The first time I was on a cruise ship—an unassuming vessel that could scarcely claim the same designation today—I ordered breakfast via room service and they brought the best they had: a cold pastry in plastic wrap and tepid coffee in a Styrofoam cup.
My, how the galley has gussied up since then—only one chapter of a storied sea change in virtually every aspect of cruising. Throughout 2013, while the economy still struggled to pick up steam, the industry showed remarkable resilience and bold inventiveness, responding to increasingly demanding passengers and fast-changing trends with alacrity and innovation. In fact, at press time, CLIA held to its earlier estimate that 17.6 million passengers would cruise on North American lines (26) in 2013, up from about 17.2 million last year.
If the numbers of killer newbuilds were less than in times past and refurbs were often spotlighted instead, there were still enough debuts to gin up client excitement. With the big boys, eye-poppers remained rampant, the likes of four waterslides and a ropes course/zipline Aqua Park atop Norwegian Cruise Line’s (ncl.com) Norwegian Breakaway (sister ship Norwegian Getaway is set to bow in February), which Geri Bain highlighted in an onboard review in the September 2013 issue, noting that “it’s the largest water park at sea…. And since the system is designed to handle more than 1,000 people an hour, there’s rarely a wait.”
Over on Princess Cruises’ Royal Princess (princess.com), the SeaWalk is a cantilevered, glassed-in walkway that reaches out 28 ft. above the waves 128 ft. below, considered by Fran Golden, who wrote the onboard review for the October 2013 issue, as one of the ship’s “‘wow’ factors.”
Other sparkling newbies were shot out of the gate by Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, Ponant, AIDA, AmaWaterways and Avalon. Among smaller vessels, Scenic Cruises (scenictours.com) launched Scenic Jewel, while Uniworld’s (uniworld.com) boutique collection added Century Legend, Century Paragon, River Orchid and Queen Isabel this year, with Catherine to follow in 2014.
Un-Cruise Adventures (un-cruise.com) introduced not only the refurbished Safari Voyager but a new name, dropping its former brands, American Safari Cruises and InnerSea Discovery. (I rode the Columbia and Snake rivers this year via Un-Cruise’s Legacy, a replica of a yesteryear coastal steamer, and found it friendly, informal and fun. Clients: pack your jeans.)
Viking Cruises (vikingrivercruises.com) continues to lead the pack when it comes to explosive growth, launching 10 new ships this year—with 14 more to follow in 2014. As Fran Golden noted in the Viking Aegir onboard in the May 2013 issue, Viking chairman Torstein Hagen told the crowd that was gathered in Amsterdam for the christening of those 10 ships back in March that “he’d like to see 100 ships in the water by 2020.”
That brings us to river cruising—hot topic of the year in the waterworld. Travel agents tell me their clients relish the relaxed intimacy and the ease of getting up-close and personal with smaller ports. I would add to that the refreshing lack of security issues on smaller ships; they know who you are.
Also popular is the growing availability of all-inclusive programs (as in, clients can put their wallets away and enjoy) that include air, gratuities, shore excursions, transfers, taxes and fees. All this comes with an A-ROSA river cruise (arosacruises.com)—plus an open bar throughout the ship including soft drinks, and tea and coffee specialties; beer, wine and spirits; and bottled water in staterooms. These were bonuses clearly appreciated by all cruisers when I joined travel journalists and travel agents late last year aboard the new A-ROSA Silva. In my onboard review in the January 2013 issue, I noted that the “ship’s signature is a sensual, casual-but-high-voltage vibe. Backed by a chic, contemporary look and a European accent.”
In 2013, three of the brand’s ships were devoted exclusively to the North American market, with David Morris International managing the product launch. (A-ROSA Flora, coming in 2014, will be the 11th entry in the Germany-based fleet.)
Uniworld, too, turns all-inclusive in 2014, wrapping up gratuities, shore excursions, and unlimited beverages; while Regent Seven Seas (rssc.com) recently expanded its all-inclusive, all-suite luxury product to include free, fleet-wide WiFi. An inclusive offer is also on tap with Scenic Cruises, as well as new-on-the-block Emerald Waterways, slated to sail in 2014.
On the mighty Mississippi, the American Queen Steamboat Company (americanqueensteamboatcompany.com)—which similarly serves up complimentary shore tours plus beer and wine with dinner—provides a different experience from the smaller river vessels, thanks in part to the U.S.-flagged American Queen being longer than a football field. Billed as the largest and most opulent riverboat anywhere—picture six decks festooned with fanciful gingerbread trim—the gentle-paced paddlewheeler appeals to both American and international passengers with its heartland-themed history and amenities. Next spring the line will branch out to the Pacific Northwest when the new American Empress sails her inaugural voyage on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Also plying ol’ man river is American Cruise Lines (americancruiselines.com), with some 35 itineraries around the country including a soon-to-launch St. Louis-to-New Orleans program (six states in eight days) with Queen of the Mississippi. On March 1, a new Mardi Gras cruise will kick off the line’s third season on the all-American waterway.
Along with freshly minted domestic itineraries come exotic destinations sure to beckon your seasoned clients in search of the next big thing. In September, far-flung voyages went on sale for the 128-passenger Silver Discoverer (silversea.com), joining the Silversea Expeditions fleet next March, complete with a dozen Zodiacs and a glass-bottom boat for close encounters with marine life. Adventurous passengers will explore remote areas of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, along with the Russian Far East, Southeast Asia, New Zealand and Australia. Those of us who have journeyed with the luxury line can guarantee that clients who set out to view some of the world’s last wildernesses will do so in solid comfort.
