When Yiannis Vontas, executive vice president - partner, Variety Cruises, talks about his small-ship line, he likens it to the boutique hotel side of the hospitality industry. "It's a big thing today in the hotel market and I think the same is happening as far as the cruise market is concerned."
Variety operates 11 boutique-style, yacht-like vessels in places like Costa Rica, Iceland and Greece. But what's ahead? What can agents expect in the coming three years?
The answer is "a lot," given what Vontas revealed in our one-on-one interview.
New Winter Destinations
“Our biggest challenge, and I think it’s common to all cruise lines, is ‘winter destinations,’” says Vontas. He says that all cruise companies do well in summer, such as in the Mediterranean or the Baltic.
But finding ways to use the small ships in wintertime is a challenge -- finding places where the ships can “commute easily to” or reposition easily.
“Cuba was one,” Vontas says. But he now describes that market as "much softer than it used to be,” given the geo-political policies and plethora of ships of all sizes going there.
“We used to have three ships in Cuba,” he says, but now “we have very little presence planned for Cuba.”
“We are looking at other opportunities,” he said, believing the Gulf (referring to the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman waters surrounding the United Arab Emirates and Muskat, for example) will grow in popularity in the years to come.
“Actually, we are going to be in Oman in 2020-2021 with the Voyager sailing between Muskat and Dubai."
Vontas also said Variety is keenly interested in Tahiti, French Polynesia, which is a huge draw for the line's California and other West Coast clients:
“We believe there is a big market there for a small ship, and we always have to find destinations where the small ship can allow for a program which is very unique, and I think in both Oman and Tahiti we can do extremely well," he said.
“We are planning to position a ship on a year-round basis in Tahiti, if not next year, the year after,” said Vontas (shown in the photo at right).
In the past, Variety’s Egypt sailings attracted many Americans, he notes, but currently “there is still a little bit of nervousness. Hopefully it will change soon. We are putting a lot of hopes for Egypt as a destination for the future."
Variety sailed in Egypt earlier this year, and Vontas says it will go back to Egypt next year -- essentially doubling capacity. Given that it operates charters, non-profit organizations' voyages and scheduled cruises for the FIT market in that region, "hopefully, there will be enough demand for a second ship in 2020," says Vontas.
The line is including Turkey in 2020 on one program for Panorama. It’s the first time the line will go back there in several years.
In addition, Variety is "looking closely at the expedition cruise market," says Vontas, emphasizing that while "we're not an expedition cruises company, in some destinations we offer what they call a ‘soft expedition’ product.”
For example, this year in Costa Rica and Belize, the small ship line will offer lots of wet landings by Zodiacs in remote spots and pristine, quiet beaches. It also typically has one naturalist onboard and soft adventure activities like visiting tribal villages or hiking.
"We carry Zodiacs on all the ships, and on those short soft expedition-style cruises, the line increases those," he says. One reason is that on a Belize or Seychelles itinerary the ship may only be one day in port, so it needs the Zodiacs for those soft adventure landings at remote spots, islands and beaches.
So as it moves a bit more in soft expedition, will it go to Antarctica? Simply put, no.
"I don’t think we’ll be there because as far as we’re concerned, the market is going to be saturated very soon," says Vontas, who also at this point doesn't think it's a good fit for the brand.
Variety is also looking at expanding into more places where it can operate custom voyages, country-intensive cruises and "slow cruising."
“We don’t do what big ships do, which is multi-country, multi-destination – you know, 10 days in five countries," Vontas tells Travel Agent.
Instead Variety's smaller ships go slower, so it's advantageous to find country-intensive options. For example, it sails this summer on week-long cruises that are totally within Iceland.
In addition, "we see a trend for people who want to have more time in ports and less time at sea," he notes. So, the goal is to offer those itineraries, and to provide free time in port as well. Variety's Harmony is shown at right.
New Ships or Acquisitions?
