Brand-specific pricing systems are spreading in the cruise industry, giving lines another way to set themselves apart.
The latest comes from Costa Cruises, which starting in April will put all fares into one of four categories, joining Celebrity Cruises and MSC Cruises in adopting a pricing structure that gives names to fares that include tiered amenities.
Costa's Basic fare will have the standard amenities, such as complimentary food and entertainment, and it will include the choice of cabin category, such as inside, oceanview or balcony staterooms, but Costa assigns the actual cabin. Total Comfort fares include choice of cabin and a beverage package that includes beer and wine at meals. A Premium Comfort option includes an "exceptional" cabin location, choice of first or second seating at dining and a beverage package with spirits, wine and beer. The Deluxe fare is for suite guests and includes a portfolio of amenities such as a pillow menu, a day's spa access and meals in a restaurant reserved for suite guests.
Maurice Zarmati, a Miami cruise consultant and former executive at both Costa and Carnival Cruise Line, said the idea behind these systems is to give a distinctive gloss to the way prices are presented, in order to differentiate.
"Each [line] as they continue to drive their own brands, they continue to come up with pricing strategies to see what they can do that's different," Zarmati said.
Branded pricing grew out of fatigue with promotions that offered a generic onboard spending credit or a menu of amenity options, he said. Buying a Total Comfort fare, for example, with its assorted benefits, seems to have more "punch" than an onboard credit, and cruise lines can often build more value into the package than if the components were bought a la carte by the guest, Zarmati added.
Celebrity Cruises was one of the pioneers of tiered fares with its "GoBig! GoBetter! GoBest!" format, which launched in 2015. In it, all oceanview, balcony and suite accommodations are priced with at least one amenity, such as a drinks package, included. Only inside cabins come unbundled. The "GoBetter!" option includes two amenities, and "GoBest," four.
MSC Cruises' "Inclusive Experiences" system has four tiered categories — Bella, Fantastica, Aurea and
Yacht Club — with a ladder of amenities ranging from minimal to deluxe. The first three levels can be selected for inside, oceanview or balcony cabins, with the last reserved for the premium MSC Yacht Club area.
Scott Knutson, Costa's vice president of sales and marketing North America, said the line's new format gives agents and guests an alternative to the one introduced by MSC. The two brands are heated rivals in southern Europe.
He also said that the packaged fares simplify the buying decision for guests and the product for agents.
"We did a lot of listening to agents, and we heard some programs were easy to manage and others were in the middle, and a lot of them were so complicated it was hard to communicate it to the clients," Knutson said.
For agents, the benefits are twofold. By building amenities into the price, the commission is higher. On drink packages sold separately, for example, Costa only pays commission for groups. And increasingly inclusive fare categories make upselling easier and more natural, Knutson said.
The biggest contemporary lines have not adopted tiered pricing by amenity, but some have fares with exclusive features, like Carnival's Early Saver product.
As Zarmati sees it, new fare systems are part of cruise line evolution.
"We've had several chapters of pricing over the last 30 years, and this is one more chapter," he said.