Cruise Even as it expands, Wave is still the most important cruise-sales season By Tom Stieghorst / February 07, 2016 Share 1 Photo Credit: Shutterstock -- Wave season is off to a sturdy start according to one major cruise line, but there’s a long way to go.The surge of bookings that starts the year for lines now stretches for three months. At some cruise retailers, in fact, March is the strongest selling month of the year.The early-sign strength for the 2016 Wave season comes from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), which reported on Feb. 2 that both load factors and rates are ahead of last year.“We’re currently in the middle of our Wave period,” Chairman Richard Fain told analysts in reporting Q4 earnings to investors, “and we’re happy to report this is proving to be a solid Wave.” More data on Wave will come mid-month when Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings typically reports results.Fain’s talk of the “Wave period” shows how much the selling season has evolved. As the industry has grown bigger, Wave consumes an entire quarter.It wasn’t always so. In the 1980s, when cruise executives first noticed the phenomenon, it was known as Wave Day and was typically the Monday in the first full week of January. On that day, the reservations centers for cruise lines became unusually busy as people flipped the calendar and began making their vacation plans for the coming year. Andy Stuart, president of Norwegian Cruise Line, said Wave season has gotten longer to keep promotions in front of the public longer. “Wave Day was an indication of how the year was going to shape up,” recalled Vicki Freed, a 38-year industry veteran who is now senior vice president for sales and trade support at Royal Caribbean International.From there, Wave started to build momentum. In the late 1990s, CLIA began promoting the early January upswing in sales as Wave Week. It surveyed cruise lines and published January booking trends around the first of February.CLIA no longer surveys members about Wave activity. But Wave has continued to expand to new dimensions.“It’s definitely flatter than it used to be, and longer,” said Brad Anderson, co-president of Avoya Travel.Freed said Wave now has a little prelude right after the Black Friday and Cyber Monday retail extravaganzas. Several cruise lines put out versions of their Wave season offers then. One reason for the change, said Freed, is that the sheer size of the industry now dictates more time for the promotion. “At the time I started, you didn’t have ships out of Galveston, you didn’t have ships out of Baltimore, you had them out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, you didn’t really even have a ship out of Tampa,” she said. “Now that we have the capacity, we’re a much bigger player in the whole vacation industry.” Disruptions have also played a part in lengthening Wave. Cold weather can throw Wave off pace, as it did in 2014 when a bone-chilling freeze gripped much of the East Coast after New Year’s Day. “The severity of the weather kept people indoors and clearly resulted in lower bookings for several days,” RCCL’s CFO, Jason Liberty, said at the time.Other types of disruptions have played greater havoc with Wave, including in 2012 when the Costa Concordia had its fatal accident in mid-January and in 2013 when the Carnival Triumph engine room fire in mid-February disrupted Wave patterns.Even in a normal year, some Waves break late. At its annual conference, Cruise Planners told attendees that the best month for sales in 2015 was March, followed by January and then February.Because Wave is extended, promotions can be tweaked month by month to keep them fresh. And suppliers increasingly use value-added strategies rather than discounts during Wave season, such as onboard spending credits, beverage packages or reduced deposits. Such promotions have become ubiquitous from retailers, even luxury vendors, Freed said, so people have become accustomed to getting them.Andy Stuart, president of Norwegian Cruise Line, said Wave season has gotten longer to keep promotions in front of the public longer. “In part, I think it’s in our interest to extend it. It’s in the industry’s interest,” he said.But there remains an underlying logic to consumers booking after the holidays when the calendar is fresh.“The consumer is going to book in a way that suits the consumer, particularly as it gets colder and schools go back,” Stuart said.From a cruise seller’s perspective, Wave remains a strategic period to test demand and build a base of business for the coming year. Anderson said his company started its Wave offers Dec. 26 and plans to put a lot of money behind them. “Our best deals of the year are going to be during Wave,” he said.