Cruise Sellers Sound Off: Outlook for Second Half 2015 and Cruise Sales Trends

Jan Stanczak, owner of a Travel Leaders agency with locations in O'Fallon and Kirkwood, MO.

Last week, Travel Agent talked with 11 front-line cruise sellers -- both agency owners and agents -- about their sales results for the first half of 2015 and what itineraries were hot or not. Agents can read that story here:

In the second part of that story, we look at what trends agents are seeing in the cruise selling marketplace. Plus, we asked what their outlook is for their cruise sales in the final six months of the year.  

John Gawne sees increased online bookings by consumers. Cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, are also debuting new agent tools. 

What Trends in Cruise Sales Are Agents Seeing This Year?  

Technology is definitely spurring sales. “I have had more online confirmed sales through my website this year than I have had in several years,” mentions John Gawne, independent vacation specialist, Cruises Inc., based in Virginia Beach, VA

That's a trend echoed by many agents. Gawne reports the increased online sales seem to represent Millennials booking on mobile devices. 

Another trend? Geoff Cox, supplier relations director for KHM Travel Group, Brunswick, OH, a member agency, sees excitement in the maturation and growth of his agency’s agents.

“As our agents mature and become more experienced, we can see their luxury business growing and their mass market business staying the same or even declining,” Cox says. 

But the good news? “On the flip side, our new agents are totally sold on the mass-market products,” Cox says, noting that their personal experiences transfer into their new home-based business and “they are making a killing.” 

Cruisers, while still loving the vacation model, are also expanding their "borders" beyond the cruise segment. More of Gawne’s past ocean cruise clients are now looking at land vacations and all-inclusive Caribbean resorts.

He says they're not giving up on cruising, but rather are looking for some variety in their vacations. 

Similarly, David Locke and Cindy Jabbour Locke, owners of Seize the Sea, an independent agency of Avoya Travel in South Florida, says their agency's repeat cruise clients are looking into luxury tours and land products to diversify their experiences.

Gary Smith and his wife Theresa Graham, CruiseOne, Springfield, OR 

Themed travel, especially wine and culinary offerings, continues to be strongly in demand.

Gary Smith, franchise owner, CruiseOne, Springfield, OR, says it's more than just hooking the client with a particular ship or itinerary for a cherished vacation: “They want it merged with experiences."  

Similarly, “I’m seeing a tendency for clients to build their cruises around a particular desire, want or need,” says Lucinda Belden, franchise owner, CruiseOne in Carrollton, TX. “They aren’t just booking something because this is what fits into their vacation schedule.”  

For example, Belden has clients who’ve booked a cruise next August because the agency is offering an Arts and Wine cruise, and they love both, as well as the itinerary. “They had no plans prior to that for taking a cruise at any particular time – this was something they desired to do,” she says.

David Walsh, owner CWCruises, an independent agency of Avoya Travel, Bradenton, FL, says, “I’m seeing that for many clients the cruise itinerary is no longer the only reason for a trip.” While it’s still the main reason, he says, “it’s becoming ‘just part of the vacation’ and more travelers are adding pre- and post-cruise and tour activities.” 

Debbie Sebastian, owner, Travel Leaders in Danville, KYsees a change for some clients who typically take Caribbean all-inclusive vacations. Now, she says, they want to “try” a cruise.  “They are going with a four or five-day cruise to see if they like it,” says Sebastian.  

Smaller ocean ships such as Silversea Cruises' Silver Shadow and river cruise vessels are attracting more cruisers, tired of port congestion. 

While the trend in the cruise industry seems to be bigger is better, according to Jan Stanczak, owner of a Travel Leaders agency with locations in O'Fallon and Kirkwood, MO. She says ports of call simply have not kept up with this movement.

So some of Stanczak's clients are migrating to the smaller ships in order to see different ports of call than the traditional ones. 

