Cruisers turn to smaller luxury ships and exclusive enclaves

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A Le Boat vessel on the Thames near Windsor Castle in England.
A Le Boat vessel on the Thames near Windsor Castle in England.

The agency community is benefiting from a surge in consumer interest in sailing on small, luxury ocean and river cruise lines as well as suite classes onboard larger, mass-market products.

"I feel a lot of people don't necessarily fit the truly wealthy category, but they are willing to spend money on nice things or nice experiences," said John Werner, president and COO of MAST Travel Network. "They may not live a typical wealthy lifestyle or anything, but when they go on vacation, they want to do it nicely, so they're willing to spend money on that type of experience."

AAA Travel, which earlier this month released information on cruise booking trends, said that over the past year, cruise sales in general have "increased substantially." In the same time period, "bookings of suites on large cruise ships and sailings on small, luxury cruise lines have exploded, by high double-digit percentages in some cases."

AAA is not alone in noticing the trend. Werner said MAST is experiencing similar heightened interest in those products, especially in river cruises.

"More of our member agencies are selling river cruises, whereas maybe a few years ago they hadn't sold any yet, so they're starting to see a higher demand for it," he said. "Even on ocean cruises, the same thing, where customers are wanting to buy the upper category of staterooms."

In some cases, MAST's sales with cruise lines that fit into the trend are up anywhere from 12% to 30%, according to Werner.

Virtuoso is experiencing the same trend, according to Beth Butzlaff, vice president of cruise sales. Demand is high for suites, and suite sales on larger ships are up 9% this year. 

In a recent survey completed by nearly 2,000 Ensemble Travel Group members, small-ship cruising was the second most popular niche segment in the ocean cruise category, which the group said is indicative of travelers' preference for a more personal experience. The all-inclusives category was the top niche segment in ocean cruises; Ensemble asserted that premium and contemporary cruise lines are increasingly offering all-inclusive options, such as Norwegian Cruise Line's the Haven.

The survey also indicated that Ensemble members' clients were drawn to river cruising because the ships are smaller, and passengers are able to experience smaller villages, towns and cities.

Ensemble co-president Libbie Rice said, "People look for smaller, unique, boutique stuff."

Rice noted that the popularity of smaller ships and river cruising has not slowed business on contemporary or premium lines, but demand for the latter categories is there. This year, Ensemble added several new small-ship providers: American Queen Steamboat Company, Hurtigruten, Le Boat and Victory Cruise Lines.

"A lot of times we're just looking for something that's in a space that nobody else is in," she said, whether that's geography or a more unique supplier like Le Boat, which provides travelers with their own boats to use on rivers and canals.

The emphasis on smaller luxury ships and suite classes on larger ships comes at a time when cruise sales in general have been strong for the agency community.

"The last two years have been remarkable," Butzlaff said. "We're ending 2018 probably 20% ahead, and then we're looking into [2019] about 20% ahead. Compounded, that is remarkable growth, and we're really excited about it."

Booming with boomers

The economy is a definitely a factor in that growth, she said, as are baby boomers.

"I think the boomers are now in a different phase in their life," Butzlaff said. "In 2011, everyone started turning 65, and they are in a part of their life where they may not be as active. They're not climbing Kilimanjaro, but they still are just one of the most affluent generations of all time. So they're really looking at different ways of traveling and accommodating that new phase of life."

The popularity that river and expedition cruises have enjoyed of late is also a contributing factor, and it's drawing in clients who previously said they weren't cruisers.

"With that popularity, we get them on a river, an expedition; we get the hook in them, and now they are cruisers," Butzlaff said. "I think that gateway of introducing people to water, to river and expedition, has really helped with this new boom."

Further aiding the cruise boom are travel advisers themselves. 

Agencies are growing by adding new advisers, who bring with them a curiosity about cruising, Butzlaff said. Those advisers bring more attention to cruising.

Neelie Kruse, owner of Cary Travel Express in Cary, Ill., said her agency's river cruise sales "have been hot for quite some time" but have been increasing even further for 2019 and 2020 bookings. While repeat river cruiser business is strong, the agency is seeing a number of first-timers, too.

Small-ship sailings are also increasing, with a number of advance bookings into the next few years. Kruse attributed that to consumers who want unique itineraries, better service and fewer fellow cruisers. 

Brenda Gilbert, an agent with Connoisseur Travel in Washington, D.C., said she often sees clients who have cruised on mass-market products and now want a more all-inclusive experience. They are also looking for more experiential travel. 

At Elm Grove Travel in Elm Grove, Wis., vice president Jenny Cagle said clients are also turning to river cruising once they've sailed on a mass-market ship. 

"They're familiar with cruising as a vacation but super intrigued with how different river cruising is," Cagle said.

The trend appears to be one with staying power, with agents reporting strong advance bookings for 2019 and 2020.

"It's just the beginning," Butzlaff said. "With all of the cruise ships that are being built right now -- and I think that there's more on the horizon, frankly -- there are going to be more cruisers in this world. And they are going to see the value of the luxury aspect of cruising."

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