More growth is ahead for Variety, according to Vontas: "We have two ships in the planning stage. One is a 50-passenger ship, and the other one is a 100-passenger ship, which is a bit of a change within our line because usually we don’t go that high.”
The line is looking at the larger ships for itineraries that its past guests have said are important to them. Many of those itineraries simply can't be operated with a smaller ship, given the greater distances and sea conditions. The larger ships could sail faster to cover more territory and would have bigger stabilizers for guests' comfort.
Vontas says that with those larger ships, the line could consider voyages to such regions as the Baltic, Japan, which is "very high in demand," or Australia and New Zealand, among others.
So how many Americans does Variety attract?. That depends on the itinerary. Vontas says that if one is talking about a destination relatively unknown to many Americans, such as the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the number of Americans onboard could be about 10 percent.
But in Greece, Americans represent more than 55 percent of all guests. For Cuba cruises, it's 60 percent. “It very much depends on the destination, and how well it is known to our customers,” Vontas says.
In terms of bookings from the U.S., “we are seeing a very strong participation from the West Coast, which is our number one market,” he says, followed by the Midwest and East Coast.
Recently, Variety has been doing better in Florida and the Southeast too, "but California is over 40 percent of our American market today," he stresses.
Variety's potential guests learn about the product through PR, articles in newspapers, their friends and so on, he says: "Then, they'll go to an agent and ask for help...[because] boutique cruises and particularly our type of product are very difficult for a client to understand."
Emphasizing that agents play a very important role and the company has very little direct business, Vontas says: "The business either comes from tour operators or travel agents. The biggest chunk of our business is B to B, obviously."
The boutique line's agent reward program, Variety Stars, has about 2,500 members. Advisors can visit www.varietycruises.com for information. Agents receive stars for bookings, and after five stars, they receive free travel on Variety for themselves and a companion.
He says the line will educate agents about the product either on the phone or face-to-face, although the U.S. market is huge, so it doesn't have the resources of a big ocean line with 20 or so BDMs.
Thus, the line is giving preferences to wherever the business comes from -- like California or the East Coast -- and "we try to find the agents interested in our product and we try to educate them," he says.
Vontas says: "It’s a beginning, we are getting there and the idea is... to invest in communications to those Variety Stars agents and be closer to them."
Perillo Travel VR, for example, is currently shooting Variety's first 360/VR video in Greece. That 360-degree virtual reality video will be available for agents to show to prospective clients during the sales conversation.
Also planned on the agency side? "We’re also actively looking for a consortia affiliation,” he said, to become a preferred partner. “This is one of our major objectives," and he's met with several in the U.S. recently.
He did stress, however, that “we work with lots of agencies” and will continue to do so.
A Boutique Industry
Within the industry, “we are very happy with the development of what’s called ‘small-ship cruising,’” he says. He welcomes the entry of lines like Scenic and the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection because that builds excitement in the marketplace.
But not all small ships are alike, and the product styles vary widely. While agents will hear from cruise brands that all their new builds are about 50, 70 or 80 maximum cabins, Variety's existing ships are much smaller.
“So, the question is ‘what is a small ship and what is a big ship, obviously?’” Vontas asks. “So, it’s all about ‘boutique.’”
For Variety, boutique in style means small, personal, informal and practical. In addition, he says, when guests are onboard, "they don’t want to have jackets [tie and jacket for dinner]. They’re not looking for luxury.”
That said, “they’re ready to pay luxury prices, but they are happy with a concept that is informal, which is relaxed and they are happy to relinquish some of these luxury things of life – like big spas and maybe specialty restaurants and clubbing.”
But they do like meeting people from around the world, and talking with them. Interestingly, he says that on rare occasions where a ship may sail half full, the line may actually get feedback that says, ‘there are not enough passengers.' People will say, ‘it’s a pity, I wanted to meet as many people as possible from different areas of the world.'"
That, Vontas says, is the essence of his boutique, small ship product: "People talk to you." Sharing kindred experiences and connecting with like-minded travelers is what it's all about.