“Of those wanting the larger ships, clients are more open to destinations,” Stanczak notes, adding that some of the larger ships are now positioned in the European market and that tied with the strength of the dollar to the Euro means passengers are considering a European itinerary where they normally would be looking at Caribbean itineraries.

Stanczak says that while some travelers view air travel as an inconvenience, others are willing to travel farther. “Europe is a great choice this year,” she believes, as for a domestic flight, by the time you add the cost of your seat assignment and checked baggage fees, you might just as well travel internationally and not have to pay these fees.”

“Another niche cruising-type vacation that is taking off is the adventure-style bike and barge vacation,” says Julie Harrington, CEO of a Travel Leaders agency in Richland, WA.  She also operates a small tour company that handles bike and barge adventure trips through Europe. “The barges sell out well in advance,” she says, noting that for travelers are seeking an immersive and fun experience, “this is definitely the way to travel.” 

River cruises are soaring in popularity. 

All the agents report that river cruising is off the charts in terms of sales. "Group travel is quite popular this year, as well," says Harrington, and her agency is working with corporate incentive groups, wineries, family reunions and family groups as well.

"It seems that we are never just booking one cabin at a time - and that is wonderful," she says. "It's always more fun to travel with others."

From the perspective of Michael Consoli, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Atlanta, GA:  “I see a lot of people converting from the traditional all inclusive to cruising because they are finally realizing the value in cruises…especially with the lines offering all inclusive beverage packages."

Consoli stresses: "This is changing the way the consumer looks at cruises versus all inclusives.”

What's your outlook for cruise sales, the cruise industry and your agency in the last half of 2015? 

“For our agency we are predicting a strong second half of the year,” emphasizes Smith. Why? He says his agency invested in technology, marketing and staffing over the last six months: “We expect to see that pay dividends as we reach more customers and more profitable demographics."

Sebastian expects “the second half of the year to continue to be as strong if not stronger than last year. Our agency is up for the fall over last year, as well.” 

David and Cindy Jabbour Locke of Seize the Sea in South Florida. 

Interestingly, people are booking 2016, and even 2017, cruises right now, as well as the normal amount of shorter lead time bookings, emphasizes Gawne.

One interesting hook he's seeing? Many clients are booking cruises now to celebrate 2016 graduations.

“It appears that they are also getting the message that the cruise lines would prefer to be focused on added value rather than price reductions to attract customers,” Gawne adds. 

David Locke feels the cruise industry as a whole continues to do really well this year. “A few years ago when there was a big surge in building new ships, the capacity outpaced demand and we saw fares drop,” he says. But he's still optimistic that with all the current new ships and products coming to market that demand will keep up. 

“It is encouraging hear from some of the lines that they plan to increase the value-adds instead of decreasing the fare cost if demand dips,” Cindy Jabbour Locke says. “This is great for travel agents and ensures that we can still make great commissions.

Consoli projects that because cruise sales started out so strong, “we will see it finish strong as well.” He says current promotions have helped sell the farther out sailings, and “I think we will see the end of the year strong for holiday sailings and promotions that will move next year’s inventory.”

Viking Cruises' air deals for next year are helping drive their 2016 business but not diminishing the price of the cruise itself, according to Consoli, who says that's good news for agents. 

Belden has an interesting perspective, focused on the news media. She says more articles in mainstream magazines that talk about why it’s important to use a cruise agent are definitely having a positive impact: “This goes a long way to helping us promote our agencies as a vital part of the travel process."

Plus, Belden and others cite new and enhanced online tools from cruise lines as helping build sales. So, the agents say, are more direct event meetings the lines are having with travel agents who promote and sell cruises.  

Concurring about the enhanced support by cruise lines is Cox: "The support that we are getting from the cruise lines has never been better and Royal Caribbean is among those leading the pack in that area."

“From my experience, the cruise industry is strong and business has never been better,” says Walsh. “With all of the world events occurring that would give travelers pause before considering a vacation, cruising remains strong and I expect it will throughout the rest of 2016.”

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