Thought LeadershipSponsored by Holland America Line

Capitalizing on a Peak Year for Alaska Cruising


How travel advisors can use current trends to increase their Alaska cruise sales in 2020 and beyond.

From late April into October each year, travelers pour into Alaska’s ports, drawn by the unique attributes of the Great Land: a magnificent region of dramatic fjords along a coastline that extends 6,640 miles, longer than all other U.S. states combined. Add in the spectacular mountains and huge sparkling glaciers, sites of historical and cultural significance, and fascinating wildlife, and the destination’s enormous appeal is undeniable. 

“Alaska is a bucket-list dream,” says Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line. “It draws more first-time cruisers that any other destination, so it is a chance for the travel advisor to hook a new cruiser for a lifetime—it’s good for the cruise lines, the advisors and the travelers.” 

Pat Dixon, owner of Dixon Travel Services in Chicago, Illinois, found that her own experience on an Alaska cruise sparked her business. Following her sailing, she sees Alaska as a destination that cuts across the generations, extending even to people who wouldn’t ordinarily cruise—and she saw immediate response from her database when she announced a 2020 group cruise. “My first cruise to Alaska included three generations,” she says. “There is such a wide appeal, and so much for all ages.”

And although many people may think of Alaska as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, according to Sandra Barnhart, president and founder of Continuing Education, Inc., in St. Petersburg, Florida, the destination is actually ripe for repeat travel. “Every time you go, it’s new again,” she says. “The scenery and wildlife are so spectacular, and there is something for everyone—I feel more energy there, maybe because the quality of the air, and the culture and artwork are outstanding. “ 

Barnhart is not alone in her feeling that the state has special appeal: Alaska is the premier cruise destination market in the United States, according to a 2017 survey from J.D. Power. And Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) estimated a 16 percent increase in annual Alaska cruise tourism in 2019, totaling about 1.3 million visitors. This represents around 175,000 more passengers than 2018, and predictions promise a record-breaking year again in 2020. Read on to learn why it’s such a lucrative time to be selling Alaska cruises. 

Multigen and Family Business
In addition to its natural beauty and cultural attractions, a number of strong travel trends are converging for 2020 that fit Alaska like a glove—and advisors can grow their Alaska cruise business dramatically by tapping into these passions, interests and psychographics. 

First on that list is family and multigenerational travel, which has grown steadily in recent years and shows no sign of stopping. What’s more, cruising has long been embraced as an ideal vacation for a market that combines togetherness with appeals for all age groups.  

In the October 2019 article, “How the Rise in Multi-Generational Travel is Changing the Hotel and Travel Industry,” the Family Travel Association reported that 33 to 40 percent of the $270 billion market in leisure travel is multigenerational. And the Travel and Tourism Research Association’s Top 5 Travel Trends for 2019 indicates that children are also increasingly playing a role in planning trips.  

Those advisors who are grabbing the opportunities within this market are garnering measurable rewards. Barnhart considers Alaska an exceptional choice for multigenerational vacations, a key selling point in her business. “Families never have enough time together,” she says. “And if they are cruising Alaska, they actually spend quality time together. Many times a family will book three cabins—one for the parents, one for the kids and often one for grandparents who help with the kids.”

And when it comes to cruising Alaska in particular, the wealth and diversity of activity options both on and off the ship help it please all ages. More active, adventurous or younger travelers can opt for Zodiac excursions, seaplane tours, glacier treks or even whitewater rafting, while older generations can take it a bit easier with options like wildlife viewing, interactive workshops and fascinating lectures.

Adventure Tourism 
The adventures aspect of Alaska is also attracting modern families: As the Forbes Travel Guide for 2019 Family Travel notes, “Instead of the usual Disney World or all-inclusive beach getaway for groups, families are being much more adventurous.”

And in fact, family adventure travel is part of a more widespread trend. Allied Market Research’s Adventure Tourism Market study valued the fast-growing global adventure tourism market at $586.3 billion in 2018, and it is projected to reach $1,626.7 billion by 2026. 

Alaska has unique advantages as an adventure destination; so it’s no wonder that Virtuoso’s 2020 Luxe Report named Alaska its number-two adventure destination, second only to Antarctica. The perception of a safe place in a tumultuous world, together with exotic adventure close to home is a winning combination. In addition, the dramatic beauty of Alaska is very accessible. In port, travelers have only to open their eyes, since all Alaskan ports are situated right in the heart of spectacular scenery with the magnificent wildlife on view close by. 

Visitors can also choose among immersive shore experiences that speak to different types of adventure travel, from cultural immersion like dancing with Pacific Northwest indigenous people to active options such as skiing on glaciers or snorkeling in the icy waters of Ketchikan to discovery in nature, including watching whales breach. Important destinations like the stunning six million acres of Denali National Park & Preserve and the turquoise waters of the Kenai River Valley are not close to port, so guests often choose land/sea combinations, which advisors can pitch as a way for clients to see more of the destination on a single trip or a way to vary the experience on repeat visits. 

Colleen Alsberg, senior destination specialist, group vacations for Fox World Travel in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, notes that her favorite part of Alaska is Glacier Bay National Park, and she makes sure her clients—coming a long distance from the Heartland—combine land and sea on trips to make the best use of their time.

Off-Season Travel
Another trend positively impacting Alaska cruising is an increase in off-peak travel. CLIA’s 2019 State of the Industry report indicates that shoulder season travel is growing in popularity worldwide, and there are certainly advantages in booking both early and late in Alaska. Cruising there offers special experiences during the colder months, for instance, including the chance to see the Northern Lights in September.

“Many clients often look to cruise in the shoulder season, which has a price advantage—but also other benefits,” says Barnhart. “I tell them that in May, the Alaskans are still glad to see you; they haven’t been overrun yet. And in October, visitors find great sales on Alaskan goods and the glaciers calve dramatically.”

New and Larger Ships 
Another reason Alaska cruising is breaking records is the appearance of new, larger ships in region, thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal, which allows big vessels to reposition to Alaska seasonally. In 2020, 10 new ships are expected to make 29 additional port visits, according to projections from the CLIA Alaska State of the Industry outlook report in December 2019.

Not only do these ships add capacity, they also increase the appeal of Alaska with their varying designs and amenities, from Zodiac boats that draw serious expedition travelers, to larger and adjoining staterooms designed for families and multigenerational groups, immersive onboard programs for culture lovers, Alaska-focused menus to appeal to food and wine enthusiasts, and more innovative offerings.

Alsberg is enthusiastic about the newer, more attractive ships coming into the destination, and points out that the enhanced ship and itinerary offerings are coming along with additions to the standard Alaska ports—another major point for advisors to make to both first-time and repeat clients. 

“Ships are coming back to Sitka and adding Endicott Arm Fjord and Dawes Glacier,” Alsberg says. “And the new First People entertainment complex at Icy Strait Point connects people to authentic local culture.”

Whatever the customer base, travel advisors find Alaska a very lucrative market as well as one that brings clients back happy. Now that Alaska’s appeal is growing at a rapid rate for a broad spectrum of consumer tastes, the future looks glowing for professionals selling this niche in 2020 and beyond.


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