THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND!
Hopefully, this will be the last article about the pandemic. With all that has happened in the last 13 months, the pandemic’s impact on Entertainment Cruise Productions seems trivial and inconsequential when compared to other people, other businesses and the world. Yet, the story of what happened and where ECP is now is an interesting case study of how businesses can retune when the world turns upside down. For ECP and its family of Guests and Artists, the last year has been a lesson on how to live without live music for a long time. With that self-indulgent introduction, here is the story: In 2020, three of the four ECP Jazz cruises completed wonderful sailings in late January and early February. The final sailing, The Smooth Jazz Cruise ‘20.2, was scheduled to sail on March 14.
As is the custom, several ECP staff members boarded the ship for The Smooth Jazz Cruise ‘20.2 to begin preparations the week before Guests come aboard. The seriousness surrounding the coronavirus was just becoming evident. At least a week before the ECP staff boarded the ship, there were isolated travel warnings and restrictions, but the virus had not been classified a pandemic. Performers who had been in several of the regions first impacted by the virus were prohibited from joining the upcoming sailing. Other International travel was affected, too. Jeff Lorber, Keiko Matsui and Candy Dulfer were the first performers who were forced to drop out of the lineup.
The days leading up to the scheduled sailing were among the worst days ever at Entertainment Cruise Productions. Despite pleas from ECP to Celebrity Cruises to cancel the cruise, the word was that The Smooth Jazz Cruise ‘20.2 would sail. And, if that was the word from Celebrity, ECP had no choice but to follow. Armed with the most up-to-date information about the still-emerging situation, Celebrity and ECP reviewed every cruise procedure to make sure the sailing would be as safe as possible. Those precautions would eventually be recognized as something between wishful thinking and wild guesses, and ECP’s conversations with Guests in the days leading up to the sailing date were the most uncomfortable presentations ECP had ever conducted. Yes, being able to complete the cruise safely would have been nice, but the clear second best position would have been to be able to tell everyone to stay home, do not travel, be safe and we will sort this out later.
To be clear, no one should fault Celebrity Cruises in this instance. No one knew the right answers here and the ramifications of cancelling a cruise or, in the case of Celebrity Cruises, many cruises, was daunting. For those keeping score, once the decision to cancel the cruises was made, Celebrity did everything right for the Guests, for ECP and for the future of cruising. Let’s get back to the story.
As has been shared many times, the seriousness of the situation was brought home to everyone on March 12, 2020, when the NBA took action to suspend play. The domino effect of that action was swift and devastating. Overnight, what was being viewed by some as an unfortunate set back was now something more. Much more. By Friday, March 13, within hours of when our first passengers were to board the ship, it was announced to the world that we were facing a pandemic. The scramble began. Emails, texts, phone calls. Whatever method was available, ECP moved to alert Guests that the cruise was cancelled. Most Guests were able to avoid arriving in Miami for the scheduled embarkation. Many were either on their way or in the city.
All the Artists, Musicians, Crew and Staff (a group affectionately called the AMCS) were in Miami. Their contracts required them to be there at least 12 hours before they board the ship. After alerting Guests and helping them through their issues, working to get the AMCS home was the next important task. International travel was breaking down and Patches Stewart barely made the deadline to return to Poland. Despite the chaos and concerns, everyone’s spirit was amazing. With little, if any, panic, everyone accepted the situation and did what they needed to do at that time. No doubt that “not sailing” was a relief to many.
The next day, the scheduled Embarkation Day, was unlike any cruise’s Day One had ever been. ECP Jazz Executive Director Michael Lazaroff led a small group of staff, along with leadership from Celebrity Cruises, to greet Guests on the pier who had not received the cancellation notice. That the “word” had disseminated efficiently was confirmed by the fact that fewer than 12 people arrived at the pier believing they were going to board the ship.
In the weeks that followed, the cancelled cruise was rescheduled for 2021. Doing so caused a charter cruise equivalent of musical chairs. ECP’s jazz cruise schedule for 2021 already was filled with four sailings to be presented in four consecutive weeks. Moving the cancelled cruise to 2021 meant that either ECP would need a fifth week of cruises or one of the scheduled cruise programs would need to be cancelled. At that time, late March and into early April, three of the four sailings scheduled for 2021 were nearly sold out and the fourth sailing was more than 80% reserved. To avoid upsetting guests, the plea for the fifth sailing in ’21 was amplified.
As you may imagine, Celebrity Cruises was in the midst of a maelstrom. Modifying their 2021 schedule was not in their Top 1,000 matters to discuss. Without the assurance of a fifth sailing, ECP was forced to eliminate one of its sailings for ’21. In the spirit of the Food Network show, “Chopped,” Blue Note at Sea ’21 was on the chopping block. Once that decision was made, ECP underwent a process of offering refunds, moving guests to different cruise programs and reorganizing its 2021 schedule.
As that process was undertaken, ECP had doubts that 2021 sailings, all in the first quarter of the year, could be conducted in a way that would allow Guests to have full enjoyment of the music and events. Doubts gave way to conviction. ECP informed Celebrity Cruises that it would not sail in 2021 and that it wished to move all 2021 sailings to 2022. This pronouncement took place in late April 2020, long before any other charter cruise company made a similar request. Celebrity Cruises suggested that the request was premature and asked that it be postponed until later. ECP was steadfast and eventually Celebrity Cruises agreed.
