WHEN YOU SLICE IT DOWN THE MIDDLE, what you're offering your clients on a small ship is a different experience from mainstream cruises. If your clients want more out of the destinations and less time on the ship, then small-ship cruising is the tonic.
An archetype of the small-ship experience is International Expeditions (www.ietravel.com), whose largest ship sleeps 32 guests—that's right, there are just 16 cabins on board.
International Expeditions, which launched in 1980, is unique in that its main goal is to provide its customers with a strong shot of nature through environmentally responsible journeys. Jennifer Reynolds, International Expeditions' director of travel agency sales, equates it with "soft adventure."
The outfit is able to do this through small-ship voyages where the destinations and land expeditions are paramount. International Expeditions' most popular itineraries are those to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon, both of which combine mystery, history, wildlife viewing and a sense of enrichment.
Reynolds considers cruising the perfect conveyance for delivering nature's goods. In the Galapagos, International Expeditions charters the 32-passenger Evolution, which Reynolds says is "small enough so you feel the small-ship environment, but big enough to find your own space."
With its wide spectrum of endemic species, the Galapagos has become a hotbed for cruising. However, to truly experience the archipelago, sailing on a small ship is not only the smart way to go, in most instances it's the only way. Ninety-seven percent of the Galapagos Islands is considered national park land, which means it's protected. In order to make a land visit, you have to be accompanied by an onboard naturalist. The law states that for every 16 passengers, there must be one naturalist present. Smaller ships are more readily equipped to satisfy this requirement.
Ready to Serve
Smaller ships also beat out big vessels in the individual attention they usually provide. On bigger lines, the ship dictates the vacation's course, whereas passengers on smaller ships act as quasi-captains. "Look, if a guest sees a group of whales, we stop and we'll hop into a Zodiac," says Reynolds. "But, if while we are out, a bunch of dolphins is spotted, the ship will change its course and we'll catch up with it later. You can't do that on the bigger ships."
In the world of small-ship cruising, the word small is relative. For some, a 50-passenger ship is small, while for others 300 passengers fits the bill. As Mark Carlson, director of marketing for Star Clippers, puts it: "A small ship has to feel intimate enough so you can get to know everyone by the end of the cruise."
Like International Expeditions, Star Clippers (www.starclippers.com) prides itself on its small-ship heritage. It operates three ships: Star Clipper and Star Flyer, both with a 170-passenger capacity, and Royal Clipper, a five-mast ship with a capacity of 227. Star Clippers' ships are known as "tall ships" for their stately masts; they operate worldwide itineraries that are seven nights or longer.
Smaller ships are also able to seek out destinations that bigger ships can't go to because of their size. "We can pull right into most ports," Carlson says.
No Skimping on Amenities
Small-ship lines, while still motivated by destination, may offer similar amenities and comforts to those on larger vessels. SeaDream Yacht Club (www.seadreamyachtclub.com) and Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com) are two of them. Unlike some other smaller cruises, SeaDream and Windstar have casinos, a multitude of dining options, including 24-hour room service, and flat-screen TVs in the staterooms.
SeaDream's two ships, SeaDream I and SeaDream II, each has a capacity of 110 guests and has gone through refits this year. Windstar operates three ships: Wind Star and Wind Spirit, each of which sleeps 148 passengers, and Wind Surf, which holds 312 passengers. They too have been renovated recently.
For travel agents, selling the small-ship experience should be an ace up your sleeve; always be ready to pull it out when the time comes. Cruising neophytes may only know, say, Carnival or Royal Caribbean, while a small-ship line like Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com) will escape them. That's fine; it gives travel agents a different stack of cards to play with.
Once cruisers become accustomed to the bigger lines, they'll probably want to branch out and experience vacations out of the mass market. Not only is this a boon for the smaller lines, but also for agents—particularly their bank accounts.
Smaller cruise ships tend to charge more per cruise than, say, Carnival would. Do the math: A commission from a seven-day itinerary with a $4,000 fare will be a tad higher than the commission for a three-day cruise with a $350 price tag.
"I do a tremendous amount of research on agencies to find out who is selling soft adventure," says International Expeditions' Reynolds, who is heavily involved with Virtuoso. "If they are selling more Carnival or Royal Caribbean, they may be more leery to migrate to smaller ships, but they can grow their business. With the smaller ships, it's all about upfront revenue [smaller-ship lines reap most of their revenue at the point of sale, while mass-market lines pull a lot of revenue from onboard sales], which is why it can be more profitable for an agent."
With demographics shifting and many smaller cruise lines reporting an uptick in multi-generational travel, now is the time to consider selling the small-ship experience.