It's like those ubiquitous car commercials that invariably intrude on your evening TV viewing. "All 2008s must go; come check out our hot new 2009 makes and models already in!" the voice shouts at you, promising unbelievable deals and special APR financing or something like that. Customarily, I then ask myself, "Jeez, the 2008s have to go that soon? It's only March!"
Carnival Liberty sails through Venice in summer 2009.
The cruise industry, thankfully, doesn't employ the same abrasiveness to sell cruises; they do, however, like to get their future itineraries out to market as soon as possible. This is why many 2009 itineraries have already been unveiled and made ready to book and— as referenced above—it's only March 2008.
Susan Reder, president of Woodland, CA-based Altour Classic Cruise & Travel, says the cruise lines are "definitely" getting their 2009 inventory out to market as soon as possible. "Our clients are already booking 2009," Reder notes. She cites Oceania as one cruise line whose 2009 is already looking bright. "Oceania is quite remarkable," she says of the deluxe cruise operator. "We received their 2009 European itineraries last week and blocked our group space. Clients are already going crazy trying to book so that the ship or the category they want is not sold out."
That's the early word and proves the extent that booking windows have progressively moved farther out, particularly for more expensive and longer cruises. Booking farther out can also mean that your clients are getting the best deals and best rooms. "This morning, when I was scouting around for deals, I found booking capability all the way to November 5, 2009," says an astonished Sherry Laskin Kennedy of AAA Travel, Melbourne, FL. "You can't even book your air reservation this far in advance."
River cruises, like Uniworld's Europe itineraries, are also experiencing elongated booking windows
Indeed, Oceania released its 2009 European collection on March 3, more than a year out from summer sailings in the region. The line is introducing new ports, such as Hellesylt, Norway; Biarritz, France; and Koper, Slovenia; while also sailing to untapped ports in Israel and Egypt.
One likely reason why cruise lines are inundating agents and consumers earlier with European itineraries is due to the intensive migration of ships to the region. Beginning this year, there will be more ships in Europe and the Mediterranean than ever before, which not only gives consumers more choice, but too presents them with the opportunity to lock in deals due to a seemingly overflow of supply. If that's the case, then it's not a stretch to say that, for Europe, booking windows will widen or move farther out.
And there's proof backing it up. "We've already booked 30 percent of business for 2009," says Andrew Poulton, Regent Seven Seas Cruises' director of strategic marketing. "Last year was a record year and we're already ahead of the curve."
The booking window is indeed expanding, Poulton believes, and cruise lines are tinkering with their cruise schedules to keep up. "Typically we would come out in May with itineraries, but here we are in early March with them out," Poulton says.
But there are other reasons at play here for the early advancement of itineraries by the cruise lines, says Laskin Kennedy. "It's amazing to me on several accounts," she says. "First, it leads me to believe the obvious, that the cruise lines want a steady incoming cash flow. Second, being first out of the starting gate with the best cruise pricing may garner those looking for the best deals; however, I don't think the first-time cruiser is prepared to book their first cruise 16 months in advance. Third, with the major cruise lines jockeying for first place, there are bound to be incentives and rock-bottom rates. This is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. All the dangled carrots in the world aren't going to entice people to cruise if they are part of the 83 percent demographic that the cruise lines want to target."
This is because of morose economic times currently facing the nation that Laskin Kennedy says is having a downward affect on tourism. "No matter how the economic situation is portrayed, it's affecting the majority of the traveling public," she says, "and opening the books for late 2009 isn't the solution." She does offer that the mix of new ports lines are involving in their itineraries could be an impetus to compel more people to cruise.[PAGE-BREAK]
Lines Line Up 2009
Holland America Line is a premium brand known for its longer more comprehensive itineraries and a brand that is looking to tap into ports where it previously had no ties. The line just released the specifics of its 2009 Asia Pacific itineraries, a region that is only now garnering more attention from the cruise community. Holland America will offer nine different voyages of 14 to 19 days through the region on the 1,432-passenger Volendam, including a new roundtrip Hong Kong itinerary. Four maiden ports of call will also make their debut: Puerto Princesa, Philippines; Otaru, Japan; Sanya, Hainan, China; and Tapei, Taiwan. These are not cities that many equate with cruising, at least not people new to cruising. Rick Meadows, Holland America's executive vice president of marketing, sales and guest programs, said the new Asia itineraries were developed especially for seasoned travelers.
Asia Pacific itineraries will continue to gain interest in 2009.
It is Holland America's strategy to turn itineraries loose as soon in advance as possible said another spokesman for the line. "When you have the length of itineraries like we have, you have to have them out soon," he said. Holland America's goal is always to have itineraries out at least a year prior to sailings, however; he went on, it's not so much to lengthen the booking window, but to make sure it is open.
Even Carnival Cruise Lines, a mass-market brand known more for its short Caribbean jaunts than extensive European itineraries, is getting into the act. Way back in December 2007, Carnival unveiled and opened for bookings an unprecedented number of 2009 European voyages on two ships, Carnival Liberty and Carnival Freedom. That's just a shade less than two years before sailings depart! The line said the decision to make bookings available so far in advance was due to "outstanding advance bookings" for its inaugural Northern Europe program, which will begin this summer on Carnival Splendor, debuting in July.
Not to be outdone is the river cruise segment. They too are witnessing an elongated booking window for Europe and acting accordingly. Uniworld Grand River Cruises released its 2009 European schedule in February citing the change in booking trends and travelers looking farther in advance to reserve itineraries and specific stateroom accommodations. "We are launching our 2009 product at this time to assist our travel agent partners in securing future sales now," said Janice Tully, senior vice president of sales for Uniworld.
While the evident trend has been to book cruises farther out than was past custom, Laskin Kennedy remains skeptical. "My clients," she says, "are booking closer in than I have seen in over a decade. Maybe subconsciously they are uncertain of their financial future so they want to enjoy themselves while they can."
Fact is, 2009 is still relatively far away, and although cruise lines are angling to unleash 2009 itineraries now, it doesn't mean your clients will miss the boat if they don't act. If you believe Altour's Reder, waiting may do no harm. "I know there is still a lot of Mediterranean space available for this year, 2008," she says."
See what Uniworld Grand River Cruises has to offer in this video: