Forecast 2015: Bullish on Cruise

All week we're running a special report on what agents can expect from the travel industry in 2015. Here's our look at the industry as a whole, and here is a series of tips on how to be proactive with clients heading into the New Year. 

Heading into the start of Wave Season, front-line agents, consortia leaders, host/franchise group executives and cruise industry executives are bullish about 2015 cruise sales. Most report that 2014 was a very good year.

Sales on average were up 26 percent per agency this year and 2015 advance bookings are 44 percent higher than they were for 2014 during the same time a year ago, according to Michelle Fee, co-founder and CEO, Cruise Planners. A survey of Ensemble Travel Group’s members shows optimism for expected forward growth in all cruise categories and “our 2015 advance numbers bear that out,” says Libbie Rice, Ensemble’s co-president.

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PortMiami, taken from the Norwegian Getaway. Home to more than a dozen cruise lines, the port is expected to top 4 million cruise passengers for the second straight year.
PortMiami, taken from the Norwegian Getaway. Home to more than a dozen cruise lines, the port is expected to top 4 million cruise passengers for the second straight year.

Pricing may be moving a bit higher as well. “Caribbean pricing for this winter is stronger than it’s ever been, and Europe is already filling up for 2015,” says Stephanie Serino, a cruise expert with Tzell Travel Group. Brad Tolkin, co-chairman and CEO, World Travel Holdings, parent of CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., reports that 2015 business on the books for those brands is tracking 5 percent higher in price versus what was on the books last year for 2014.

Honduras’ Banana Coast is a new port call for die-hard Caribbean cruisers.
Honduras’ Banana Coast is a new port call for die-hard Caribbean cruisers. 

From a front-line seller’s perspective, “I am cautiously optimistic about the cruise selling environment for the coming year,” says Nexion agent Richard Walke, By Land or By Sea Vacations, Atlanta, GA. Lisa Safran, My Cruise Doctor, a Vacation.com agency in Sarasota, FL, describes her cruise sales outlook as “very optimistic.”

Here are top cruise industry trends from these and other experts.

A Tad Less Emphasis on Wave Season: “The number-one cruise industry trend I see developing for 2015 and beyond is there being less of an emphasis on the traditional Wave Season,” says John Lovell, president and CEO, Vacation.com. That’s because of an expanding booking curve. Clients are beginning to understand that booking a cruise further in advance often secures the best deal, stresses Lovell. “If they haven’t already, agents will begin to recognize this trend and need to be prepared to start selling not only 2015 product, but also beyond that,” he says.

More Value and Bundling: “Further recognition about the phenomenal product and value of cruising,” is Tolkin’s top trend prediction, while Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises USA, tells Travel Agent his “number-one trend of many trends is added-value.” Yes, Sasso says, price is always a key factor but guests want added-value extras—everything from drink packages to pre-paid gratuities and onboard up-front discounts.

Both Rice and Roger Block, president, Travel Leaders Franchise Group, also cite the trend of value-added packages, bundling or a menu of such choices that might include shore excursions, shipboard credits, free gratuities, reduced deposits and third/fourth cruisers sailing free. Rice specifically refers to “Explore4” by Holland America Line; the “Pick Your Perk/123 Go/All-In Suite” offers by Celebrity Cruises; “Three for Free” by Princess Cruises; “Why Choose” by Regent Seven Seas; and an all-inclusive package add-in by Norwegian Cruise Line.

“While these types of programs have been offered in the past, we are seeing a heightened trend in more options being offered on further out sailings and at a higher frequency,” says Block. Separately, Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion, mentions that the lines “are experimenting with exclusive dining options that are causing clients to book in advance so they can secure their reservation.” The customer still pays, she notes, but does so pre-cruise so when they’re onboard they don’t feel nickel-and-dimed.

Still, a Maze of Promotions: Yet some experts say there are still too many promotions; they want the lines to do a better job in 2015 of taking their own advice and not selling on price or discounting. “What they need to do for both guests and agents is to commit to pricing,” emphasizes Marni Becker, director of cruise sales, Protravel International, who believes sound revenue management practices should be in place so both clients and agents feel confident they’re receiving the best price and value-added perks.

Simply put, “Lately, we’ve seen price drops and it has to stop,” Becker says. One month it’s one promotion, the next month another, acknowledges Walke. “They need to find a price that is fair for everyone, keep it that way, and promote the value and the experience, not the promotion,” he says.

While Fee doesn’t object to all promotions, she agrees that “it’s become a very noisy marketplace, where the customer is now expecting a value-add,” so agents must be much more proactive to keep on top of the deals, properly market the promotions and communicate with clients. 

Yield Challenges, Booking Curve Fluctuations: Sasso acknowledges that the cruise industry has experienced Caribbean pricing pressures, due to extra capacity and economic stress by consumers of modest incomes. “Coupled with a late booking environment, it does require us to be a bit aggressive and price driven,” Sasso says. Yet, he also notes a positive trend that North Americans in higher income brackets are now booking non-Caribbean cruises further out; these experienced travelers want destination choices so Sasso stresses “they’re helping fill ships at more traditional yield levels.”

