages that I have read are: 'we are perfect. The end.' We are not and I am certainly, far far from that.”
“I try to make Facebook an extension of the microphone I had when I was on stage as a cruise director. The kind of cruise director I was - - let's just say I wasn't born in the PC world so I tend to hop over the line a few times. I think I still do that on Facebook. There are some people who do not like that but at the end of the day you are reaching over a million people a week. It is strange now because people used to come up to me and say I remember you as our cruise director. Now, I had a couple just this morning who had never cruised with me before and 'OMG, OMG, you are so funny. And I said to them what ship and they said no, we read your Facebook page.”
John is now the Brand Ambassador for Carnival Cruise Line, so I asked him to tell us where Carnival Cruise Line is at today.
“I think the traditions are still the same. We want people to have fun. It is the most affordable cruise company in the world. We want to open the door for people who have never ever thought about cruising. There is still a huge percentage of the United States and Canada who have never looked into taking a cruise much less stepped onto a cruise ship. We do realize that people these days want more bells and whistles. In the old days, entertainment when the show had finished was take a walk around the deck, listen to the sound of the sea and go to bed. Now it has got to be rides and outdoor gyms and big screens - - all these sorts of things. We realize there is a thirst for more to do on the ship.”
“We are investing huge amounts of money in our crews because Carnival and certainly I think that the most important thing aboard any ship is the crew. A good crew can make a good cruise a brilliant one and a bad crew can make a good cruise an awful one. So I think the direction that we are going still has the fundamentals of what we have been based on. But new designs, new classes of ship, new features on the ship, more choice and new destinations, that is what we are moving towards.”
Whereas other cruise lines - - including several that are part of Carnival Corporation - - are deploying ships to numerous locations around the globe, almost all of the Carnival Cruise Line fleet is based in the United States.
“Each company [in the Carnival family] has a very separate management. When the Arison family bought Princess and Holland America and so on the idea was that they would always be run as separate even though it is under the same corporation.”
“Our [i.e. Carnival Cruise Line's] bread and butter has always been fun and sun. There is a very large percentage of people who now drive to the Florida ports of which we have four. Galveston, which is a huge market for us, New Orleans and now we have just returned to Mobile, Alabama. Then on the West Coast, we have just done a new partnership with the Port of Authority of California, Long Beach to build bigger piers and a new terminal to allow us to put bigger ships out there. Carnival is apple pie. It is what we are. Whereas we like to diverge a little and go to Australia and maybe China in '18 and Europe as and when a new ship comes out, our bread and butter is 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 day cruises in the sunshine of the Caribbean.”
Carnival is broadening its offerings, however, with enhanced longer cruises under its Carnival Journeys program. “We realized there was thirst for a select group of people who want the longer cruises. The vast majority of those are people who have cruised before. People want longer cruises and newer destinations. So now and then on specific ships, we do a Journey. We go further out, we enhance it with guest lecturers, Q and As, with local entertainment and with more features to allow people to get a little bit more connected with the crew. They are very, very popular. They love it.”
“I think Carnival Vista [is] the beginning of a slightly new Carnival. We have had a lot of changes within the company structure as far as a new president and new senior executives. I think this ship is the first example of what their vision is of a new Carnival. What we have done is we have taken the really good things that we put on the Carnival Breeze, which was the first ship where we had completely new interior designers, new areas and all the branded spaces, put that all on here, stretched it a little bit and added some new things on as well. I think this is the beginning of a new Carnival but still based on the traditions that made Carnival what it is since the 70s.”
“The guests are saying that they love so many features of the ship. The outdoor spaces all the way around on Deck 5. The Skyride, we broke a record this week, we had our oldest Skyrider - - 86 years old, which is extraordinary. All the new features are something that they absolutely love. They love the design. The new cabins have been a big hit. The Havana cabins are some of the most difficult cabins to book now. If you look all the way through the first quarter of 2017 into the second quarter, they are booked solid. There are things that the guests have said why did you do this or why didn't you do that. They are right a lot of the times so we will look at ways to improve. I think overall the report card is excellent from what I've been told anyway.”
Guests familiar with Carnival's older ships notice not just the new features of Vista but also how different the ship is in appearance to Carnival's older ships, which were designed by architect Joe Farcus.
“ Joe was entertainment architecture. Everything that Joe did told a story. The ships had a theme. The ceilings were busy - - I mean there were curves and lights and statues. It was everything that we needed in the 80s, 90s and the beginning of the 2000s. But like everything else things change. The sleek modern designs of our architects here is our new signature. Joe was our signature.”
“How do I describe the difference - - I mean it is night and day. It is an Aston Martin DB9 versus a Ford Pinto. The difference is that big. But what Joe did was leave us a legacy. As much as people tell me how much they love this there are still a few people who tell me that they miss the courageousness of Joe Farcus.”
“Joe was involved all the way up until [Carnival] Dream. On Dream, you still see a few of his signature pieces. Whenever you go on a ship up until Dream, you are going to see Carnival of the era. It still works today. I still think it works today. I am a huge fan of Joe's. It certainly got people talking about it. Back then when 10 ships were coming out every year, people were saying this ship has got a beautiful this or beautiful that. With Carnival ships, they would say 'my god you should see the guy put purple carpet and yellow ceilings.' It really was entertainment. The moment you walked on the ship, you knew that something special was going to happen.”
With all of its new features and new look, has Carnival Vista rendered Carnival's older ships obsolete?
“We are spending a lot of money, millions of dollars on putting some of the features on the older ships. For example, we have had four Fantasy class ships that have just received the 2.0 upgrades including the burgers [i.e. Guy's Burger Joint]. Everybody wants the burgers so Guy's burgers is on the Fantasy class. Some of the things you can't put on there because they are just smaller. But we have the Alchemy Bar and the branded bars on the Lido. We are really investing in the Fantasy class. It was and still is the most popular class of cruise ship in the industry. Certainly, for the near future, they are very much a part of what we are doing.”
Looking forward, what can we expect from the ships that will follow Carnival Vista?
“When you design a new ship you think you have thought of everything. But it isn't until you put 4,000 guests aboard and put the ship in various situations that you know if you have done well. I think the report card so far is excellent. I think there are lessons that we have learnt that we will improve on when we bring out the next one - - the Horizon, which is the sister ship to the Vista.”
Cruise ship interview - - Carnival Cruise Lines - - Carnival Vista - - John Heald