Bob Guy first came to Asia when he served in the Vietnam War. He returned to the region a few years later when he led tour groups on trips through Southeast Asia.
After a stint working in Fiji and Australia, he returned to St. Louis to work with Intrav. Then, on a particularly wintry night in the late '70s, he got a call asking if he'd like to be posted to Singapore to run an inbound travel company, Tour East. He didn't hesitate.
Guy ran Tour East as group general manager for nearly a decade, then set up Pacific World. Today, almost 40 years later, as the managing director of Destination Asia, he's considered the cruise guru of the region. He has witnessed the evolution of cruising from its early days when it was rich Americans sailing to exotic Asia, to today, with middle class Asians discovering a new way of traveling.
Sharing his story at the inaugural CruiseWorld Asia in Singapore on Nov. 30, Guy talked about how he had to carry a map under his arm when selling Singapore as a destination to Americans because they simply had no idea where in the world it was.
And if those early days were the "golden years of tourism," he said, today is the platinum era, in which one of the biggest trends is the rise of cruising in the region over the past decade, which has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Asia has emerged both as a source of cruisers, with its 4.6 billion people and a rising middle class, and as a destination, with cruise lines calling Southeast Asia the new Caribbean.
The rise of cruisers in Asia has had a massive influence in the evolution of the cruise product and experience. In the past, Guy said, cruise ships were built for Americans, then made excursions to Asia to see what new customers they could catch.
Today, from food to onboard tech, shopping and shore excursions, the cruise experience is being built and designed from the ground up to cater to a new customer from Asia: younger, multigenerational, small groups. And the first question they ask: Is there WiFi onboard?
The investments being made in the cruise product are phenomenal. Genting Hong Kong, which bought luxury line Crystal Cruises, has launched Crystal Air. It converted a Boeing 777 into an 88-passenger plane so that it can operate luxury AirCruises. For this year end, it's put together a double New Year's countdown, flying guests first to Sydney and then to Honolulu. Despite a pricetag of $29,999 per person, it's pretty much sold out.
Genting also bought its own shipyard, and two years ago, it bought Zouk, Singapore's iconic party brand. Imagine what it can do with those customers to imbue cruising with a new, younger vibrancy.
It now calls itself a "lifestyle company."
Royal Caribbean International is working on a project called Excalibur, an app that will enable customers to check in seamlessly and enjoy the onboard experience fully, according to Sean Treacy, managing director for Asia. Its Harmony of the Seas has a Bionic Bar onboard with a bartending robot that is a hit with Asian cruisers. It has interior rooms with virtual live balconies (video screens that simulate the environment outside if you can't afford a suite with a view). It has virtual reality dining experiences.
The tech investments companies like Royal are making to transform the onboard experience on its new ship, the Symphony of the Seas, are impressive.
Just as Asia has influenced the evolution of the cruise product, I see it influencing the way it will be sold in the future.
If you've got younger, more tech-savvy customers, then you have to sell the way they want to be sold to. If you want to attract new customers, you have to go where they are, and if the next billion customers are in secondary markets in Asia, then they are social, mobile and young.
When asked if using the web and mobile could help spread consumer awareness of cruises and bring on a new generation of cruisers, Guy argued that "it's very hard, on a website, to give a customer the substance of what a cruise is." And with the bombardment of email and special offers people receive in their inboxes daily, it will be even more difficult to get that message across.
That cruises are hard to sell online is an oft-repeated refrain from cruise line operators. It's a complicated sell -- all those cabin types, all those shore excursions, all those activities and facilities onboard -- and it's an experience, not a commodity like hotel rooms and airline seats.
I believe this to be partly true, but I also wonder how much of it is due to suppliers not wanting the status quo to change or the fact that no company has yet come in to disrupt the business the way Expedia and Booking.com did with hotels 20 years ago or the way AirAsia did with aviation in Southeast Asia.
I'm sure there are other reasons. For example, supply is highly consolidated in the hands of only a few giants, and cruise customers have traditionally been older and therefore more comfortable with the traditional way of buying.
So why (pardon the pun) rock the boat?
Currently, travel agents play a crucial role in the sales process. With air and hotels having been disintermediated by online players, cruise is the last bastion for agents. Guy said travel sellers must become more than order-takers if they are to remain relevant and add value to the process.
During our interview on stage at Cruise World Asia, I asked Guy: Haven't I heard this before? "Yes," he replied, "they have gotten better, but now we need to think of specialization."
Asian agencies needed to set up cruise divisions, he said. In the U.S., there are cruise-only agencies, and when that happens in Asia, we can say we have arrived.
More agents need to go on cruises, as well, so they know what they are selling. A show of hands among the audience that day clearly showed that only a minority have been on cruises.
When I bought my first river cruise this year, I found it to be an over-complicated sale, and I had to read through a lot of stuff to get it. I had already chosen the cruise; all I wanted was to book a cabin and then figure it all out later.
Michael Goh, vice president of sales for Genting Hong Kong, whose company understands Asia better than any other cruise company, acknowledged that change is inevitable, saying, "We have to be where the customers want us to be."
Listening to the discussions that day, I was struck by many parallels between cruising and aviation and hospitality.
There was a time in Asia when some airlines believed that seats could not be sold online. Along came AirAsia, which gave away a million free seats and sold fares that could only be bought online. Today, more than 60% of airplane seats sold in Southeast Asia are low-cost. These are potential cruise customers. If you've saved on flights, you can afford to spend more on your holidays, like buying a cruise package.
Change will come. The only question is, will it happen from within or from an external force?
The good news is a rising tide lifts all boats. Again, pardon the pun.