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
"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
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  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
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
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
"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