AMA Waterways’ European Christmas market cruises offer passengers the opportunity to spend the holiday season in cities such as Paris, Prague and Vienna
With a challenging economy still an issue, many department stores and retail operations began promoting holiday merchandise sales in July, months earlier than the norm. Are travel agencies following suit in selling holiday cruises? Travel Agent magazine spoke to Steven Hattem, vice president of marketing, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., about trends in holiday cruise sales.
For 2009, "the booking-window decrease the industry has [experienced] has created fewer holiday bookings up to this point," notes Hattem. "We believe demand will increase closer to the actual holidays and as the weather turns cooler in many U.S. states. [There's] also a pent-up demand for cruise travel, so we expect that holiday travel will see positive year-over-year increases."
Traditionally, many cruise customers book holiday cruises nine to 12 months in advance. However, Hattem notes that during the past several years, holiday cruise availability has extended through the summer and even into the early fall. "For 2009, the prime holiday booking window is now through September," says Hattem, noting that consumers have changed their purchase patterns. They now don't begin thinking about the holidays until after the summer when the kids are back in school. "We expect to see strong holiday cruise interest this year into October," he says.
In past years, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. would have begun featuring holiday sailings earlier in the year. "[But] due to the shrinking booking window, we have delayed our holiday promotions until September," says Hattem. "In general, 2009 has required a different approach to marketing cruise travel."
He says CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. are spending more than ever on advertising at the corporate level in order to support their agents and drive new sales leads. "This will include a last-minute holiday push toward the middle to end of October," notes Hattem.
The reality is that right now retailers are focused on the many incredible non-holiday cruise values in the marketplace. So, many agents are focusing on promoting voyages with close-in sailing dates to help cruise-line partners fill their ships this summer and fall.
As a result of the shift in booking patterns this year, Hattem also says, "There is much more holiday inventory available now than ever before, offering consumers new options and choices." A Travel Agent magazine spot check of the marketplace revealed this is happening for both river and ocean cruises.
For example, Costa Cruises is offering a Caribbean holiday special with seven-night cruises in late December priced from $599 per person. The fares are reduced by $500 and include an up-to-five-category upgrade. These apply to the December 19 and December 26 voyages of Costa Atlantica and the December 20 and December 27 sailings of Costa Fortuna.
Silversea’s holiday itineraries will feature special decorations, parties and menus
On the river cruise side, AMA Waterways is offering a $500 discount on brochure rates (starting at $1,899 for cruise-only to $2,559 for land-cruise) for its two Christmas-market cruise itineraries. One is an 11-day vacation with two nights in Prague and a cruise between Nuremberg and Budapest (or the reverse) and the other is a 12-day Christmas Wonderland option with three nights in Paris and a cruise from Trier to Amsterdam (or the reverse).
Some cruise fares for holiday sailings are slightly lower than the previous year's holiday season, Hattem reports. But he also says new ships launching this year, including Royal Caribbean's highly anticipated Oasis of the Seas as well as ships such as the Celebrity Solstice are fielding "much higher holiday rates" than in the past few years.
Other new oceangoing ships recently launched include Celebrity Equinox, Costa Luminosa, Costa Pacifica, MSC Splendida and Seabourn Odyssey. In addition, Carnival Dream, Pearl Mist and Silver Spirit will enter service between now and year's end. New river cruise vessels have also launched this year.
As these new ships with thousands of berths begin sailing, holiday season availability will likely remain fairly good across many ships and brands entering the fall sales season. But as the newest razzle-dazzle ships begin to sell out for holiday cruises, Hattem expects agents likely will see higher overall pricing for holiday voyages on other ships.
When selling holiday voyages this month and into the fall, suppliers say it's important to stress "togethering"-particularly crucial to families who have had a challenging year. "Our holiday voyages are designed to offer an escape from the pressure of deadlines and having to plan parties and prepare meals," says Steve Tucker, Silversea's vice president of field sales for North America."
Highlighting the onboard ambiance on most lines are special decorations, parties, menus, entertainment and holiday entertainment, including guest lecturers. In addition, many lines have clergy onboard to conduct religious services for both Christmas and Hanukkah.
This year will offer plenty of holiday cruise options, reduced pricing and more inventory. And while Christmas didn't come in July for most agents, given the changes in booking trends, Hattem and others say the big holiday cruise sales push is just around the corner.