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A new wave
in excursions

Today’s cruise passengers interests push cruise lines to provide more authentic, exhilarating experiences.

Authentic, immersive, local, multigenerational, intimate.
If you’re a cruise passenger booking a shore excursion in 2018 or a travel agent recommending such tours, those are some of the terms you will hear repeatedly from tour providers.

It’s not that guests can’t book the traditional city tour or snorkel trip or go feed the stingrays anymore. But those kinds of tours have been around so long they’re now passe.

Today, some of the hot-selling tours, or at least the ones being heavily promoted, involve going deep into the countryside, mixing with locals, getting exercise and stacking those activities in a single excursion, often with the whole family.

It might sound exhausting, but cruise lines say it is what the contemporary cruise passenger is looking for.

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“I think the trend going on right now is the desire for hands-on, authentic experiences that aren’t available anywhere else,” said Bruce Krumrine, vice president for global shore excursions at Princess Cruises.“Whether that be food-related or experience-oriented, guests are looking to push the envelope on their vacations, taking in unique encounters to go back home and share with family and friends.”

Discerning where the sweet spot lies in shore excursions is crucial to cruise lines. After alcohol sales, the $1 billion-a-year excursion business is likely the most important source of onboard ancillary revenue.

There is no official count of excursion providers worldwide, although Roberta Jacoby, managing director of global tour operations at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. said, “We have 6,000 tours. We’re on every continent. There’s more than 450 ports. So it’s huge.”

Increasingly, those providers are offering not just excursions but experiences. Krumrine cited shark cage diving in Hawaii and visiting a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica as two examples delivered by Princess.

Jacoby highlighted a new excursion offered by Azamara Club Cruises in Bilbao, Spain. The cruise line takes a small group out into the Basque countryside to visit one of the few craftsmen who continues to make espadrille sandals by hand from hemp and cotton. 

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“Each person makes their own espadrilles under the guidance of this local shoe person.” Jacoby said. “And they learn about the Basque handicraft and tradition, and then they take home their shoes.

Food excursions are another portal to the kinds of local and authentic touchstones that travelers are seeking.

On visits to India, Azamara takes guests on an excursion titled Cook With a Parsi Family in Their Home.

“You learn how to make one of their dishes, and you sit down and have food with them,” Jacoby said. “It’s a nice, intimate thing to do.”

Because they go into a home, the group typically is limited to 10 people and would never be more than 25. 

Most major cruise lines have stepped up their culinary excursion offerings.

In addition, several shore excursion executives said they have ditched sedentary tours for ones that are more active.

Christine Manjencic, vice president of destination services at Norwegian Cruise Line, said, “We do find that our guests in general are a lot more active. They’re getting younger, literally and figuratively. Even our more mature guests are younger at heart, let’s say, and they’re more active. They’re looking for the experiences that they can match with their capabilities.”

A few years ago, Crystal Cruises began offering site-running excursions.  

According to John Stoll, vice president of land programs at Crystal, site running can be runs of five or 10 kilometers through local scenery and sites. Groups are accompanied by a local fitness trainer/guide. The pace is about a 10-minute mile, he said, but can vary depending on the group. 

“We include cold water and healthy refreshments,” Stoll said. “If applicable, we do make stops — no more than two — to take in the sights.”

To some extent, more active tours are extensions of active ships, such as the Royal Caribbean International vessels with rock-climbing walls and sky-diving simulators. Guests attracted to such ships won’t settle for their grandfathers’ tours.

Coming up with truly new ideas for tours is challenging. Even site running is really the application of a new twist — more vigorous exercise — on a walking tour.

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Creating cross-generational products

Packaging becomes a way to make old ideas seem fresh or to unearth hidden value in excursions. At Carnival Cruise Line, for example, some tours have been re-engineered with an emphasis on multigenerational or multifamily travel parties. 

Branded as Ultimate Adventure tours, they might include a cooking lesson for grandma, a visit to an aviary for the grandkids and ziplining for everyone in between, aggregated into an all-in-one excursion.

Even on a good cruise, only two-thirds of the passengers take an excursion, so one of the goals for managers is to increase that rate.

