As cruising continues to grow, it is increasing its appeal and creating new opportunities for group travel planners. The cruise industry is moving forward with not only new ships but also expanding the diversity of its offerings with new amenities and destinations. All of this is good news for you as group travel planners.
Cruising has consistently been one of the fastest-growing vacation segments. Indeed, over the past five years, it has achieved a better than 6 percent annual compound growth rate, according to industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). In 2019, 30 million people cutting across all age groups and income levels were expected to take an ocean or river cruise, according to CLIA. While cruising has a strong appeal with couples and families, it also attracts groups of friends. In fact, people who take cruises are 40 percent more likely to travel with friends than those who take land-based vacations.
To understand the opportunities, it is important to understand the appeal of vacations at sea. Consumer research shows that people are more interested in experiences than possessions, and nowhere is that more true than in travel. Vacationers are seeking out achievements, checking off bucket-list items and sharing their experiences on social media. They are also seeking access to luxury experiences that provide the opportunity to relax and get away from the pressures of daily life, but they do not want to leave behind their technology—they still want access to friends and family or the ability to check in at work. The cruise lines are successfully incorporating current trends, adding new amenities and refocusing their shore programming to create unique experiences.
For you to have a successful group program, it is important to understand that cruising is not a “one size fits all” experience. You need to match your target audience to the right cruise.
Different Cruises for Different Groups
There are three broad segments in cruising. The contemporary lines, with ships that carry as many as 6,000 passengers, appeal to the widest market. They are a mix of theme parks and resorts, with multiple dining venues and a vast variety of entertainment and outdoor activities. The product is less price-inclusive than on more expensive ships, meaning that daily elements of the cruise require additional charges. But the size of the ships and range of activities appeal to more diverse groups. Many of the contemporary cruise lines are promoting family travel and highlighting how the variety is perfect for multigenerational groups.
For travelers looking for a more personalized experience with higher levels of service and a more relaxed environment, the cruise industry has its premium and deluxe segments. Premium cruise ships generally carry around 2,000 to 3,000 passengers, with more emphasis on fine dining options and entertainment on a smaller scale than the contemporary ships. While all cruise ships offer suites, the highest levels of luxury are found in the deluxe segment where the ships may carry 1,000 or fewer passengers. Often all of the accommodations are suites, likely with butler service. Guests can expect multiple fine dining experiences, more cabaret-style entertainment and a focus on out-of-the-way destinations.
Within these broad categories, there are, of course, further distinctions and subgroups. For example, expedition cruising to far-flung destinations, like the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica, is on the rise, with more than 30 new luxury ships being built for expedition cruising. River cruising, also riding a streak of popularity and a good fit for many groups, focuses on exploring the culture and heritage of destinations.
Another factor that distinguishes cruises is the pricing approach. Many ships are like resorts, with added fees for some of the attractions, fine dining, spa services, shore excursions, beverages and gratuities. Some of the cruise lines, especially in the premium, deluxe and river categories, offer more inclusive fares. Group planners should look for special promotions and amenities from all the lines.
Matching your group’s interests and expectations to the right cruise is critical. Fortunately, the growth in cruising is making it easier as more distinctions emerge.
What Type of Cruise is Right for Your Group
- Contemporary Cruise Lines – Largest ships with the broadest array of amenities, including attention grabbers like go-carts or roller coasters.
- Premium Cruise Lines – Mid-sized ships offering higher levels of service and elements such as fine dining and more focus on destinations but less variety in entertainment.
- Deluxe Cruise Lines – Smaller ships, often all-suite or all-veranda, with the focus on personalized service, often with butlers, fine dining and inclusive pricing.
- Specialty Cruising – Best examples are river cruises and expedition-oriented cruises to offbeat destinations.
The Caribbean, Alaska and Europe are perennially popular, but other destinations, like Asia and Australia, are gaining ground. And river cruising adds to the possibilities. In the Caribbean, the cruise lines are increasing the emphasis on their private islands, which host beach parties, offer sports activities and feature luxury villas you can rent for the day.
The increasing variety of destinations means that you have more options on where to begin and end your cruise. Many of the lines are expanding their use of regional ports around North America, cities such as Baltimore, Charleston an Galveston. This means it is easier for people to drive to their cruise, or, for you as a group planner, to offer roundtrip bus transportation to the port.
The new ships are introducing a host of new amenities. On the biggest ships, this includes everything from roller coasters and go-carts to virtual reality experiences, all of which are perfect for your multigenerational groups, families and vacationers who enjoy the excitement of a theme park. But cruising is not only about these attention-getting elements, as you can also find new fine dining programs through partnerships with celebrity chefs and wineries as well as enrichment programs coordinated to the destinations.
The cruise lines also seek to differentiate their products through their entertainment programs. Some ships feature versions of Broadway shows and other lavish musical productions; others favor smaller acts, like comedians, magicians and singers. For travelers who might be seeking more sophisticated fare, some of the premium cruise lines feature fine arts programs, such as the ballet. Smaller luxury cruise ships often present more low-key entertainment.
Today’s cruise ships offer a wide variety of cabins to suit each individual traveler’s expectations. The most basic option is an inside cabin, meaning it does not have a view outside the ship. An outside cabin has a window or, in many cases, a private veranda. The newest ships have special spa cabins that may feature a more luxurious bathroom and private access to the ship’s spa facilities. Specially designed cabins for families are becoming more common, with added space and more sleeping arrangements and private family lounges. The newest suites are more luxurious with not only more space and multiple bedrooms, but even private gardens or an in-suite spa with sauna, steam room and jetted tub.
With all the new options out there, it is an ideal time for you to explore organizing a group. In 2020 alone, 20 new cruise ships are scheduled to be introduced, and over the next eight years, the cruise industry will add more than 100 new ships, increasing its capacity by nearly 50 percent.
All of the cruise lines have special programs for group travel and are adding additional amenities both to make it easier for you to sell your group and then to provide the best experience at sea.
Cruise Amenities Checklist
With the cruise lines offering so many different experiences, it is important that you match your group’s interest with the elements available on different cruises. Use this list to check off what will appeal most to your group:
- Attractions – Go-carts, bungee jumping, rock climbing, laser tag, virtual reality
- Aqua fun – Water slides, adults-only deck spaces/pools, multiple pools, children’s play areas
- Dining – Fine dining versus casual dining; multiple dining venues (extra fee); all-inclusive dining
- Ambience – Family; 24/7 fun; quiet elegance; large vs. medium vs. small ship experience
- Entertainment – Headline shows, cabaret acts, comedy or dance clubs, casinos
- Accommodations – inside cabins; outside with a window or veranda; specialty cabins for spa or families or singles; suites or private suite enclaves
- Destinations – Warm-weather beach and sun trips; nature and scenery; history and culture; out of the way; exploration (i.e. Galapagos or Antarctica)
- Length of trip – Cruises range from 3 to over 100 days with the largest segments being 3 to 5 days; 6 to 9 days; 10 to 14 days; or longer length between 20 and 50 or 100-plus days