The 2018 Wave season is off to a strong start, buoyed by a different dynamic than in years past, travel agents say.

While always driven in part by the calendar, post-holiday decision-making and winter weather, cruise suppliers in recent Waves have been boosting bookings by offering some of their best promotions during the period.

But this year, several agents said the promotions have fallen off as a motivator for cruise sales, and instead it is strong consumer confidence that so far seems to be fueling a lot of the passenger demand.

"It's the economy," said Stephanie Petros, an adviser at WorldTravelService, Severna Park, Md. "People have more money to spend, and they are spending it."

Only two years ago, cruise travelers were more hesitant to open their wallets, especially when it came to an itinerary in Europe, where a record number of terrorist incidents in 2015 had made many reluctant to go.

This year, the promotions are there, agents said, but the urgency is lacking. "From a year-over-year standpoint the offers are not as strong as they were in 2016," said Ashley Hunter, vice president of sales development at Avoya Travel, Fort Lauderdale.

This year is more of a seller's market for suppliers. "The price points are sticking," Hunter said. "They're able to increase the price points, and they don't feel the need to provide as big a discounted offer."

Hunter also said promotions have become a year-round strategy at lines such as Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, making them harder to use tactically for Wave season.

Avoya was one of several agencies where Wave, so far, is strong.

"For us, January has over-exceeded our expectations and projections," said Hunter. "We are definitely seeing an increase in bookings across the board destination-wise as well as for product type."

Other agents said their phones started buzzing around mid-December and haven't stopped.

Although not all suppliers have commented publicly, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. said in reporting its fourth-quarter and year-end results on Jan. 24 that Wave is off to "a very good start."

Not only are bookings rising, but spending is, too.

For some clients, an increase in travel spending may take the form of moving up to a higher cabin category, planning a longer pre- or post-cruise land stay or adding more family members to a travel party, Hunter said. For others, it may mean taking multiple vacations.

Scarcity in some cases is driving early demand.

For European cruises, Hunter said, "Customers are starting to maybe realize that for those key time frames and itineraries that they want, especially for river [cruises], that they're booking up fast and capacity's already going for some of those peak times in 2018."

In some cases, if clients are firm on a given time frame and a destination, Avoya agents are locking in those European cruises for 2019 instead of 2018 and suggesting something closer to home for this year, Hunter said.

And more agents are doing 2019 business during the 2018 Wave season. Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com, said that although 2019 remains a small part of overall bookings, it is notably larger than last year. One factor, he said, is that cruise lines are opening bookings earlier for out years, and nearly all cruise lines have 2019 inventory open for sale.

Hunter said that for Avoya agents it can be a cash-flow challenge to book too much 2019 this early, because payment doesn't occur until 30 days before sailing, or even after sailing. So seasoned agents try for a balance of 2018 and '19 business.

Agents said the Caribbean, while not their strongest seller, isn't notably weak despite the unprecedented hurricane damage last fall.

"People are not afraid to go to the Caribbean now," said Scott Babus, an agent at Going Places Travel in Baltimore. "If they go on a cruise, they know the port will be in good condition. The islands have gotten it back together for the cruises."

That said, western Caribbean itineraries are doing better than eastern. Terri Howell, owner of Dream Cruises, Baton Rouge, La., said space is increasingly scarce on some ships out of New Orleans.

"The summer travel with the children on the four- and five-night [itineraries], these trips on the Gulf Coast are completely sold out with waiting lists on every single cruise date," Howell said. "For the entire year, but summer especially."

One factor that is driving business, several agents said, was excitement about the sizzle features that cruise lines are rolling out on new ships, such as the go-kart track on the Norwegian Bliss and the Magic Carpet and other innovations on Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Edge.

Finally, the number of cruise lines marketing to multigenerational groups is increasing, adding to the overall number of cruise reservations during Wave.

"We continue to see that as an area of growth, especially as more historically "nonfamily" cruise lines are becoming more multigenerational," Hunter said. "Celebrity is adding some promotions and offers on third and fourth guests, which historically they have not led the market as being a multigenerational cruise line.

"Regent has not been known for families, but they have family programming for their Alaska sailings and special cruise fares for children and things like that," she said.

Despite changes in patterns and promotions, Wave is still important: Bookings in January through March can account for up to 35% of total bookings for the year, cruise executives say, as travelers get their plans in order for the coming 12 months, and especially for the summer -- a longer booking curve notwithstanding.

"This is what I call the 'J for J' season," said Babus. "We book in January for June and July."

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI