Increasingly, small groups of couples — two, four, six or eight couples — are planning to cruise together in 2022 and 2023. Based on current booking trends, “there’s this tremendous pent-up demand from people that have been isolated for the last year,” according to Scott Knutson, vice president, sales and marketing, North America, Costa Cruises.
Increasingly, these people desire to see and interact with their friends or family members in person, not simply virtually. “We see those people are probably going to travel more in groups — whether it’s two couples, four couples, six couples, families,” he says. In fact, Costa’s group business — much from small groups — is up significantly for 2022 and 2023.
Small group travel appeals to a broad mix of clients, but particularly novice international travelers or those nervous about traveling on their own during this global health situation, says Knutson. “If you’ve never been to Europe and you’re not accustomed to traveling internationally, you’re much more comfortable going with a group of friends, even another couple, than you are going off on your own, and doing this with ‘eyes wide open’ but not really knowing how to navigate things.”
Adding that “cruising is one of the top vacations people are missing,” Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion Travel Group, says small group cruises are advantageous for clients and helpful for advisors in building agency revenue. “Ships are selling fast for 2022 and 2023 — Oceania’s 2023 world cruise sold out in just one day,” Friedman says. “People are looking to hit the seas.”
Costa’s newest flagship, the 5,224-passenger Costa Smeralda has a range of dining choices.
But experts say it’s important for advisors to move sooner rather than later to take advantage of pent-up demand, given the cruise industry’s reduced capacity due to the number of ships sold by cruise companies during 2020. In addition, health/safety protocols are resulting in capacity controls on individual ships that sail. Since spring 2020, Carnival Corporation has divested itself of 19 ships across multiple brands, as have other cruise companies.
In selling small group cruises, here’s how Friedman tells her group’s advisors to make it happen. First, she advocates always asking clients, “Do you have any friends or family who may want to travel with you?” She says it’s surprising how that simple question can lead the traveler to make an invitation to another couple or a small group of friends for a cruise, and “secondly, help your client create interest among their friends.”
One good option is a Zoom night to get in front of clients’ other potential group members. “See if you can get some video and photos of the ship to give people a little taste of the fun in store,” she suggests. Plus, “help clients brainstorm on some ‘souvenirs’ to be given away from the Zoom night.” One or two prize winners could receive a bottle of wine, or alternatively, all participants could receive a small gift or treat representing a cruise port of call.
For those advisors seeking formal training, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) offers three courses for how to sell and manage groups — Groups 101: An Introduction to Selling Groups; Groups 201: Developing Group Business; and Groups 301: Successful Group Management. Each course is $29 per CLIA member or $59 for non-members. Many cruise lines also have Webinars or training courses about selling group cruises.
So, what ships are best for small group cruises? Not surprisingly, as with any type of travel, that “really depends on the couples and what their interests and budgets are,” notes Christy Scannell, travel designer and franchise owner, Dream Vacations in San Diego, CA. For example, for a small group that desires to sail in one space and enjoy suite amenities such as personalized dining and bar service, she might suggest Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-class vessels for their suites that offer multiple bedding options.
For those seeking affordability, the “contemporary” cruise segment offers large ships and mega-ships that are floating cities at sea with robust, active activities and plenty of dining and entertainment options. Choices are prolific. New ships, some mega-ships, also continue to introduce new features.
Jackie Friedman of Nexion Travel Group (left) and Karen Magee of Global Travel Collection pose with the humongous “mythical dragon” outside the specialty Pacific Rim restaurant on the Seven Seas Splendor.
For example, while sailing on Costa’s newest flagship, the LNG-powered, 5,224-passenger Costa Smeralda, a group of couples could head out for wine tasting, a stroll along the glass-bottomed Passeggiata Volare or Sky Walk (213 feet above sea level), or a show at Colosseo (the ship’s theater themed around the ancient Roman Colosseum, but with high-tech video walls). In a new experience for Costa, couples can also cook alongside Costa’s chefs and learn about food sustainability at the ship’s Ristorante Lab.
The beauty of any cruise is that couples also can split off from the group for their own pursuits too. A couple might book a couple’s massage in Costa Smeralda’s spa or cool off in the spa’s Snow Room at a temperature of 14 degrees Fahrenheit with flurries of powdery snow descending from the ceiling. That cool experience can become a fun “conversation starter” when the couples reconvene at dinner.
Navigating up the price chain, premium, upper premium and other upscale lines also offer robust onboard dining and activities but often on large or mid-sized ships with fewer guests. One example is Celebrity Cruises’ new, 2,910-passenger Celebrity Apex, designed by hospitality icon Adam Tihany; it’s a sister to the innovative Celebrity Edge.
The Edge Villa on Celebrity Apex has a living area with seating for up to 10.
With its "Modern Luxury" approach, Celebrity is seeing both pent-up demand and “a trend towards ‘reconnecting at sea’ — whether as a couple in need of a romantic getaway, or friends and families planning a special way to come back together,” according to Dondra Ritzenthaler, Celebrity’s senior vice president of sales, trade support and service.