“I do hope it will increase participation in shore excursions,” said Erika Tache, director of product development — tour operations for Carnival. “But I really think it’s a convenience for our multigenerational guests, since there is an ability for them to do things together as a family.” 

Another strategy to land more participation is a sort of greatest hits approach. Carnival has excursions marketed as the Big Three. In Montego Bay, for example, it includes a Jamaica bobsled ride, the Sky Explorer chairlift and a zipline canopy tour, a kind of $169.99 buy one, get two free promotion that might appeal to someone who otherwise would spend less money for only one of the adventures.

Norwegian Cruise Line this year began offering an excursion package that is similar to its beverage and dining packages. Cruisers pay a set amount at the start of a cruise and get four or more excursions at 20% off their individual price.

“We tested it onboard last year, and we found that it worked,” Manjencic said. “So we launched it right at the beginning of this year.”

The packages come at two levels, a General Highlights for first-timers on the itinerary and an Ultimate Explorer for repeat passengers.

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British adventurer Ben Fogle, pictured second in line here while escorting a hiking tour to the peak of a volcano, is the brand name on a newly expanded collection of shore excursions at Celebrity Cruises. British adventurer Ben Fogle, pictured second in line here while escorting a hiking tour to the peak of a volcano, is the brand name on a newly expanded collection of shore excursions at Celebrity Cruises.

British adventurer Ben Fogle, pictured second in line here while escorting a hiking tour to the peak of a volcano, is the brand name on a newly expanded collection of shore excursions at Celebrity Cruises.

British adventurer Ben Fogle, pictured second in line here while escorting a hiking tour to the peak of a volcano, is the brand name on a newly expanded collection of shore excursions at Celebrity Cruises.

Branded excursions

Another borrowed idea is branding. Cruise lines have for years partnered with famous chefs to excite interest in their dining. One of the first to do so was Celebrity Cruises in the 1980s, with chef Michel Roux. Now, Celebrity has partnered with British adventurer and TV personality Ben Fogle to brand some of its tours.

The recently enlarged collection of 20 Ben Fogle’s Great Adventures has been expanded outside of Europe to include such activities as participating in a yacht race on Antigua or hiking to the rim of a dormant volcano on St. Kitts.

Princess Cruises several years ago started a partnership with Discovery Channel that includes excursions and now is adding culinary tours curated by Bon Appetit magazine.

Such branding is one way to offer something that independent shore excursion retailers can’t match. Savvy cruise passengers have long either booked land excursions directly with operators or used third parties such as ShoreTrips or Shore Excursions Group, which are often cheaper.

Those firms also pay travel agent commissions, something that cruise lines, with few exceptions, don’t do. Experts don’t see that changing. 

Tim Harwood, president of the high-end independent shore excursion firm MyExcursions.com in Tulsa, Okla., said, “The cruise lines have always had the opportunity to offer a commission to travel agents to encourage them to book their tours through the cruise lines, and very few openly do a lot of it.”

Harwood, a former shore excursions manager at Silversea Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, said the markup on excursions is large enough that cruise lines are likely losing business to the independents. 

“If they really wanted to be competitive, lower their pricing a little bit and be more reasonable, they would probably continue to have the market share,” Harwood said.

On the other hand, he said, there are a lot of costs buried in the shore excursion price - — items such as pier access fees, city permits, parking permits, the cost of vehicles and guides, entrance fees and, in Europe,  the value added tax.

Moreover, cruise lines require liability insurance coverage of between $2 million and $5 million from excursion operators, a cost that gets built into the fare price. 

In addition to branding, lines use other tools to keep cruisers in the fold. Royal Caribbean has created tours, as have others, of local markets with the chef on their ships. Participants learn what the chef looks for as he shops and then take ingredients back to the ship for a meal in one of the specialty restaurants.

“You can’t buy that from an independent,” Jacoby said. “That’s something that’s purchased with us.”

Harwood said that shore agents appointed by the cruise lines in ports such as Livorno and Civitavecchia in Italy have sometimes used their sway to keep the motorcoaches of noncruise operators from working the piers.

To be exclusive, Azamara has made a specialty out of custom events on its late-night and overnight stays in port. Some lines are turning to overland tour segments as a distinguishing feature.

