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High Tide for Small-Ship Sales

May 11, 2010 By: Susan Young Travel Agent


River Beatrice’s Junior Suite

A Junior Suite onboard Uniworld’s River Beatrice


River and small-ship cruising is red-hot—posting an impressive 200 percent capacity growth since 2004, according to Patrick Clark, managing director, Avalon Waterways, who also reports more than 300,000 North Americans annually now vacation on a river cruise. Avalon’s U.S. sales have doubled since last year, based on capacity increases and robust demand.

Similarly, in 2009, Viking River Cruises was more than 90 percent sold in Europe and Russia, and for 2010, it is tracking even better, says Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president of marketing, “There is still space to sell, but it is moving quickly,” he says. Others report similarly robust bookings.

“River cruising is no longer a niche in the industry,” says Marnell. “It is now a mainstream product.” He says demand for an intimate, cultural and small-ship experience through the heart of a destination is a driving force in that solid growth.

Small-ship products vary widely, but generally come with an intimate cruising experience, inclusive value, new and upgraded vessels, fine dining and voyages that sail off-the-beaten path or through a destination’s inland waterways. Simply put, “guests are looking for more personalized experiences with choices and flexibility,” says Diane Moore, president, Windstar Cruises, a small-ship oceangoing line.

Market Growth and Development

As the overall cruise industry has expanded, so have the numbers of experienced big-ship passengers who may subsequently try a small-ship voyage. CLIA expects 14.3 million passengers to sail on its member lines this year, many of those guests on mega-ships. Clark says, when ocean cruisers are surveyed, 35 percent express interest in taking a river cruise. “That’s one reason we are seeing interest in river cruising accelerate,” he notes.

Similarly, Guy Young, president, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, reports 80 percent of Uniworld’s clients are past ocean cruisers. Market penetration appears to be growing both globally and within North America. “In 2008 and 2009 we saw strong growth from the Australian and UK markets,”  Young notes. “However, in 2010, the U.S. and Canada are by far our strongest growth markets.”

Several agency executives Travel Agent interviewed reported a significant rise in small-ship bookings. Year-to-date, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. have experienced a 74.2 percent increase in river-cruise bookings, according to Steven Hattem, vice president of marketing for those two groups. Similarly, Brad Anderson, co-president, America’s Vacation Center/Avoya Travel, says growth is occurring this year in all sectors of the cruising market, including small-ship cruising.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasoning behind the growth after ending 2008 in such economic uncertainty,” notes Anderson. But for small-ship ocean cruising, he says it’s clear consumers remain passionate about traveling, enjoying an up-close, personal destination experience, shooting breathtaking photos and experiencing exotic destinations firsthand while on small excursion boats and Zodiacs.

In turn, Anderson says, “river cruising is currently experiencing a changing dynamic in which the experience has evolved rapidly from the idea of a basic moving hotel room with some included shore excursions to what is now an amazing floating resort that provides high-quality accommodations, in-depth shore excursions [many included in the cost of the cruise], phenomenal cuisine and more.”

Product upgrades have diversified the segment’s demographics. Active baby boomers are prime prospects. Seniors remain a good audience to pitch to as well. But increasingly, affinity groups, families and multigenerational family groups are heading onto small ships. Demographics vary widely, though, based on itinerary length and price points. Avalon Waterwaysfour-day Taste of the Danube, priced under $1,000 per person, attracts a younger demographic than the line’s 14-day cruises.

Broadening the Base

A few years ago, nearly all members of CLIA were big-ship lines. Today, 11 of the group’s 25 member lines either specialize in small-ship operations or operate a mix of mega-ships and smaller cruise vessels.

Terry Dale, CLIA’s president and CEO, emphasizes that big-ship lines actually encouraged—rather than opposed—the broadening of the association’s representation. Why? “That makes us that much stronger as a trade association, because we can speak with a stronger voice about the diversified industry we represent,” says Dale, adding that it’s good for consumers. Plus, Dale says small-ship members also “have enhanced what our travel agent members have to sell.”