Our story continues in May of last year. The cruises were set for 2022. Another round of refunds, moving guests from cruise to cruise and other modifications took place. There was a sigh of relief as the plan for the future was now in place. In 2022, ECP would offer the following programs: The Jazz Cruise ’22, The Smooth Jazz Cruise ’22: Back to Sea Sailing, and The Smooth Jazz Cruise ‘22.1 & ‘22.2: Diamond Celebration Sailings. The Back to Sea Sailing would be the twice rescheduled sailing of The Smooth Jazz Cruise ‘20.2.
ECP was now confronted with nearly 20 months before it would have a sailing. What to do, what to do! It was determined that once January 2021 was reached, the customary 11-12 month pre-cruise period would take effect and, as tennis advocates would say, ECP would be back “on serve.” So the focus would be on what to do for the balance of 2020. Eight months of limited, if any, in person activity.
Besides ensuring that its staff did not go daffy, ECP acted to provide its loyal Guests with entertainment of some kind. Not only did the staff of ECP miss communicating with the Guests, but the Guests were clamoring for news and information about the cruises and their favorite Artists. The first step in this process was to enlarge the scope of The Weekender, ECP’s weekly newsletter that is shared with over 100,000 jazz fans every Saturday morning. Music videos, interviews with performers, jazz insights and more became staples of the blog. To this day, readership is much higher than ever in its more than 5-year history.
All that was nice, but ECP longed to produce live music. Believing that a socially distanced Las Vegas theater would be among the first venues to be open, ECP entered into an agreement with Wynn Resorts for a multi-day “straight-ahead” jazz festival and a “smooth jazz” festival in one of the resort’s grand theaters. Announced last summer and scheduled for February of this year, lineups were assembled, programming commenced and hotel rooms reserved. The response was amazing. In a few weeks, most of the limited tickets were sold. People were excited.
Unfortunately, even in Las Vegas, where entertainment and live music are an integral part of the business of the city, the pandemic was preventing the opening of the theaters. The program was scrapped. Undaunted ECP decided that, if it could not bring the Guests to a show, then we would bring a show to the Guests.
Enter Saturday Night with Marcus Miller & Friends, a series of online streaming shows the featured Marcus and Alonzo Bodden as hosts for 90 minutes or so of music, comedy and interviews. A star-studded array of performers joined in the merriment, including George Benson, Gregory Porter, Joey DeFrancesco, Jonathan Butler, Kirk Whalum, Keiko Matsui, Peter White, Eric Marienthal, Paul Jackson Jr., Patrice Rushen, Munyungo Jackson, Alex Bailey, Mike Rocha, the iconic band WAR and many more. The shows aired in October and November 2020 and were artistic successes even if the required technology was not sufficient to allow them to be financially viable. Pay Per View Streaming of music shows, though a great diversion during the downtime of the pandemic, will never replicate the magic of live music.
What was popular, hugely so, were the two holiday videos that were offered to the jazz fans of ECP as gifts. The Jazz Cruise edition was hosted by Emmet Cohen as he chronicled the travels of Music Director Shelly Berg as he hopscotched around the country to perform with Kurt Elling, Randy Brecker, John Clayton, Houston Person, Wycliffe Gordon, Niki Haris, Tierney Sutton, Jeff Hamilton, Ken Peplowski, and many others. John Pizzarelli pitched in with a cameo of his own.
The Smooth Jazz Cruise edition became an epic presentation. Over 5 hours of music, laughter, interviews and more. Alonzo and Marcus again served as hosts, but virtually every star and performer on the upcoming ’22 sailings of The Smooth Jazz Cruise participated. The filming and recording became a holiday reunion and gabfest. Newcomers, to the cruises that is, like Vanessa Williams, participated alongside the stars of the cruises. Some cameos were chats, some were spontaneous music events and some, like what Boney James, Brian Culbertson, Jonathan Butler, and Candy Dulfer presented, were performances created just for the video.
Thousands and thousands of fans watched those shows over and over again. They became part of the 2020 holiday schedule for jazz fans.
Soon thereafter, news of the arrival of the vaccines was announced, and, almost overnight, the focus turned from “what can we do to keep busy and relevant” to “let’s get ready to sail in ‘22.” One look at the calendar and ECP was back on schedule. The normal incubation time for the next cruise, which is just under one year, was now in effect.
The pandemic is not over. A lot of work is yet to be done and not all the requirements for sailing have been set in stone, and, will not be for a few months, but Entertainment Cruise Productions is working hard to make the ’22 sailings the very best ever as well as preparing to launch its ’23 sailings.
Just a hint about ’23, the lineups being created for those sailings are simply amazing. Not only is there pent up demand for entertainment from the Guests, but the performers are equally — maybe more! — ready to cruise and be among their fans.
That brings you up to date with Entertainment Cruise Productions – Jazz. The story began in its current form more than 20 years ago. Its predecessor configuration began many years before that. The history includes a lot of accomplishment, an equal amount of false steps and disappointment, but lots of fun and excitement at every turn. Hanging with the great musicians, enjoying the luxury of being at sea on beautiful ships and listening to great music has been the very best way to be “in business.”
Still, the greatest joy and the most fun remains meeting the fabulous Guests and sharing special days, nights and experiences with them year after year.
Over 120,000 people have sailed on an Entertainment Cruise Productions – Jazz sailing, more than 5,000 of whom have sailed “4 or More” times. That statistic speaks volumes about the quality of the programs and the dedication and loyalty of the Guests. Though its past has been great, most of the “history” of ECP Jazz will be experienced and written in the years to come. Thank you for being a part of this journey and please remember what ECP Jazz says every day … “your jazz vacation and experience is the business and mission of ECP Jazz.”