In October, SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream II (seadream.com) embarked on a series of 17 voyages (through April 2014), with itineraries that take in Myanmar, Thailand, India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Northern Australia. Expect to drop anchor at ports such as Komodo Island and Kitava, Trobriand Islands. The 112-passenger yacht’s fares are (here’s that magic word again) inclusive.
A yen for adventures in the natural world is another item popping up on passenger wish lists. In response, says Rolf Logan, Hurtigruten’s sales director, Americas (hurtigruten.com), “Our excursions are being expanded so that we can deliver even more of what is so special about each season in Norway. Springtime examples include getting closer to wildlife on new kayaking, birding, and whale- and reindeer-watching outings. New autumn excursions next year will feature foraging in the local forests for edibles.”
good things come in small packages
Opportunities for shorter jaunts—a boon for the busiest clients in your database—are also on the rise. Disney Cruise Line (disneycruise.com), after debuting Disney Fantasy in 2012, took aim at “making it easier than ever for families to enjoy a Disney Cruise Line vacation by offering cruises from a variety of regional homeports,” says DCL president Karl Holz. Citing “an impressive array of itinerary options from Galveston,” Holz notes “the addition of shorter getaway cruises that call on our most popular port of call, Disney’s Castaway Cay.”
This year, Crystal Cruises (crystalcruises.com) announced a 120 percent increase in shorter cruise choices in Europe alone, plus 25 percent more port days than the previous year. Coming next year, 34 percent of Crystal cruises promise to be 10 days or less.
dining & dancing
Did I mention food, crazy good food? Arguably the favorite amenity aboard any ship, it just keeps getting better as top chefs compete in raising the bar, both in onboard restaurants and in hands-on culinary centers. Holland America (HAL) (hollandamerica.com) claims its own Culinary Council composed of celebrated chefs from around the world that strategize about the direction of the premium line’s initiatives. In its posh Pinnacle Grill, “An Evening at Le Cirque” is staged once on each cruise. Working with Craig Hopson, Le Cirque’s executive chef, HAL recreates the legendary restaurant’s ambiance and award-winning experience for lucky diners. For vegetarian passengers, the line introduced a menu that serves up 30 new dishes in the main dining room.
Oceania (oceaniacruises.com) recently unveiled the coming season’s curriculum at its Bon Appetit Culinary Center, which will star more than 20 different classes, ranging from regional cuisines to secrets of homemade pasta. Passengers will polish their cooking skills in a state-of-the-art classroom, at individual work stations equipped with induction cook tops. Classes start at $69 pp and include shopping for local ingredients with the chef in portside markets.
Entertainment? Along with the daily nonstop list of familiar events and activities at sea come surprises. New York-themed Norwegian Breakaway, for instance, showed off the glam Rockettes as godmothers this year, while rocking three new Broadway-style shows.
For Holland America, it was the year of “Dancing with the Stars: At Sea.” In 2013 and early 2014, HAL ships are scheduling theme cruises with dance lessons, a dazzling production starring celebs and dance pros, and a dance-off competition.
Dance—long a Cunard signature (cunard.com)—is similarly alive and kicking aboard the line’s traditional beauties. As I discovered on a summer sail around the British Isles aboard Queen Elizabeth and noted in my October 2013 onboard review, dance classes draw a crowd of enthusiasts who then display their talents at the themed, dress-up balls that famously highlight every voyage. Commented Dorothy Reminick, cruise consultant for Travel Resource in Jupiter, FL, “Anytime you enter the Queens Room while a dance instruction class is being held, the room is packed to the rafters.”
just for you
Agent partners were not forgotten this year. Among pertinent announcements:
• Silversea rolled out its new Silver Privilege fare on all voyages—fares structured to make the cruise-buying decision easier by offering clients one simple low fare for their desired suite. “Due to some price confusion and fare fluctuation in the marketplace in 2013,” says Brad Ball, director, corporate communications, “Silversea put the new program in place to make it easier for agents to sell.”
• Carnival (carnival.com) announced a “call-to-action” approach in marketing. “We’ve heard loud and clear from agents that in order to build business together, we need to do a better job of guiding the millions of consumers we reach through marketing to contact a travel agent,” says Joni Rein, the line’s v.p. of worldwide sales.
• From Viking came the new Viking Travel Agent Academy, a custom online training program that employs videos to arm agents with the knowledge and tools needed to increase sales. Upon completion of seven certification courses, agents earn the title “Viking Master Cruise Expert.”
• Royal Caribbean International (royalcaribbean.com) introduced a faster, more flexible cruise fare search experience via its newly enhanced global reservation system for all of the company’s lines. “Travel agents are going to instantly notice how fast this will help them make a booking and close a sale,” says Dondra Ritzenthaler, Celebrity’s senior v.p. of sales (celebritycruises.com).
• The DMI/A-ROSA team staged an average of two agent webinars per month this year, offered FAM rates on 12 different sailings plus a $100 gift card for each booking, and extended an introductory offer with which agents earned 20 percent commission on all 2013 sailings, as well as any 2014 sailings deposited this year.
• Among several incentives in its new STARS program of this year, Blount (blountsmallshipadventures.com) presented monthly educational webinars and, in addition to cruise fare commissions, offered agents 10 percent commission on the line’s Protection Plan and 5 percent on early arrival packages.