On its new itinerary in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Victory Cruise Lines is visiting three towns by coach, with a specially arranged overnight at Chichen Itza, said company chairman Bruce Nierenberg.

“We get there, have dinner, we’re going to take them to the sound-and-light show, which you don’t usually get to see because you’re not there at night,” Nierenberg said. “We’re going to wake them up before sunrise, and the government has agreed to let them in the site, in the ruins, to have coffee when the sun comes up, just for our guests.”

That kind of bus tour is in. What’s out, many agree, is the 40-person, guide-narrated tour by motorcoach. 

Carnival’s Tache said, “The city tours where you point and click — you know, the guide points and the guest takes a picture — aren’t as popular anymore.”

Everyone is trying to reduce group sizes, to make tours feel less impersonal. Both Norwegian and Carnival said they’re offering their standard tours in smaller group sizes, even if it means more coaches and guides.

‘Guests are looking for more intimate, more exclusive excursions. One limit is the supply of vans and guides, especially in the Caribbean.’
—Christine Manjencic, Norwegian Cruise Line

“What we are finding,” said Norwegian’s Manjencic, “is that guests are looking for the more intimate, more exclusive, more enriched excursions. One limit is the supply of vans and guides, especially in small Caribbean islands.”

Another is cost. 

Kelly Hubbard, director of product development for Windstar Cruises, said, “It becomes a game to figure out what can be offered at a reasonable price.”

Perhaps the ultimate in intimate excursions is the rental of a private car or van that comes with a guide. It’s the type of thing that Harwood’s firm specializes in, but even mass-market lines offer them. Norwegian has its Executive Collection of tours. Royal has Private Journeys.

While the cost can easily reach into four figures, Jacoby said it isn’t always so rich. “Yes, it is probably more expensive than to take one of the tours, but you are getting exactly what you want,” she said. 

Personalization is another emerging trend. Norwegian is among the cruise lines that offer filters on their shore excursion website that help passengers input key interests.

In 2015, Holland America Line (HAL) forged a collaboration with Seattle-based Utrip. The online platform enables guests to narrow their options and save specific ports and interests. These are recommended by either a generic profile or by a personalized one created with interactive sliders covering history; art and culture; food and drink; nature and outdoors; and contemporary life.

HAL president Orlando Ashford said cruise lines get more shore excursion revenue when guests connect to their passions.

“We are trying to go deeper than just get on the bus and take a selfie,” Ashford said. “We’re really trying to guide people differently based on their personal interests as to how they want to explore the destination.”

Cruise lines are also tapping into the impulse for charity and community service on shore excursions, particularly in the Caribbean after last year’s hurricanes. Such tours are an extension of the cruise lines’ own philanthropy in the area.

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 Royal offers an excursion in Cozumel where guests help hatchling sea turtles.  Royal offers an excursion in Cozumel where guests help hatchling sea turtles.

Royal offers an excursion in Cozumel where guests help hatchling sea turtles.

Royal offers an excursion in Cozumel where guests help hatchling sea turtles.

Harwood said, “Whether that is something that is actually on people’s minds to do when they travel or if it’s something they feel good about, I don’t know. But I like that as an idea and as a trend.”

In San Juan, Royal Caribbean organized a tour of the city’s La Perla neighborhood, a shanty town that sits just outside the old city walls and was hit hard by Hurricane Maria last September. Participants volunteer at a community center that attends to the elderly and at the Hogar Padre Venard homeless outreach shelter. Afterward there’s a typical Puerto Rican lunch.

In Cozumel, Royal offers a sea turtle excursion during hatching season to save the 20% of baby sea turtles that otherwise would not find their way to the sea. 

“The people who do this tour absolutely love it,” Jacoby said.

At Carnival, a series of Give Back With Purpose Local Community Tours enables guests to mingle with locals, do some charitable work and have a home-cooked lunch. The price just covers costs and a donation.

In Jamaica, Tache said, participants visit a Montego Bay school where the funds raised through the tours have been used to build a lunchroom. 

In Jamaica, Tache said, participants visit a Montego Bay school where the funds raised through the tours have been used to build a lunchroom. 