Looking at the CLIA roster, its members include several luxury oceangoing brands that operate smaller vessels such as Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises and Paul Gauguin Cruises. Other CLIA members include the new Pearl Seas Cruises; mega-yacht luxury operator SeaDream Yacht Club; small luxury sailing line Windstar Cruises; river lines AMA Waterways, Avalon Waterways and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection; American Cruise Lines, a U.S. coastal line; and Hurtigruten, sailing Norwegian fjords and to far-flung corners of the globe, including Antarctica.

American Cruise Lines and Hurtigruten also belong to the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance (NCMA), a good resource for agents to learn about 12 niche lines, including many small-ship operators. Canodros S.A., for example, takes guests into the heart of Darwin’s eco-world aboard Galapagos Explorer II, while American Canadian Caribbean Line sails along the U.S. East Coast and into the Caribbean. NCMA member CruiseWest operates a large fleet of small ships, but this year is sailing its first ever World Cruise, an unprecedented 335-day voyage on the 60-suite Spirit of Oceanus.

Viking River Cruises, American Safari Cruises and many river brands affiliated with tour companies aren’t members of either CLIA or NCMA. So, with many diverse pieces to the small-ship picture, Dale admits it’s a bit tough to put one’s hands around good quantitative statistics focused on capacity growth.

Looking at several lines individually, here is a sampling of moves showing increased small-ship capacity. Uniworld’s new 164-passenger River Antoinette will launch in 2011 with 73 staterooms, eight Junior Suites, one Owner’s Suite, a unique balcony design on the top deck, swimming pool and sky lounge. By July, capacity for Avalon Waterways will have increased 45 percent over an 18-month period—Avalon Felicity launched earlier this year and Avalon Luminary will be christened in July. And based on strong Mekong River bookings during 2009, its first season of offering those Asian voyages, AMA Waterways says its guests will sail on a second, yet-unnamed Mekong vessel by late spring 2011.

Viking River Cruises’ new 264-guest Viking Emerald will be launched on China’s Yangtze River for the 2011 season. It demonstrates how river lines have elevated the onboard experience— Viking Emerald’s all-balcony staterooms will include Suites, Junior Suites and Deluxe staterooms as well as two 840-square-foot Presidential Suites, the largest suites in river cruising.

Of nine new oceangoing vessels listed on Seatrade’s cruise industry order book this year, four could be termed small ships. Compagnie du Ponant’s new Le Boreal will be launched this month; the French operator is now cultivating U.S. travel agents, has opened a North American sales office in Miami and has named Terri Haas chief commercial officer.

Also delivered this month is American Cruise Lines’ new 104-guest Independence; 85 percent of accommodations have private balconies. Sea Cloud Cruises’ majestic 136-passenger Sea Cloud Hussar, a new sailing ship, will be launched this fall. And, Seatrade lists “autumn” as a potential delivery time frame for Pearl Sea Cruises’ new Pearl Mist.

While Seabourn recently added a new mid-sized ship, Seabourn Odyssey, to its fleet, Pamela Conover, Seabourn’s president and CEO, reports it’s actually created great buzz for all the ships in its fleet, including the line’s trio of smaller vessels. More capacity is allowing Seabourn to diversify itinerary choices using those smaller ships, which remain highly popular with past guests.

Similarly, Silversea Cruises has launched the mid-sized Silver Spirit, but “our smaller vessels are [also] selling very strongly,” notes Brad Ball, Silversea’s director of media relations. Many past guests favor the smaller, refurbished vessels and book them exclusively, he says, plus “even though Silver Cloud and Silver Wind are considered smaller ships, they still have all the luxury ‘bells and whistles’ of bigger vessels.”

Selling the Experience

Small-ship cruising takes experienced travelers closer to Alaska’s wildlife, into the heart of less-traveled destinations in Europe and onto pristine tropical beaches without thousands of other cruisers onboard. “Increased capacity has created higher demand, and consumers are intrigued with the romance of fully experiencing a destination in a way that is not possible otherwise,” says CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.’s Hattem.

Citing the popularity of the TV mini-series Life, America’s Vacation Center/Avoya Travel’s Anderson says small-ship cruising fits with the public’s desire to experience things in travel in a way that ignites all their senses. “Shows like this provide us with the ability to see incredible discoveries and happenings of the world, however, only using two out of our five senses,” he explains. In contrast, “small-ship cruising provides the opportunity to see amazing destinations, wildlife and culture using all five senses, making the experiences beyond remarkable.”

