Wave Season Appears Robust, Despite the Recession


The deck of the Costa Luminosa, and the Delphinus Pool

Signs for a positive Wave Season first emerged in early December. Mark Conroy, president. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, told agents attending Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas on December 2 that 70 percent of the line’s 2010 inventory had already been sold. In addition, he said he expected Regent’s pricing to rise about 8 percent this year.

Helping entice clients onboard? For those who book by March 31, Regent Seven Seas Cruises is offering free air from certain gateways and up to $1,000 per person discount off its two-for-one fares, which are highly inclusive and include shore trips.

As cabins fill during the initial Wave Season push, cruise lines usually begin to adjust pricing upward. Deals or perks, in turn, decrease or disappear. Some Wave Season deals out there now are not as good as they were three weeks ago, say agents. Also, some lines have instituted multiple price increases as their ships fill up a bit faster than anticipated.

“A lot of the brands let their best deals expire December 31,” acknowledged Brad Anderson, co-president, America's Vacation Center. “There are still deals, but they’re not quite as good [in some cases].”

Yet, clients still have many good offers for river, niche and ocean lines. Through January 31, clients who book MSC Cruises from Port Everglades will enjoy a seven-night MSC Caribbean escape starting at $419 per person double, or up to 60 percent off. MSC also provides the best available stateroom within the same category.

For the trade, “the [industry’s] pricing is still a bit challenging but not to where the cruise lines are panicking and dumping like last year,” says Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder, Cruise Planners. “We are very hopeful we won’t have to go there again.”

Dwain Wall, senior vice president, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., also reports that clients aren’t waiting until the absolute last moment to buy their cruise, which was the case last year. Viking River Cruises is among those reporting that its cruises are being reserved at an earlier point than they were in 2009.

Trying to get people to book earlier is precisely why Carnival Cruise Lines is focusing its Wave Season efforts on “Early Saver” rates that start at less than $70 per day. The line also guarantees the lowest rate, and will pay out in the form of a shipboard credit to clients who discover a lower Carnival advertised rate after their booking is made. 

Wall says his organization estimates that booking windows also have extended [outward] by 19 percent, compared with the same period in 2009. “This is encouraging and a sign that consumers are growing more and more positive about the economy,” he says.

It’s a bit early for Wave Season statistics from the biggest cruise companies, given the SEC reporting requirements for both Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean International, both publicly held companies.  Royal Caribbean’s next quarterly earnings report and call with analysts is slated for January 28, so agents might get a sense of the firm’s early Wave Season trends at that point. Carnival Corp.’s next earnings report isn’t until March.

As for Prestige Cruise Holdings’ brands, Anderson reports that bookings for Oceania Cruises’ five initial Marina sailings in 2011 are fast-paced. His agents booked more than 200 passengers on that new ship on the first day reservations opened.

Frank Del Rio, chairman and CEO, Prestige Cruise Holdings, Oceania’s parent company, told Travel Agent this week that “76 percent of Marina sold in the first four days with the maiden voyage currently 114 percent sold.” (Cruise ships exceed 100 percent occupancy when third or fourth berths are sold.)

Crystal Cruises also reports record bookings for the week that ended January 11 and said it’s enjoying the best January sales [for bookings same year] in more than five years. Cunard Line fielded a “Three Queens” promotion bookable for just three days earlier this month – a positive sign, perhaps, that not a huge amount of promotion was needed.

From one luxury line’s perspective, “we assumed there would be strength in late January into February, but the year has kicked off to a great start,” notes Gregg Michel, Crystal Cruises' president, who says the line is experiencing “the strongest call volume we've seen in a long time.” Crystal’s record bookings are primarily for European cruises, but World Cruise and fourth-quarter New England/Canada and holiday cruises are also strong.

Beyond client perks, some lines are also introducing programs to incentivize agents. Costa Cruises, as part of its "So Much More Amore" wave season program, is offering thousands of dollars in cash awards to travel agents as well as rewards for clients.

Between now and February 28, travel agents booking any 2010 winter Mediterranean, summer Europe, Dubai or Far East sailings are automatically entered to win a weekly $1,000 cash giveaway. Travel agents may earn an additional 3 percent commission on all bookings by graduating from C.O.S.T.A, the line's online agent academy.

Of agents who responded to a recent Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) survey of market conditions, 83 percent predicted an increase in booking volume of 10-20 percent during the traditional January-to-March Wave period.

As the Wave moves into full swing, our experts hope cruise promotions and lucrative deals and agent incentives will continue to fill the ships. If so, bookings and pricing will likely move in the right direction throughout the year – up, up and away.