Cruising takes many forms – big ships, small ships, yachts and a slew of vessels in between. Also, some cruising-focused brands are part cruise line, part hospitality company, part tour operator. Increasingly, the cruise-scape isn’t one size fits all.
A good example is New York-based Beyond Cruises by Group IST, which has a partnership with Variety Cruises, uses Variety’s vessels in certain regions and handles U.S. sales and reservations for Variety. It has a few other cruise partners, too, in areas where Variety does not sail.
In total, it offers cruise-land-packages on small ships, mega-yachts and barges that carry between 22 and 72 passengers. Travel Agent recently caught up with Michael Goren, president and CEO, Beyond Cruises by Group IST, who founded the brand in 2017.
That said, Goren has several decades of extensive experience in developing small-ship programs; was a pioneer in Cuba cruising; and was promoting "small-ship cruising” and “destination immersion” long before those terms gained popularity in cruise tourism circles.
Choices for Agents
How does the Variety partnership work in the U.S.? If travel agents desire to book a mega-yacht cruise on Variety, they'll call Beyond Cruises, its U.S. sales agent.
Advisors can ask questions from trained staff and, if so desired, make the reservation. They can also learn more about Variety, which is a fairly straightforward cruise product -- often without shore excursions or many other elements included in the cruise fare.
So, if clients would like to sail on some Variety vessels or other mega-yachts or barges, yet prefer a more inclusive package that includes shore excursions or pre- or post-cruise hotel nights, then Beyond Cruises' own offerings are another option.
“All the options are in front of them and they can make any decision,” says Goren, who notes that his firm's package programs also are commissionable at 10 percent, higher for volume.
Africa, Dubai and the Seychelles
Beyond Cruises by Group IST has several new Africa and Indian Ocean options. It's introduced a year-round program combining a Kenya safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve with a Seychelles cruise.
“I am very excited that we can combine an African experience with the Seychelles Islands,” says Goren. “Because now with the opening of the nonstop flight of Kenya Airways...we can fly directly to Nairobi."
Cruisers will have comfortable nonstop flights, so "you don’t have to ‘schlep’ from all over to all over," he notes. Guests can tap into the airline's special rates, too.
After landing in Nairobi, guests set out on either a five- or seven-day safari, visiting some of Kenya’s top game-viewing areas. The itinerary includes two nights at the Lake Naivasha Country Club within the Rift Valley and famed for its flamingos; guests also take a boat ride across the lake and head out on game drives in Nakuru National Park.
Then it’s on to the Masai Mara in a 4X4 safari vehicle for daily game drives and a stay at the recently refurbished Keekorok Lodge. One option is a balloon safari, and en route back to Nairobi, guests will have another game drive and overnight at the Hilton Garden Inn.
After a short flight from Nairobi to Mahe, Seychelles, guests will depart from Port Victoria to begin their five- or seven-night, small-ship cruise on the 44-passenger Pegasus. Its highlights include 2,550 square feet of open deck, a lounge, restaurant area, Zen mini-spa and stern platform enabling guests to swim when weather and anchorage conditions permit.
In the mangrove forest of Curieuse Island, for example, cruisers can possibly see giant Aldabra tortoises, or at the Seychelles island of Praslin, they can explore the Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that's a rainforest with rare black parrots and Coco de Mer palm trees.
Unlike consumers on a land-only Seychelles experience, "you don’t stay at one resort and that’s it," Goren stresses. Flexibility is also available, with guests choosing to lengthen the five-day safari and five-night Seychelles cruise to either a seven-day safari or seven-night cruise, or both.
Another combination itinerary Beyond Cruises offers is "Dubai and the Seychelles." With a nonstop flight on Emirates to either Abu Dhabi or Dubai, guests can enjoy “a feast under the million stars [aka 1,001 Arabian Nights] plus the super modern city of Dubai, with an indoor ski resort" and other fun activities, says Goren.
