Business is up at small-ship cruise companies

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NEW YORK -- Below the surface of the traditional cruise industry lies a host of small, highly targeted niche players that offer an alternative to tors in this niche, on a good day, accommodate fewer passengers than just one of todays 3,000-passenger megaships.

Collectively, their economic impact, in the grand scheme of things, is small. But theyve been subject to some of the same forces that affect the fortunes of their bigger brethren, and theyre having a good year.

Although executives from the four lines contacted by TravelWeekly.com declined to cite occupancies or sales volume, they did say that business is becoming increasingly more buoyant.

Like most companies, we rode the late 90s wave of good fortune and expanded and then quickly tightened our belts. Now, business is coming back -- people are traveling again, said Michael McIntosh, a sales and marketing coordinator for Englewood, N.J.-based Sea Cloud Cruises.

And just as terrorism fears led the big cruise lines to develop more itineraries from close-in domestic ports, the small-ship lines have benefitted from the post-9/11 surge in demand for domestic travel.

There has been a renaissance in domestic travel in recent years, and this has resulted in a very successful 2004, said Maria Prezioso, marketing director for American Canadian Caribbean Line.

American Cruise Lines, based in Haddam, Conn., offers a roster of five- to 14-day itineraries from Maine to Florida aboard the American Glory and the American Eagle. It, too, has has benefited from the close-to-home trend of recent years.

Meghan Lubrano, the lines marketing manager, said the company has been capitalizing on the post-9/11 resurgence in patriotism.

People are very interested in staying on this side of the ocean, and our product meets that need, Lubrano said.

Although the small-ship segment is small, its big enough to show some product differentiation, ranging from high-end to unpretentious.

An unusual vessel at the high end is the four-masted Sea Cloud of Sea Cloud Cruises. The ship was built by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her husband, financier E.F. Hutton, in 1931.

A newer incarnation of the vessel, the three-masted Sea Cloud II, was launched in 2001. Both ships sail on Mediterranean and Caribbean itineraries while fleet mates, the River Cloud and River Cloud II, ply European waterways.

On average, per diems start at $470 per person. McIntosh said the lines typical clients are wealthy, well educated, well traveled and looking for a unique experience.

The Sea Cloud fleet is, for the most part, chartered out to affinity groups and tour operators such as Abercrombie & Kent and Kalos Golf, which specializes in golf-themed cruises.

More casual is the American Canadian Caribbean Line product. The Grande Mariner, the Grande Caribe and Niagara Prince, offer per diems of about $200 a day for destination-oriented cruises that venture into areas where larger ships simply cant go.

We cater to the nonpretentious who want to travel as if they were on their own private boat, said Prezioso.

She described the onboard ambience as not just casual but very casual.   How casual is that? The alcoholic beverage policy is BYOB.

To contact reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail [email protected].

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