In a sizzling hot luxury market, small ship cruises and private yacht charters are clear standouts.
Luxury travel is remarkably resilient, bouncing back earlier and faster than other travel sectors following crises like the Covid pandemic. Just how resilient? This summer Virtuoso, the consortium of luxury travel advisors, reported that 2023 sales were tracking fully 47% ahead of sales in 2019, itself a record-breaking year.
Two high-end vacation experiences witnessing remarkable growth in this hot market are private yacht charters and luxury small ship cruises.
Just ask those who sell them. Eric Goldring of Goldring Travel, a luxury specialist in Truckee, Calif., says he is finding “a lot of interest” in luxury small ship cruises.
For the ultra-elite clients of Fischer Travel, a membership-only agency in New York City, private yacht charters are the preferred cruise style, and the agency is seeing “a tremendous increase” in yacht charter vacations among clients in all age groups, vice president Dee Branciforte says.
Tara Shaw, owner of Resfeber Travels in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, says that after sending two groups on private yacht charters to Croatia with Via Tours Croatia this year, she sees an opportunity to grow sales of yachting vacations to her predominantly high-level luxury clientele.
“Especially after Covid, my customers are looking for something different and unique for those bucket list vacations. Seeing Croatia by yacht and having everything taken care of is an incredible experience.” Shaw has already booked more private yacht charters for next year.
Keeping up with demand
The global yacht charter market, including both crewed and bareboat charters, is projected to expand from $6.83 billion in 2020 to $10.8 billion in 2027, according to the research company Fortune Business Insights. The company anticipates “substantial growth” for the crewed yacht charter sector in particular, citing “growing demand for superyachts and the increasing involvement of cruise lines and their hybrid business models.”
One factor boosting the appeal of private yacht charters for some high-end travelers is the fact that the yachts are getting larger and more lavish, with charter specialists like Via Tours Croatia upgrading and expanding their fleets to satisfy the yearning for what president Zvonimir Androić calls “a true yachting experience.” For example, many of their 18-cabin, mid-range priced mini cruisers have been revamped into luxury superyachts with 11 to 15 all-suite cabins, high-end amenities and personalized service.
There’s product growth in the small ship sector as well, notably the highly anticipated, ultra-luxury Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, now expected to debut in October.
A higher than usual share of new expedition-style cruise ships is in the pipeline too, with 14 new expedition ships on order through 2028. Many new generation expedition vessels boast higher-than-usual crew-to-guest ratios along with opulent appointments and amenities. Some even provide submarines for underwater explorations.
These days, many small ship and yacht operators are focused on improving sustainability, an increasingly important selling point. Ponant, for example, launched the hybrid-electric LNG-fueled Le Commandant-Charcot in 2021 and is working on developing a fully carbon-neutral vessel that carries 100 to 200 passengers.
Another sustainable option: chartering a sailing yacht or booking a vacation on a wind-powered small ship, like those offered by Windstar.
After putting travel plans on hold for the better part of two years, today’s travelers are keenly focused on fulfilling their vacation desires. Increasingly, those desires center around culturally enriching itineraries.
Travelers want intimate access to less-visited destinations, immersive custom experiences like curated wine tastings and cooking classes, as well as outdoor activities, great food and wine and, of course, personalized service.
Itineraries are key for clients who book high-end small ship cruises, Goldring says. “It’s the service, the cuisine and the itineraries.”
“Some places are best explored by land and sea,” says Tauck CEO Dan Mahar. He notes that small ships can get into smaller ports, alter itineraries en route and provide intimate shore excursions, bringing guests “close to the people, the cultures, the traditions.”
According to Androić, Via Tours Croatia provides a concierge-type approach where every charter can have a fully customized experience, and each cabin/person can also choose their own experiences in each location.
Personalized amenities on Agape Rose Superyacht (12 cabins)
Private yacht charters: all that and more
Those same appealing features — flexible itineraries, access to out-of-the-way ports and exclusive shore excursions — are magnified on private yacht charters, which offer even greater itinerary flexibility and access to even more secluded ports of call. Yacht charters also provide the ultimate in privacy, exclusivity and personal service, nonnegotiable features for some high-end clients.
Yacht charter clients also appreciate the lack of regimentation, says Elizabeth Frels, product manager for luxury operator Ker & Downey. “There’s this feeling of, ‘your yacht your choice,’” “Do you want to party on your yacht? Dine under the stars? Do you want to play in the water, relax in the Jacuzzi, or explore off the beaten track?”
“Our clients really love that you don’t have to have everything planned. They can sail at their own pace, and the skippers know those secret coves, the really special places the guidebook doesn’t tell you about. And you don’t have to go with a group of 20 on the same experience,” Frels says.
Europe specialist Patt Potter of Travel Leaders in Maple Grove, Minn., sold her first private yacht charter to clients looking to travel with a group of 20 family and friends to Croatia this summer to celebrate a milestone anniversary and birthday. She’s glad she did.
“My clients were over the top excited about their trip, and their guests all had a lovely time. They got to select their own itinerary and see and do unique things along the way. The attention from the staff was wonderful.”
“I would definitely recommend a yacht charter again to luxury clients looking for a very personalized experience,” Potter says.
The Mediterranean is hugely popular for private yacht charters, led by destinations like Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Spain. The Caribbean is also a longtime favorite.
Now, other yachting destinations are emerging. At Fischer Travel, Branciforte reports “an intriguing number of requests” for private yacht charters to destinations associated with expedition cruises, including Antarctica, the Arctic and Greenland.
Pandemic factors: health safety, time with loved ones
Amid ongoing pandemic concerns, both small ship cruises and private yacht charters appeal to travelers’ need for a sense of health safety, in part by steering clear of crowded destinations.
On private yacht charters, which drop anchor in even more out-of-the-way harbors, guests are even more assured of a crowd-free experience. Like villa rentals, private yachts also reduce health risks by reducing exposure to people outside one’s travel group.
Yacht charters and small ship cruises also satisfy the pandemic-fueled longing to spend quality time with loved ones. Both product types are ideally suited to multigenerational family groups. Yacht charters hold particular appeal for couples celebrating milestone anniversaries, families traveling with older children, friend groups and business clients.
The choice of whether to book a private yacht charter or a scheduled small ship cruise depends in part on the client’s objectives. Some clients do both. “I have a client who has chartered the largest of yachts, but when they’re hosting a group of girlfriends or their employees, they’ll take them on a luxury cruise because it has more social outlets,” Branciforte says.
Repeat rates for both private yacht charters and luxury small ship cruises are very high. Tauck reports that small ship cruises are its fastest-selling and highest-repeat product.
Yacht charter clients of Fischer Travel repeat year after year, Branciforte says. “It’s a very special, fabulous and exclusive way to travel. Once people have experienced a yacht charter, they really become hooked.”