With 27 new ships in 2016 and nearly a dozen more slated for 2017, cruise lines are wowing an expanding universe of travelers with everything from giant waterparks and chef-curated dining experiences to special-interest sailings. Here are three trends that can help travel advisors tap into all the best the lines are offering.
1. Gathering the Groups
In the past few years, Sherry Leybovich, a Tampa-based Cruise Planners franchise owner, reports that her group cruise bookings have shifted from about under 30 percent to over 70 percent of her cruise business.
A key driver is multi-generational travel such as family reunions and celebrations such as quinceañeras, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversaries and weddings, but friend and special interest groups are also on the rise.
Cruise lines are catering to this with well-honed group departments and new types of accommodations. MSC Cruises’ new builds—MSC Meraviglia and MSC Seaside—feature open, modular family-connected staterooms that can be sold as either three standard staterooms or combined to make a family stateroom accommodating up to 10 people. In addition, MSC Yacht Club, Norwegian Cruise Line’s The Haven and Celebrity Cruises’ Suite Class, which offers access to a private VIP restaurant and concierge lounge, are among the lines’ upscale, club-style sections. These, along with a wider range of suites and single cabins, permit group members to suit their own preferences and budgets while still vacationing together.
Modular suites are also available on Royal Caribbean International, which offers the industry’s biggest family cabins, notes Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative. “For example, its Family Connected Junior Suite with Balcony combines different category staterooms connected through a vestibule to form a special 3-bedroom/3-bath layout for up to 10 people. Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line also offer great family and multigenerational accommodations.”
Alan Rosen, president of Sand & C Travel, says his agency, which focuses on retirees, is increasingly booking small friend groups. “Younger retirees often enjoy sailing as groups of 10 to 20.”
“Sometimes simply asking a client if they plan to travel with anyone can lead to more bookings and eventually a group,” says Mike Julius, v.p. of U.S. field sales, Carnival Cruise Line. “Also look to your own interests to create affinity groups, perhaps from a weekly Bible study or children’s sports teams.”
Marketing to people with a common interest like the Shriners, radio DJs and wine enthusiasts has paid off for Mark Comfort, owner, Cruise Holidays. “Common interests help people feel more comfortable when traveling.”
Leybovich notes that some of her crocheting, scrapbooking and other special interest group leaders have loyal followings that cruise a few times a year. “Some followers go on every sailing.”
Theme sailings offered by the lines are another opportunity, notes Garcia. “For example, when Viking River Cruises does a castle theme, piggy back with a local historical or cultural association.”
There’s a cruise for every interest, she says. “One agent built a group around an AmaWaterways beer-themed sailing with brewery tours, a beer-pairing dinner and expert-led onboard tastings and discussions; another used a Celebrity Cruises’ Signature Event sailing to Wimbledon to pull together tennis enthusiasts.”
“Group business can be the key to your profitable future,” stresses Garcia. “Maximizing a group takes work but it can build your database and business quickly. For example, offering flyers to group leaders can lead to viral marketing.”
Leybovich agrees, noting that her groups often grow larger than expected. “Once people realize they can celebrate and be on vacation in exotic destinations at the same time, they get on board!”
2. Wowing First-Timers
With thrill rides and endless arrays of urban-chic dining and entertainment venues, cruise ships have become destinations in their own right whose Instagram-worthy attractions draw in first-time as well as veteran cruisers. Plus, the growing family, single and VIP options are ideal for groups with diverse interests and budgets.
Royal Caribbean International’s Harmony of the Seas launched in May as the world’s largest ship, and grabbed the spotlight with The Ultimate Abyss, billed as the tallest slide at sea with an amazing 10 deck drop. “Plus, we introduced VOOM, the fastest Internet at sea, which is key in attracting the first-time cruiser,” says Vicki Freed, sr. v.p., sales, trade support and service. “People want to be able to post pictures and say, ‘look where I am!’”
The new Carnival Vista, homeporting in Miami starting November 2016, ups the ante with SkyRide, a suspended aerial cycling track plus an expanded waterpark with a raft/water tube adventure and the first on-ship IMAX Theatre. And Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway sports complexes encompass a ropes course, climbing wall, zipline and “walk the plank” challenge as well as a giant aqua park (said to be the largest at sea) with side-by-side multi-story twister slides and a Free Falling feet-first plunge.
