Cruising’s
youth movement

Innovative cruise amenities, active itineraries and young travel advisors are fueling an increase in bookings of both ocean and river cruise vacations by Gen Y and Z travelers.

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

TW illustration by Jenn Martins

Mary Jane Manole, owner of The Luxx Travel in Las Vegas, had never been on a river cruise when she joined a group of agents in March who sailed the Danube on the Emerald Sun following the inaugural ASTA Global River Cruise Expo.

She documented her experience on social media alongside fellow millennial-serving travel advisor Molly Foster of Moke Travels in Las Vegas.

Manole said that her social media efforts generated a lot of curiosity and interest from her younger clients, many who previously expressed misgivings about river cruising, and that she’s already sold a number of river cruises to them. 

“Having the opportunity to wake up in a different country every morning and getting that unique and special experience is an attraction for river cruising,” Manole said. “Young travelers like to be challenged, excited and have material for their social media. If it’s Instagramable, picture-perfect and can create stories with unique experiences, then the millennial travelers are interested.”

Travel advisors Mary Jane Manole, left, and Molly Foster on the Emerald Sun in Budapest. (Courtesy of Mary Jane Manole)

Travel advisors Mary Jane Manole, left, and Molly Foster on the Emerald Sun in Budapest. (Courtesy of Mary Jane Manole)

Travel advisors Mary Jane Manole, left, and Molly Foster on the Emerald Sun in Budapest. (Courtesy of Mary Jane Manole)

Her experience is becoming more common. A combination of traveler flexibility, innovative cruise amenities and more active, immersive itineraries are fueling younger generations to book both ocean and river cruise vacations. 

Gen Xers and baby boomers are still the top source markets for most cruise lines, but millennial and Gen Z travelers are showing growing preference for cruises, having been exposed to the method of travel at a young age by their parents. 

A 2021 study by Tripadvisor and Accenture found that high-income millennials were more interested in cruising than ever before, with 58% of those polled planning to take a cruise for their next leisure trip. 

CLIA’s 2020 Global Market Report found that while people over 60 are still the largest group of cruisers, at 33%, 47 is the average cruiser age, and people between 20 and 39 years old make up 20% of cruise passengers. Furthermore, according to the report, millennials are the most enthusiastic cruisers, with 85% saying they would cruise again. 

Millennials and Gen Zers are more likely to have had a taste of the cruise life earlier than previous generations, largely thanks to parents who took them on cruise ships as children, said Assia Georgieva, a stock analyst and principal at Highland Beach, Fla.-based Infinity Research.

“A lot have already traveled with their families, so they probably know a lot more than other generations,” she said. “In the past, 30- to 40-year-olds wouldn’t think it was something that appealed to them.”

Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy, a boomer, was one of those parents who took her children on cruises as they were growing up. She said boomers took their families on “great vacations” and introduced their children to cruising early, a practice that makes younger travelers important to Carnival. 

“We see a lot of younger people on the ships, especially on some of the shorter cruises where it’s a long weekend, a bachelorette party, a girls weekend, a reunion,” Duffy said. “There are also lots of younger people who are with their grandparents, who are footing the bill for the multigenerational family to all go away together.”

While multigenerational travel may be the focus for some brands, Virgin Voyages entered the cruise industry targeting the “young at heart.” Despite its clever advertising and edgy designs, CEO Tom McAlpin said, the product isn’t just for 20- and 30-year-olds, and the line instead aims at people age 35 to 55 who are looking for an adult experience.

The pool deck on the Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyages’ first ship. The line targeted the “young at heart.” (Courtesy of Virgin Voyages)

The pool deck on the Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyages’ first ship. The line targeted the “young at heart.” (Courtesy of Virgin Voyages)

The pool deck on the Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyages’ first ship. The line targeted the “young at heart.” (Courtesy of Virgin Voyages)

“They want a premium mix experience done in a different way than all the formalities you traditionally have, with a lot more flexibility to do things the way they want to do,” McAlpin said. 

Among the preferences that millennials and Gen Zers have while traveling is that they be connected. And cruise lines, which have long been challenged to provide reliable WiFi at sea, have taken note. 

Royal Caribbean International says that its Voom WiFi offers “the fastest internet at sea.” Princess Cruises says its WiFi offers “supercharged” internet connectivity.

Royal Caribbean senior vice president of sales Vicki Freed said that when she entered the industry in the ’80s, the selling point for a cruise was that guests could disconnect from everything. 

The rock-climbing wall on Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas. (Courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

The rock-climbing wall on Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas. (Courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

The rock-climbing wall on Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas. (Courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

“Now you could never sell a cruise like that,” she said. “You have to be able to say you’ve got the fastest WiFi at sea. People expect fast WiFi, and they want to be able to Facetime. They want to be able to be online all the time.” 

Karyn Todd, senior vice president of Cruise.com, agreed, saying, “People in that age demographic grew up with technology. It’s a second skin for them. Where they can use their phone to do anything onboard the ship, open a door, raise a window blind, order a meal, they love it. I love it, too. It’s convenient.”

The pandemic increased the number of people who want to work remotely, and a strong internet connection is required to serve them: A recent study from McKinsey & Co. found that workers age 18 to 34 were 59% more likely to leave their jobs than 55-to-64-year-olds if their employer didn’t offer remote-work possibilities.