On Celebrity Apex, small groups of couples often book in “The Retreat,” the line’s ship-within-a-ship concept, with pampering suites, exclusive spaces and a private rooftop terrace. “On Apex, I would highly recommend one couple book the Edge Villa while the other guests book Sky Suites or Celebrity Suites,” recommends Michael Consoli, franchise owner, Cruise Planners in Roswell, GA.
He stresses that “this way everyone in the group has access to the amazing amenities the Retreat has to offer,” citing the Retreat Pool, Retreat Lounge and, most of all, Luminae, the suites-only dining room. He also suggests using the two-story Edge Villa as a base or gathering point for the group as that two-story villa has a huge living area with seating for up to 10, a wet bar and large hot tub on an expansive balcony overlooking the ocean.
When venturing out on Celebrity Apex as a group, Ritzenthaler suggests they sip on cocktails on the Magic Carpet, a unique, cantilevered platform that hangs off the ship’s starboard side. It’s a great spot at sunset. For dinner, she suggests the “Special Dinner — Chef’s Table by Daniel Boulud.” Another idea is for two couples traveling together to reserve a private cabana on the Resort Deck. For $300 a day (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) for up to four people, these cabanas offer plush seating and sea views.
Couples also can head to Eden (with many changes there since Celebrity Edge’s launch) for a new dining experience designed by Celebrity’s Michelin-starred chef Cornelius Gallagher, also the line’s vice president of food and beverage operations. Eden will offer new entertainment on different nights catering to more diverse tastes — from energetic to relaxed.
The Edge Villa has an expansive balcony overlooking the ocean.
What if groups are seeking an ultra-luxury experience with maximum inclusivity, many fewer guests onboard and opulence? Sheila Folk of Beyond Travel, a Nexion Travel Group member in Orlando, FL, says 90 percent of her agency’s group business is with Regent Seven Seas Cruises and cites the 750-passenger Seven Seas Splendor for what an ultra-luxury cruise ship can offer to small groups onboard.
Seven Seas Splendor’s all-balcony accommodations range from 307 square feet up to 4,443 square feet for the massive Regent Suite; that suite can be configured as a two-bedroom, two- and one-half bath luxury condominium with massive exterior deck space, hand-crafted furnishings and a $200,000 bed. The ship’s other large suites, among them Master, Splendor and Penthouse suites, also appeal for spaciousness and creature comforts.
Folk says a luxury ship such as Seven Seas Splendor strongly appeals to foodies looking for exquisitely crafted food and wine experiences both onboard and ashore on curated land excursions. Couples could snap fun poses with the humongous “mythical dragon” outside the specialty Pacific Rim restaurant, before dining inside. They could also take a class at the ship’s state-of-the-art Culinary Arts Center, offering 18 individual cooking stations.
The Regent Suite on the Seven Seas Splendor
Folk also says this type of ship can be a good choice for bridge players looking to bring together their card-playing friends. Most importantly, she says it’s a draw for those luxury clients seeking “every one of their whims met” in terms of onboard service. “No detail is overlooked. No request is too big.”
Advisors should ascertain up front with any potential client couples what their specific personal hobbies or interests are. If clients love “the arts,” Seven Seas Splendor displays a multi-million-dollar art collection with 300 pieces of artwork, among them works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Eduardo Arranz-Bravo and other notables. Couples could tour the ship simply to peruse the world-class art.
Another option is to enjoy a show in the ship’s theater (with sight lines improved on this ship from sister Seven Seas Explorer). For a fun experience, small groups can visit the Meridian Lounge, now a mixology bar with new gin drinks and new recipe drinks with juices and fresh herbs.
The Splendor Lounge on the Seven Seas Splendor
Separately, small ship ocean vessels and mega-yachts also await couples desiring an even more intimate experience. For example, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s 298-passenger Evrima will offer a wellness program in collaboration with ESPA, while Silversea Cruises’ new 100-passenger Silver Origin delivers eco-adventure within the Galapagos Islands, allowing couples to bond while perusing sea lions or blue-footed boobies. Agencies also could consider chartering a small ship.
In preparing to sell a small couples cruise to your clients, “ask your BDM for help and advice,” suggests Friedman, who says the lines have “amazing people” to assist. “Use their expertise to help make small group travel happen in the years ahead.”
Christy Scannell, travel designer and franchise owner, Dream Vacations, San Diego, CA, says it’s all about “matchmaking” — selecting the right product and ship for couples traveling together and then layering in experiences. Here are a few activity ideas she provides.
On Princess Cruises, Scannell suggests that couples traveling together rent cabanas in the onboard Sanctuary for a more private gathering.
Sundeck on The Retreat, Celebrity’s ship-within-a-ship concept
“On the Holland America sailings visiting Half Moon Cay, couples can book the private Oasis and revel in a private chef, open bar, dedicated servers and a large and beautiful cabana with its giant whirlpool and its slide into the sea,” Scannell says. “I rented this with some friends and we still talk about what a great day we had there.”
For small groups of couples traveling on Viking’s ocean ships, she suggests reserving the Kitchen Table and having them bond by sharpening their culinary skills in this demonstration kitchen.