Luxury lines report surge in bookings and rates

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FORT LAUDERDALE -- Luxury cruising is back.

A weak economy, capacity increases, a decreased popularity of offbeat or exotic itineraries after 9/11 and competition from mass-market and premium sectors have put pressure on luxury operators in recent years.

But, although luxury cruise lines dont follow a strict Wave Season of strong first-quarter bookings the way major cruise lines do, executives at several luxury operators are reporting a surge in bookings and rates.

Kimberly Wilson-Wetty, a co-chief operating officer at Valerie Wilson Travel in New York, said the agencys Hilton Head, S.C., office has booked $1 million in business with Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) for 2005. That was by Jan. 6.

Its totally surpassed 2004, Wilson-Wetty said. So theyve already booked what [were] their year-end numbers.

Longer cruising seems to be making a comeback, as well.

Mark Conroy, RSSCs CEO, said the 2005 world cruise, which has struggled to fill in the past few years, sold out, with a record number of passengers onboard for the entire 108-day voyage.

The line urged passengers to book early for its 2006 world cruise, which will make new stops in Tripoli, Libya, and Rangoon, Myanmar.

Executives at Crystal Cruises confirmed that interest was coming back for world cruises. The line counted 20% more passengers signing up for the full world cruise this year.

On average, a spokeswoman said, the 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity is carrying about 900 passengers for its world cruise each segment.

Regular bookings also are coming in strong, with a four- to five-month book-to-sail window on average, said Bill Smith, sales vice president.

Why shouldnt [we] be successful? Marilyn Conroy, Silverseas vice president of field sales, asked rhetorically.

Clients, she said, are back in the fold, provided you can show theyll get value for their money.

Youre going to give them something different that you cant get on a premium line, she added. People now do realize the difference [between premium and luxury] and are prepared to spend a little bit more.

Executives said luxury yields increasingly are on the rise and discounting is becoming increasingly passe. Silverseas per-day rates for Europe are in the $500 range, Conroy said.

Thats not to say there still arent early-booking rates and other below-brochure deals available. Silversea extended its savings program for Wave 2005, which offers discounts of up to 50% on the brochure rates on, for example, the April 5 sailing of the Silver Cloud from Barcelona, Spain.

Last year, Crystal reduced its 2005 brochure rates from the start, hoping to get away from advertising 60% rate reductions. The overall brochure rate dropped by 30% this year.

Were less dependent on tactical discounting, said Crystals Smith.

Were getting hounded for 2006 rate dates, itineraries, said Silverseas Conroy.

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

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