Princess began marketing to these remote workers last year, with a campaign saying its high-speed WiFi offered “the ultimate remote workstation: an office at sea” while enjoying “the most picturesque videoconference backdrop on the horizon, thousands of miles from home.”

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The challenge for the cruise lines

River cruise passengers have always skewed older than ocean cruisers, something advisors say is due to a gulf between river cruise offerings and the preferences of millennials and Gen Zers. 

“Budget all-inclusive and entry-level ocean cruises are quite popular for the younger clients,” Manole said. “They normally want to party, so they gravitate to resorts with events and a place where they do not have to think or plan much for the trip.”

Toni Lanotte-Day, owner of Toni Tours in Levittown, Pa., said that a lack of targeted marketing prevents the industry from consistently capturing the demographic. 

“​​I think there is a disconnect, with the under-40 crowd thinking a river cruise is too sedentary for them,” Lanotte-Day said, adding that the age group still sees river cruising as “too rigid.” 

Several river brands say they have changed their product in ways that appeal to the younger set.

Avalon Waterways attributes an increase in younger cruisers to more active offerings. 

“Millennials have become our fastest-growing segment,” said Steve Born, chief marketing officer for the Globus family of brands, parent company of Avalon. “While the boomer and Gen X cohorts make up the majority of our travelers, the percentage of millennial cruisers on Avalon in the past two years has more than tripled.”

Driving that growth, he said, is the river line’s Active & Discovery itineraries that offer an extensive array of shore excursions at different physical activity levels in each destination. A cave wine tasting in the south of France, visiting a volcano park in Germany and a beer tasting in an Austrian monastery are among the Active, Classic and Discovery excursion options enticing younger travelers to cruise with Avalon. 

A bike tour on one of Avalon Waterways’ signature Active & Discovery cruises. (TW photo by Nicole Edenedo)

A bike tour on one of Avalon Waterways’ signature Active & Discovery cruises. (TW photo by Nicole Edenedo)

A bike tour on one of Avalon Waterways’ signature Active & Discovery cruises. (TW photo by Nicole Edenedo)

“There was a gap in the market for providing travelers the opportunity to cruise away from ‘classic’ sightseeing and following their interests and passions on their cruise,” Born said about the company’s decision to rethink its river cruise experience. 

“Today’s travelers are also looking for choice and flexibility. Avalon Waterways wanted to fill that gap and provide guests an elevated cruising experience, and we’ve done just that with our Active & Discovery itineraries. They’ve become our most popular departures.”

He admits that river cruising has overlooked younger travelers as the vast majority of operators stay focused on its more traditional customers. That focus doesn’t prioritize as many active and immersive local experiences. Given the spending power of Gen Xers and boomers, the cruise lines have been content to fish where the wealthier fish were swimming.

Emerald has also transformed its brand so that its itineraries and marketing efforts appeal to a millennial demographic, said Ann Chamberlin, vice president of sales for Scenic Group USA. 

River ships like the Emerald Sun can offer stunning views for remote workers onboard. (TW photo by Nicole Edenedo)

River ships like the Emerald Sun can offer stunning views for remote workers onboard. (TW photo by Nicole Edenedo)

River ships like the Emerald Sun can offer stunning views for remote workers onboard. (TW photo by Nicole Edenedo)

“Emerald’s river cruises skew younger than our Scenic river brand, and we are seeing the age come down on Emerald as we evolve our marketing focus to show the wellness, cultural immersion and active aspects of river cruising,” she said, adding that the line’s Emerald Plus and Emerald Active programs are leading the effort. 

“We also strive to show that the Emerald brand is for the active, younger audience and Scenic for the mature, service-oriented, all-inclusive vacation experience.”

Chamberlin is behind an effort to put river cruising in front of a younger audience that included inviting Foster and Manole to sail with the brand in March. Chamberlin said that young advisors can help lines attract younger guests and that it is important to work with advisors who, like Manole and Foster, are part of ASTA’s Young Professionals Society. 

“We need more young travel sellers in the industry, and attracting younger travel advisors with talent to sell river cruises would be a huge factor in selling to a younger audience,” Chamberlin said. 

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Uniworld’s foray

Some river cruise lines found that fishing for youth doesn’t always net the travelers they hope to catch.

Uniworld launched U by Uniworld in 2018, specifically targeting 18-to-40-year-olds with renovated ships that were given a contemporary makeover and featured mixologists and international DJs onboard and itineraries with immersive excursions and overnight port stays. 

But too-specific marketing efforts and millennials’ perception of the price points may have contributed to why the brand struggled to capture the market before eventually being put on the back burner. 

“We recognized a gap in the market amongst travelers under 45,” said Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. “U by Uniworld was created to introduce this demographic to river cruising by showcasing Europe in a fresh, adventurous way on a one-of-a-kind, curated itinerary. It was an entry point to a new audience.”

And although Bettridge has quelled rumors that U by Uniworld is making a comeback in 2023 or anytime soon, she did say the newest itinerary from Uniworld Boutique River Cruises could interest younger travelers. In June, Uniworld launched a Mystery Cruise, a themed itinerary in which guests knew nothing about where they were going until arriving in port. While most of the passengers were returning Uniworld guests, the youngest to sail was 22.

“Younger travelers seeking all-inclusive luxury and a vacation full of surprises — eliminating all planning stress — would enjoy the Mystery Cruises,” Bettridge said.

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