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Specialists say commitment is the key to selling river cruises

By Michelle Baran

The growing segment of travel agents who are selling river cruises report strong returns in revenue as well as high customer satisfaction. But selling river cruises well requires a significant investment in time, marketing and in-depth product knowledge. 

Moreover, river specialists said that while river cruise lines often do a great job assisting agents, there are some areas where the lines could help them even more.

“Higher commissions and better support brought a lot of agents over to river cruises fast,” said Pete Larson, owner of river cruise specialist agency River Cruise Guru of Grand Forks, N.D. 

With growing competition in this space as more agents migrate to river cruising, Larson said that while the payoffs are certainly there, newbies should consider other factors, as well. For one, river cruising is still a relatively niche product, albeit a growing one, so finding river cruise clients and building awareness around the travel style could take more effort than selling more well-established segments, such as ocean cruises or resort vacations.

Ultimately, he said, selling river cruises requires a fair amount of work on an agent’s part, a sentiment that was echoed by several other river specialists.

‘Travelers are less informed about river cruises and everything that goes with it. It takes more hand-holding to usher a client from start to finish.’
—Pete Larson, Cruise Guru

“Travelers are less informed on river cruises and all the parameters that go with it,” Larson said. “It takes more hand-holding to usher a client from start to finish.”

Thus, in order to be successful and to pair the clients with the right river cruise product, agents need to keep up with their training, especially since clients might not be familiar with river cruise brands and how their products differ.

He said one area where river lines could really help agents like him who are constantly working to hone their expertise is by offering more affordable fam trips and by providing fam dates well in advance so agents’ airfares will not get too costly. According to Larson, fam trips are the best way to learn about, and ultimately sell, river cruises.

Rick Kaplan, president of Los Angeles-based Premier River Cruises, said he, too, feels that in order to succeed as a river cruise seller, in-depth product knowledge is a must, especially in a segment where consumers aren’t as keyed in to the product and options when compared with other travel segments. 

Kaplan said that one mistake agents who sell river cruises often make is relying too heavily on river cruise lines that have preferred partnerships with their consortium or host agency.

Although Premier River Cruises is a Travel Leaders agency, Kaplan said, “We are brand-agnostic. We want to match a consumer to the brand that best fits their needs, wants and desires. We can’t do that if we play favorites.”

Overall, Kaplan said, though river lines are focused on providing their consortium partners with the necessary resources, the majority of river lines are very agent-friendly and will offer ample education and sponsored consumer marketing materials, whether or not they are preferred partners.

But he, too, said it’s almost entirely up to agents to educate clients about brands beyond Viking River Cruises, the most recognized of the bunch. 

‘A lack of brand awareness with consumers is the most significant barrier that all but Viking River Cruises must overcome.’
—Rick Kaplan, Premier River Cruises

“Lack of brand awareness with consumers is the most significant barrier that all but Viking must overcome,” said Kaplan.

Challenges aside, he reported that after more than 30 years of selling cruises and the last six selling primarily river cruises, there is one big advantage in selling river cruises: “Irrespective of which [river cruise] line most consumers purchase, they return with the highest satisfaction level of any cruise product.”

Sherry Laskin Kennedy, a travel agency owner and river cruise specialist who runs the sites CruiseMaven.com and GuideToRiverCruising.com, said her clients give river cruising rave reviews.  

“I’ve never heard a single complaint after someone has returned home from a river cruise,” Kennedy said.

For her, the biggest hurdle is the cost of a European river cruise. She estimates that a premium river cruise can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 per person once air, pre- and/or post-cruise hotel stays and additional expenses are factored in. 

Her big request of the river cruise lines to help her sell their big-ticket products more effectively are high-quality document packages, including highly produced brochures that provide detailed background information on each of the ports on an itinerary. She added that it can be hard to get repeaters in this segment, as clients spending that much on a trip often switch to other bucket list options for ensuing vacations, such as an African safari or an uberluxury ocean cruise.

On the brighter side, she reported that river cruising has been shedding its reputation as a travel style dominated by older travelers. Kennedy, for example, said she has seen more honeymooners requesting European river cruises.

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