So, guests may see a whale breach a few feet away or listen to exotic birds while floating down a river. “Those are the memories that will last a lifetime,” says Anderson.

For former tour guests who collect destinations, a small-ship experience can deliver multiple destination visits without constant packing and unpacking. Guests also easily walk on and off vessels in port. River cruises are a good option for those fearing seasickness.

Past ocean cruisers and tour clients are good prospects, but agents should ensure a first-time river cruiser doesn’t expect big-ship experiences like Vegas-style entertainment, casinos and rock-climbing walls, says Avalon’s Clark: “If the client is interested in an all-inclusive, enriching experience; seeing the sights in countries, including small villages and ports that make up the heart of each country; meeting the locals; and enjoying great dining with wine at dinner while cruising in comfort on the scenic rivers of Europe, then they will be happy on a river cruise.”

To effectively sell, promote value over price, says Windstar Cruises’ Moore, pointing to the intimate cruising experience, high staff-to-guest ratios, enchanting destinations, fine dining and the feeling of cruising on your own private vessel. “Especially in Europe, cruises can be a better value in comparison with a similar land program with hotels, meals and transportation,” she says.

CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. agents focus on selling the intimacy of the experience and the small towns and villages that are reached by small vessels, Hattem says. But agents also must really know the nuances of small-ship products, which vary widely.

For example, riverboats cover much territory and often call at some big city ports, while barges generally sail on tiny canals, often with locks, and may only cover a mile or two a day. Riverboat guests may visit several countries on a weeklong cruise, while barge clients generally explore a tiny area of one country. One barging resource for agents is Ellen Sack at Barge Lady Cruises.

Streams of Revenue

Small-ship cruise lines pay commission on a highly inclusive product—the cruise, meals and entertainment, and in some cases, shore excursions, gratuities and even air tickets. The average commission at Uniworld exceeds $1,000.

Aggregators including can assist agents with understanding the wide range of small-ship products and they pay commission.

“Understanding the earning potential will motivate agents to sell river cruises,” believes Young. He and other executives say agents most effectively sell a product when they experience it personally. “While it is still a form of cruising, [river cruising] is a very different type of travel—one that truly needs to be experienced firsthand,” says Viking’s Marnell.

Lines offer fam trips, agency rates and training via their sales team, webinars and conference programs. CLIA, NCMA, Platinum Seminars and The Travel Group’s Luxury Travel Expo also provide small-ship training options.

Fear of the unknown stopped many clients from purchasing travel in 2009, but Hattem says that’s no longer an issue. Agency and cruise-line executives report pent-up demand is delivering increased bookings. Couple the many new and refurbished vessels with strong consumer and trade interest, and Dale says small-ship cruising, “is a very robust and rising segment of our industry.”

Small-Ship Trends to Watch

Leaps in Capacity: The Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will host nearly double the number of guests it did in 2007. That’s true for many others, too, with new vessels launching and larger ships being deployed on existing itineraries, as is the case with AMA Waterways in Russia for 2011.

Tour and Big-Ship Guests: Traditional land vacationers are increasingly taking their first river cruise, says Steven Hattem, vice president of marketing, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. Past motorcoach tour guests enjoy small-ship cruising because they may sail to multiple destinations without constant packing and unpacking. Some big-ship cruisers also are seeking a more intimate cruise experience.

Extended Booking Window: The booking window for small ships has increased. Many river lines, including Viking River Cruises, have released 2011 dates and prices earlier than in the past.

Onboard Upgrades: Today’s small ships have hotel-style cabins and suites with private baths. Increasingly, guests will discover such features as French balconies and flat-screen TVs. Lines have refreshed existing vessels with stylish decor and new amenities.

More Singles and Families: Solo travelers are sailing in greater numbers this year as many small-ship lines waived single supplements. Family-wise, American Safari Cruises offers “Kids in Nature” family programs in Alaska and Mexico. And, Uniworld’s four family-friendly departures this year are nearly sold out, so the line is doubling its 2011 family-friendly cruise capacity.


Avalon Waterways
Avalon Waterways’ four-day Taste of the Danube, priced under $1,000 per person, attracts a younger demographic than many river cruises


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