And the Disney Wonder, fresh from dry dock in November, will be packed with innovations, including a Marvel Super Hero Academy where Spider-Man and friends will coach fledglings to work as teams to solve challenges; Andy’s Room, a multi-level play room where kids feel toy-sized; fun new water parks; and a lively After Hours adult district.
The mega-ships practically sell themselves to families. “Kids see the ads on TV and say, ‘Grandma, I want to go on the ship with the ice-skating and surfing (Royal Caribbean), or the waterslides (Carnival, Norwegian, MSC, Disney),’” says Leybovich. “Kids have a lot of influence; if the kids are happy, everyone is.”
3. Immersive Experiences
For the well-heeled, exotic locales and immersive experiences tend to be key motivators, says Betsy Patton, senior travel advisor, Direct Travel. “We sell mainly luxury cruise brands—Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea—and some Oceania. The lines work very hard at finding different ports and new or unique land activities, and are increasingly adding overnights in port to their itineraries.”
Breaking new ground, Crystal Cruises made history as the first to sail through the once-impassable Northwest Passage. “The 32-night voyage was sold out nearly two years in advance and we are doing it again in August 2017,” reports Edie Rodriguez, CEO and president.
Smaller ships are also often key. They can visit ports not accessible to larger ships, dock in or close to town, and increasingly, overnight in port. For example, Galapagos, on everyone’s bucket list, is accessible via these smaller ships, including on Celebrity’s newest ships, Celebrity Xploration and Celebrity Xperience, which begin sailing this fascinating destination in March 2017.
Cruising also is the easiest way to explore emerging destinations such as Cuba and Myanmar and smaller, bucket-list ports in Croatia and throughout the Mediterranean and Aegean. In Alaska, small ships also have a big advantage for the destination-focused traveler. “They can enter small inlets so a bear doesn’t appear as a pin dot on the shore—you’re right there!” notes Patton. Antarctica, a true trip of a lifetime, can only be visited by ship, notes Patton. Some clients prefer a luxury expedition ship like Seabourn Quest, the largest passenger ship allowed in Antarctica. It has an ice-enforced hull and offers landings on the continent. “Because Antarctica has a limit of one ship in each ‘port’ and only 100 people onshore at any given time, Seabourn offers kayaking and zodiac rides while guests are not participating in a landing,” says Patton.
Onboard experiences are also growing more immersive. For example, Princess Cruises offers talks about native plants and animals by naturalists and live stargazing experiences, while Holland America Line aligns onboard entertainment and cuisine with destinations via experiences such as Flamenco dance performances in Spain and cooking classes featuring local specialties in its Culinary Arts Center. Meanwhile, Celebrity Cruises’ increasingly immersive offerings—more overnights in ports, special sailings to high-demand sports and cultural events and new destination experiences such as “Chef Market discoveries—add meat to its “Sail Beyond Borders” campaign encouraging people to travel, experience different cultures and be enriched.
The epitome of luxurious, immersive adventure may be the Crystal Endeavor, set to launch in a few years. The mega-yacht will be outfitted with helicopters, submarines, an ATV, electric amphibious zodiacs, and underwater scooters. “Pair that with charter air on our 12-seat jet or, starting in 2017, a multi-week journey on one of Crystal’s all-flatbed Boeing 777 or 787 jets and you have the ultimate adventure!” says Rodriguez.
Carnival Cruise Line: carnival.com
Celebrity Cruises: celebritycruises.com
Crystal Cruises: crystalcruises.com
Disney Cruise Line: disneycruise.disney.go.com
Holland America Line: hollandamerica.com
MSC Cruises: msccruisesusa.com/en-us/Homepage.aspx
Norwegian Cruise Line: ncl.com
Oceania Cruises: oceaniacruises.com
Princess Cruises: princess.com
Royal Caribbean International: royalcaribbean.com
Seabourn Cruise Line: seabourn.com
Silversea Cruises: silversea.com
Viking River Cruises: vikingrivercruises.com