Also seeing a longer booking curve is Alex Sharpe, president and CEO, Signature Travel Network, who says some 2015 sailings are already sold out with fast-paced sales for popular departure dates and sought-after cabin types: “It’s great to have strong demand, but it’s critical to move fast with your sales and marketing effort, to get your clients booked as quickly as possible and avoid disappointment.”

Expect 2015 Caribbean pricing to remain challenging, but less so than 2014, according to Tolkin. Despite double-digit pricing increases in Europe, the product sold, he notes. Moving forward, “we probably will not see the same level of price increases in Europe, but it will still go up.” So he tells agents to not lull the client into waiting for a better deal; he thinks that treasured cabin at the right price is going to be more difficult to get in Europe.

Brad Anderson, co-president, Avoya Travel/American Express, says he’s very optimistic about 2015 sales. He also sees yields improving, but notes it’s challenging to predict trends, given such potential outside influences as Ebola, terrorism, political events and the economy: “Our hope is that world issues won’t temper the positive outlook for 2015.”

More Small Ship and River Cruising: New river vessels are launching in 2015, with many lines projecting double-digit growth. Peg Haskins, president, Viking Travel/The Cruise Shop, an Ensemble agency in Westmont, IL, has talked to more group leaders and done more river cruise presentations this year. She says, “River cruising is helping us build revenue and [gain] repeat customers due to the experience the customers are enjoying.”

Seeking new river cruisers? Agents should consider their past tour guests, boutique hotel fans and ocean cruisers, emphasizes Rudi Schreiner, president, AmaWaterways. “Passengers who enjoy the ease of [ocean] cruising, where everything is taken care of for you, are finding that river cruises offer comparable convenience and service — even more so at times — with longer port stays and an even more immersive destination experience,” he says.

Growth opportunities? The experts say sophisticated travelers could be enticed back to Europe with the carrot of smaller destinations that can be visited on a river cruise. Cruisers have prolific itinerary choices from multiple river lines sailing the Danube, Seine, Rhine, Mosel, Rhone/Saone and Douro rivers, but agents also can tap into such new options as Elbe River cruises in eastern Germany.

Exotic new river itineraries also await for 2015-2016 in such destinations as Myanmar (new for Scenic Cruises and Avalon Waterways), India (new for Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection) and a remote region within Laos (new for Pandaw Cruises), among others. Clients seeking closer-to-home cruises need only look to the Pacific Northwest, the East Coast and the Mississippi or southward to South America’s Amazon.

The Awakening Dragon: Avoya’s Anderson taps the development of China/Asia cruising as his top 2015 trend. He says it won’t have an immediate North American effect, but might long-term as cruise capacity shifts. Speaking of China/Asia, Sasso tells us, “The economic stability and the vast number of potential guests do suggest that there will be a continued double-digit growth.”

Last month, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) established CLIA Southeast Asia and CLIA North Asia. “Asia ranks highly on our list of emerging cruise regions as the globalization of the cruise industry continues to gather pace,” says Christine Duffy, CLIA’s CEO. Costa Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and others are already entrenched in the region.

Thinking ahead: “Expansion in Asia is huge and not just for the Asian market,” believes Becker. As more ships are based there year-round, she says the possibility of exploring Asia via cruise ship for summertime travel with children is becoming a reality.  

Enticing New or Emerging Ports: Cruise-line supported, private-island experiences are increasing. Walke mentions Carnival Cruise Lines’ development of a new private beach experience on Tortuga, off Haiti’s coast. In winter 2015-2016, Norwegian Star will be the first ship in Norwegian Cruise Line’s fleet to visit Harvest Caye, Belize, that line’s new island experience.

As for ports of call, Honduras’ Banana Coast port just opened offering a new port call for die-hard Caribbean cruisers, notes Serino. Anderson says Europe, particularly the Mediterranean, still has growth opportunities. Serino points to such emerging ports as Valencia, Spain and Tunis, Tunisia: “They’re getting more cruise ship visits or lines [catering to North Americans] are calling there more. I visited both this past summer and really enjoyed them.”

Safran cites rising interest in Bandol on France’s Cote d’Azur: “It provides a quiet place for passengers to chill out on the beach or shop at markets and enjoy the local scene by perhaps sampling a glass of wine.” Farther north, “Norway has become more popular thanks to a certain Disney movie,” says Becker. “Disney has one of their own ships capitalizing on the [‘Frozen’] interest.”

Yet to come? From Safran’s perspective, “I believe the cruise lines will be keeping a watchful eye on Cuba.”

The second part of this story on cruise trends and 2015 outlook can be found online at www.travelagentcentral.com. It covers more late-night stays and overnights in port; more new high-tech ships; a continuing demand for luxury; stronger supplier support; and a sea of changes planned for the coming year.

Insights From Ensemble

Cruise bookings are expected to increase in 2015 compared to 2014. So say two-thirds of Ensemble Travel Group members responing to the annual Ensemble Insights survey. The largest growth for ocean cruising is predicted in the premium and luxury categories, at 44 percent and 40 percent, respectively. River cruises will continue to be hot as 91 percent of the members surveyed say these bookings will also increase in 2015.