Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

InsightCruise West was not the first small-ship operator to close its doors and probably won't be the last. 

The companies are generally privately run and lack the access to the capital that the largest cruise companies have.

Last year, Peter Deilmann Cruises said it was exiting the river cruise business and taking all eight of its river vessels out of service; Majestic America Line ceased operations at the end of 2008; American Classic Voyages filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

Still, the demise of Cruise West surprised and saddened many agents because it was a family run company with decades of stability.

"This will leave a huge hole in the small-ship market," said Kathy Hollister of Hollister Travel in Longmont, Colo. "I am hoping down the road that Dick West [the line's chairman and CEO] can come back with a ship or two to offer sailings to Alaska and the U.S. This truly is a very sad time for us that loved sailing with Cruise West."

Small-ship specialist Kristopher Krenz of Pak-N-Go Cruises and Tours in Brick, N.J., said small-ship cruise lines face inherent obstacles, some that can be insurmountable.

He identified a lack of marketing funds and a dependence on travel agents to promote their product. The problem with that, he said, is that most travel agencies are focused on the mass market.

"The type of clients who book small-ship cruises are more into education and a quality experience," Krenz said. "They depend on their travel professional to guide them. I'm sure that many agents don't know how to market and sell small-ship cruising to their clients."

The other factor is the cost of the product, he said.

"Most agents only sell on price vs. the complete vacation experience," he said. "A small-ship cruise can cost three to four times more [than a mass-market cruise]," and customers are not always educated as to the overall value they are getting.

"Small-ship cruisers are different," he said. "They see the cost value. They typically end up repeating and don't necessarily like the mass market cruise experience."

Krenz said Cruise West's demise does not sound the death knell for small-ship cruising.

"There are some small-ship lines that seem to be growing and changing in a positive direction," he said. "Just look at American Cruise Line, which is growing the fastest; American Safari Cruises; Blount; and Compagnie Du Ponant Yacht Cruises."

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