"They're two very interesting, different experiences,” he says, and "if you’re already flying such a long way, why not combine the trips?"
Big-Ship, Small-Ship Differences
Today, Goren's team continues to work to educate travelers and the trade about small ships and the mega-yacht experience. He still sees some “immaturity” in the cruise marketplace, as many consumers still don't understand the differences between a mega-yacht experience and a big ship experience.
Characterizing big ships as “destinations unto themselves," he says they offer such features as a large theater, casino, multiple dining venues, show lounges and more. Thousands of guests are also onboard.
But even small ships may have 150 to 600 people onboard, showing that the term "small ship" also varies widely, when compared to Beyond Cruises' maximum of 72 guests. Guests have totally different experiences, plus the itineraries vary, Goren points out.
On a mega-yacht, “each day you are in a different location vis-à-vis the land – either docking or at anchor where we use our tenders, our Zodiacs, to get to the shore, whether it’s a rainforest in Costa Rica or Panama,” or elsewhere," he says. “Obviously, it’s more focused on the combination of the destination and the cruising."
A mega-yacht itinerary might typically include three different islands within a small geographic area on a seven-night cruise. Guests can go ashore at a small fishing port for dinner, mingle with the locals, and return to the ship at their leisure, as the yacht often overnights in port.
Another differentiator for mega-yachts? “It’s the ability to swim off our mega-yachts,” he says. “You don’t jump into the water from one of those big ships,” he quips.
The Middle East and Africa
New for Beyond Cruises this past winter was an itinerary that combined history, archaeology and swimming and snorkeling in the Red Sea. Goren says more dates have been added between November 2019 and April 2020.
“We combined Israel, Egypt and Jordan on one cruise that visits Jerusalem, Petra and the Pyramids and the Temple of Luxor, and the Valley of the Kings, and Valley of the Queens, and that’s a huge advantage,” Goren believes.
Otherwise, he says “people must fly from country to country and the system is very harsh over there and you spend lots of time in the airports. In contrast, with us, it’s smooth, it’s easy and also you enjoy the beautiful Red Sea."
In West Africa, the line sails an unusual “Rivers of West Africa” itinerary roundtrip from Banjul, The Gambia, on Harmony V. It spends nearly a full week in The Gambia, as well as time in Dakar, Senegal. Another itinerary option is a departure roundtrip from Dakar.
On one day, Harmony sails along the Gambia River to Kuntaur, and then guests head by a smaller boat for a three-hour cruise to Baboon Island in The Gambia National Park. A local national park ranger will provide commentary about flora and fauna, guests will visit the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project and hippos, crocodiles, monkeys and birds may be spotted.
Iceland and Beyond
In Iceland, Beyond Cruises’ “Icelandic Saga” onboard the 48-passenger Panorama is a seven-day sailing around the island nation from Akureyri to Reykjavik. “We include the Western Fjord, which is an area only a few [travelers] get into as it’s very difficult to get there by land,” he says.
Since most flights from the U.S. arrive in the morning, Goren says it's too early for travelers to check into their hotel, but with Beyond Cruises’ packaging, a shore excursion will take them out to explore the Blue Lagoon or other sites.
Goren also noted that "Iceland is a destination where it may not be possible to come in same day and get the excursion desired," so a packaged product can assure guests see what they want to see, and "you really don’t want to miss anything as that’s the reason you arrive here.”
On the other side of the globe, on Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, Beyond Cruises offers a cruise product onboard the 48-passenger Indochine between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Barging in Provence
Another new Beyond Cruises offering is a "Romantic Provence" cruise on the Rhone River in the south of France. Operated by the 22-passenger barge Anne-Marie, it operates between Avignon and Sete, France.
All cabins have windows, the onboard staff-to-guest ratio is one-to-two, and onboard, guests will find a whirlpool, lounge bar, restaurant, sun decks and a barbecue deck.
Beyond Cruises has been involved in barging for many years. “We know this business very well,” says Goren, who adds that one big difference between barging and river cruising in France is that the barges sail mostly on man-made canals.
