A new cruise-focused online travel agency is betting its mobile-forward approach will enable success in attracting customers who have never cruised before.
Cruisebound, which sells only ocean cruises, offers recommendations and helps demystify things that first-time cruisers could find confusing, like different fare codes and cabin types, said CEO and co-founder Pierre-Olivier Lepage.
Such factors have traditionally made cruisers turn to travel advisors for help. Royal Caribbean International's next ship, the Icon of the Seas, for example, will have 28 cabin categories.
Lepage said the OTA's ultimate goal is for users to complete the booking on their own and on their mobile devices. Mobile, Lepage said, "is where all of online retail is going."
Not only does the percentage of smartphone ownership across age groups continue to increase, he said, but anecdotally, consumers have become more comfortable buying things online since the pandemic.
"Given those two trends moving in that direction, it just made a ton of sense," he said.
Cruisers specifically are becoming more comfortable booking on their own. Phocuswright's U.S. Cruise Market Report 2021-2025 found that direct bookings increased to 22% in 2021, up from 10% in 2020, and direct offline sales increased to 27% from 14%. The report cited as causes reduced availability of travel advisors, shorter and more easily online-bookable itineraries, and past cruisers being comfortable booking directly.
In a year of testing its platform, Cruisebound found that 91% of purchases were made on a mobile device and that the average customer was 36 years old.
Cruisebound seems to have hit on a concept that some big names in travel technology find attractive. Its investors include former Booking Holdings CEO Jeff Boyd, Tripadvisor founder Steve Kaufer and Concur founder Steve Singh. Lepage said their wealth of knowledge has been helpful as Cruisebound develops.
The OTA's target market is also relatively untapped: Cleveland Research reported that 70% to 80% of Americans took a vacation in 2022, but just 20% chose a cruise.
To help tap into that market, Cruisebound said it will use paid marketing and brand partnerships to expose first-time cruisers to the OTA.
Cruise lines are pushing for new guests
The OTA's launch coincides with a similar push by cruise lines to engage people who have never cruised. With the challenges of restarting operations and navigating Covid protocols fading, Carnival Corp. CEO Josh Weinstein said in December that as the company grows capacity, it is "redoubling efforts to attract new-to-cruise guests."
To help that effort, Weinstein authorized a 30% boost in advertising spending in Q1 over what the company spent in the same period in 2019.
Other lines are trying different approaches to catch the attention of potential cruisers. Celebrity Cruises introduced a metaverse game called the "Wonderverse" to showcase its cruise experience to the digitally-focused demographic.
Both Celebrity and sister company Royal Caribbean International will shorten some of their cruises going forward, which the industry has found is attractive to first-time cruisers. Holland America Line began offering a $50 onboard credit for each new-to-cruise booking that results from a guest referral.
Cruisebound hopes that most customers complete bookings on their own, but the OTA does have five to 10 employees dedicated to customer support.
"For me, especially as a customer, I love experiences that allow me to self serve," Lepage said. "But then, when I hit a situation that I cannot resolve, I want to be able to talk to somebody, whether it's on the phone or on text message. And that's exactly the approach that we're using here at Cruisebound."
The OTA serves up relevant deals to users based on a user's location, current promotions and military status. Cruisebound derives income from cruise line commissions and will not charge users a booking fee.
Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report.