MIAMI -- After last year's largely disappointing and delayed Wave season, which was characterized by bursts of business later than usual, cruise executives and retailers are looking to this year's prime booking period to tell them what to expect for the rest of 2004.

And if early indications prove correct, this season's Wave, which typically starts in January and runs through late February or March, will be a good one.

"I think 2004 will be a tell-tale year for us," said Dean Brown, Princess' executive vice president of sales.

"If you look back at 2003, we were in the mode of going to war; 2002 was a fairly strong Wave, but that was a rebound from the lack of bookings post-9/11.

"This will give us a clear idea," Brown said.

Executives from several cruise lines pointed to positive signs. Pre-Wave bookings are strong, and the weather in the Northeast and Midwest turned cold early, which often prompts the winter-weary and the winter-wary to think about cruising the Caribbean.

And with the exception of the recent elevation of the national threat level from yellow to orange just weeks before the Wave season starts, most executives said the political and economic climate is favorable for vacation planning.

"Once everybody gets through the holidays, they think, 'What's the next great thing to do?' " said Lisa Bauer, Royal Caribbean International's vice president of North America sales.

"Bookings have just been so strong," Bauer added. "I believe we're going to see a strong [Wave] trend. We'll see a spike as soon as we hit Jan. 5."

Retailers tended to be positive -- but measured -- in their Wave-season predictions.

Shawn Tubman, president of the Cruise Shoppes consortium, said his members were "hoping. ... I think everybody's counting on a pretty good Wave season.

"But if something blows up, all bets are off," he added.

Dan Bohan, chief operating officer of Fairfax, Va.-based Omega World Travel, which owns Cruise.com, said the 2004 Wave season "will be huge by the standards of the last two years but less than what we saw in the '90s."

Bohan predicted first-quarter sales will be up 50% over the same period in 2003.

But, he added, cruise lines continue to drop prices at the last minute to fill ships, prompting some clients to wait to book.

"These last-minute price drops have had a very negative impact on group bookings, which have traditionally been a major factor in producing the Wave," Bohan said.

Last-minute bookings also were cited by Sally Goldwasser as the reason why her agency, Unique Travel in Delray Beach, Fla., was not looking for a sizeable Wave.

"It's evening out," Goldwasser said of her agency's booking trends. "Now, [clients will] book in May for July."

Regardless, cruise companies are getting into the Wave spirit by airing new commercials and launching targeted consumer and agent marketing campaigns.

Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, will significantly ramp up its television advertising; Royal Caribbean International will introduce "Get Out There" TV spots and Holland America Line is launching an ad campaign to highlight its Signature of Excellence program.

Norwegian Cruise Line is back with its annual "Sale of All Sails" trade campaign, which had its "biggest reception ever," according to Andy Stuart, the line's executive vice president of sales and marketing.

"I don't think it's passe," Stuart said of Wave season. "It's fair to say there is more of an even booking pattern across the year ... but I think there's a tendency for people to book travel in the January, February and March period."

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

Companies set specials for season

MIAMI -- Several cruise lines are offering Wave season promotions to consumers and to the trade. Here is a sampling:

• Cruise West increased the number of its online training sessions and Virtual Cruise Nights, which are online presentations for up to 23 clients. Classes will run almost daily in January and February.

• Holland America Line is providing up to 10-category upgrades for consumers making cruise or cruise-tour bookings through February.

Travel agents making a booking in an outside-or-higher category during the period will receive a scratch-off card good for one of 2,000 prizes.

• Princess Cruises implemented three targeted marketing programs for its agent partners.

The performance-based programs focus on Princess' 2004 Caribbean business. The line also will do direct mailings in January.

• Royal Caribbean International said existing and Europe and Alaska cruise-tour bookings made through Feb. 29 will receive $50 bonus commission, and clients receive a $200-per-cabin onboard credit. In addition, the line will offer bonus group points for cruise-tour group bookings.

• Viking River Cruises will run a consumer mail promotion for Valentine's Day: Individuals who purchase a cruise as a Valentine's Day gift will receive a $250-per-person discount and a bouquet of roses.

For agents, Viking is conducting a mailing containing four bonus commission coupons. R.T.

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