“Those canals used to be the highways of the 18th and 19th century,” he says. “Many of those barges have been converted from cargo barges to beautiful boutique hotel-type barges.” But those also differ in product features – some may only have three super-luxury suites, others 10 cabins.
Often, “you have a French chef onboard who will cook fantastic French cuisine,” says Goren, along with access to a collection of fine wines.
Sometimes the barges do sail on rivers as well as the canals. Still, Goren points out the difference between a typical river cruise, which might cover 50 to 75 miles a day, or even more, depending on the itinerary, while barging is much slower in approach.
“When you are on a barge and sailing between locks at three miles or four miles an hour, you can walk out of the barge, you can take your bike, go to the next village, enjoy time and catch the barge two hours later down the canal," Goren emphasizes.
Experiences again can be different. In Alsace, he says, "there’s a place where you go into a canal and then you have to go to a lake but the canal is in the middle of the mountains. The whole thing is like a huge elevator going down to the lake,” he quips.
Beyond the Rhone River barge voyages, Beyond Cruises also offers a seven-day “Marne-Rhine Canal” barge voyage on the 22-passenger Madeleine between Lagarde and Strasbourg, France.
Goren was a pioneer in opening up small-ship cruising to Cuba, having developed a program based on the people-to-people concept. In fact, Beyond Cruises was the first American operator to be granted a license to operate a Cuba cruise program on mega-yachts. Using Variety’s ships, those voyages operated for years.
That said, this past spring, new U.S. regulations on Cuba travel for Americans resulted in major cruise lines pulling their ships from Cuba. Currently, Beyond Cruises does not have any Cuba cruises listed on its website.
“We are in a ‘holding pattern’ awaiting clarification of new laws, directives and guidelines,” says Goren.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Goren saw that mostly non-profit groups and their members, alumni associations and scholars were seeking a destination-intensive mega-yacht or packaged (land plus small ship) vacation.
Today, though, “more and more folks across society … they are looking for something different,” Goren emphasizes, noting that they are seeking something more intimate, more of a boutique experience, which a mega-yacht can provide.
From a demographic perspective, Beyond Cruises does see some guests in their 40s, particularly in such destinations as Greece. But most of the brand's guests range from 50 to 70 years of age. It’s a mature audience. "They're mostly experienced, sophisticated travelers,” says Goren.
Mega-yacht guests like feeling a closeness to the sea, and feel as though they're almost close enough to touch it. Once ashore in remote areas, they like the authentic experiences, such as meeting native Indians in the jungle in Panama or exploring Costa Rica’s rainforest.
But mega-yachts can sail to cities too, sometimes with a very different experience than what guests have on a bigger ship. Goren gives the example of Seville, Spain. Most big ships arrive in Cadiz, and guests board motorcoaches for the 90-minute or two-hour, one-way road trip to Seville; they return the same way when the tour concludes.
But on a mega-yacht, “you’re getting from the Atlantic Ocean into the river which will take you all the way to Seville, which is amazing,” notes Goren. “You can’t do it with a big ship” for which “you have to be in Cadiz and take the bus.” “It’s a completely different experience,” Goren says,
While major cruise companies now have recognized that, and, in turn, many small-ship oceangoing lines have blossomed, "we don’t see many of our size" vessels, says Goren. The reason is that it’s much more difficult to organize and operate a ship of 25 cabins or 32 cabins with the right pricing, “because obviously you don’t have the volume."
In addition, on a 350-passenger ship, "it's a cruise where everything is within the tradition of the cruise business," he says. “There’s a difference between officer and passenger. You can’t just walk to the bridge" on most ships.
Goren adds: “In our case, it is like you are on your own private yacht. You can walk barefoot to the bridge, and ask the captain, ‘Hey, what’s going on?' And that can happen anytime."
For more information, visit www.beyondcruises.com. For trade questions/bookings, call 800-833-2111.