Why are cruise retailers optimistic? Sales are up, and $40,000 bookings ‘are not unheard of’

TORONTO — More consumers are using travel agents to book their vacations, and especially for cruise vacations they’re reporting higher levels of satisfaction with their travel experience versus travellers who book on their own, according to the latest findings from CLIA.

Not only was consumer use of travel agents up nearly 80% year-over-year in 2016, according to the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker, the outlook for cruise bookings in 2017 is smooth sailing with an estimated 25.3 million passengers expected to cruise this year, up from 15.8 million 10 years ago, says CLIA.

There’s an abundance of choice when it comes to ships: 26 new ocean, river and specialty ships will come on line in 2017, worth US$6.8 billion. And in 10 years from now, by 2026, there will be 97 new ships, an investment of US$53 billion), according to CLIA’s 2017 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook.

Even now in 2017 there’s a lot of capacity but that’s not a bad thing, says Nathalie Tanious, Vice-President, Cruise for TravelBrands, overseeing Encore Cruises. “There’s so much capacity in the marketplace but that’s not a concern,” she said. New ships create buzz, and the cruise lines are doing a great job marketing cruise product and the cruise experience, she notes. And with all the ships sailing now, “there’s an offer out there for everyone, whether it’s a $50 onboard credit for a mainstream cruise line, or a category upgrade for a higher end line.”

The incentives are so plentiful that while Wave Season “will give us a bit of a push” there’s not as much of a need for clients to wait for the traditional savings season that kicks off this month and runs through March, adds Tanious. “The deals are good year-round now. And we start earlier and go later” with Wave Season.

MSC Cruises got a jump on Wave Season in December with inaugural season deals offering up to US$600 in added value on MSC Seaside, one of the new ships coming in 2017. MSC Seaside is scheduled to make its debut in Miami at the end of this year.

Through March 31 clients interested in securing a stateroom on MSC Seaside can get up to $600 of additional value including free shipboard credit, free WiFi and free mealtime drinks depending on the category of stateroom booked. Passengers will also benefit from reduced deposits of only $49 per person. Kids 11 and under sail free.

Another early Wave Season promotion sees Crystal Cruises adding more than a dozen sailings to its Crystal Clear Choices deal, along with a new March 31 booking deadline. The deal applies to select river cruises as well as ocean cruises.

More than two-thirds (67%) of CLIA-member travel agents see growth or significant growth for river cruise lines, and 57% report high growth rates for mass market cruise lines. Sandra McLeod of RedDoorTravel in LaSalle, ON says many of her clients are looking at smaller ships “for more intimacy, less children, no lines and more flexibility. We promote the deluxe and luxury brands and also the suites on the larger ships where more amenities are included.”

CLIA-member agents are reporting higher projected sales volumes, with more than 75% of agents predicting a year-end increase for 2016 over 2015, and a third of agents predicting a gain of 10% or more. About 8% of agents said they expected lower volumes than 2015.

Agents are also seeing higher cruise spend. Nearly three-quarters of CLIA-member agents say they’re seeing an increase in cruise booking spend, including 22% who say spend is up 10% or more. And 43% say clients are booking nine months to a year in advance, with a further 37% saying they’re seeing cruise bookings as far as one year to 18 months out.

Pat Probert of the Bob Family Travel Team at TravelOnly says he’s seeing much higher cruise spend than in past years, coming off a record year with the average cruise sale much higher than in the past few years. “Clients are spending more and more on cruises to get to more exotic places like Alaska, South America, Cape Horn, Europe, Russia and in 2015 we already started booking Australia for 2018,” says Probert. “We are also finding more and more clients doing back-to-back cruises and spending upwards of 15-30 days on cruises if they are retired.  Where people only thought of a five to seven day cruise in the past, it is not uncommon to see people taking nine to 14 day cruises on a regular basis as the cruise lines are really mixing it up now.”

Never judge where a client will go or how much a client will spend to be on a cruise ship, says Probert, who adds his team rarely sells an outside or even an inside cabin nowadays “as people want to feel the wind and hear the ocean from a balcony”.

Just a few years ago Probert’s team had “tire kickers looking at cruises for $10,000 to $20,000” and now they are selling these more than ever, and he says it’s not uncommon for him to see people to spend $40,000 to $50,000 on a cruise, something he has rarely seen before.  “Cruising has no limits and for quality it has no barriers because people will spend the money.”

And while the mood for 2017 is good, Probert feels it’s important to still be mindful of client sensitivities when it comes to safety. “People want to travel and if someone brings something negative up, we bring up four things that are positive. We like to talk about everything positive and never negative. If there are problems with cruise ship incidents or other things related to cruising we never post these on social media as we want people to think of all the benefits and positive things in cruising.”

Among 2016’s highlights for Expedia CruiseShipCenters was a 1-Day Sale for Princess Cruises, creating a windfall $13 million in Princess bookings for the retailer on a single day.

Heading into 2017, Matthew Eichhorst, President of Expedia CruiseShipCenters & Head of Global Cruise for Expedia, Inc., said he’s feeling optimistic. After opening 34 new retail locations across North America in 2016, and adding more than 1,200 new vacation consultants to create a team of 4,200, on the sales side Expedia CruiseShipCenters and Expedia online brands have been seen “encouraging growth” for destinations ranging from Hawaii to Panama, he said.

Travelweek January 12 2017 Digital EditionThis article originally ran as the lead in the January 12th, 2017 issue of Travelweek magazine.

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