The cruise industry is riding high today with record advance bookings from a year ago, strong consumer interest and a slew of new ships and onboard and technology innovations about to deploy.
Cruise executives are optimistic the trend will continue barring any unforeseen geopolitical incident that may curb consumers’ desire or ability to travel.
That overriding sentiment resonated Thursday among industry leaders and travel agents who gathered at the Cruise360 travel agent conference in Fort Lauderdale organized by the trade group Cruise Lines International Association, CLIA.
“How lucky we are to be living in the golden era of cruising and these are the greatest days perhaps the industry has ever seen,” Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Doral-based cruise giant Carnival Corp. & PLC said in a keynote address.
“What you can do on our ships and where the ships can take you have advanced tremendously since the Mardi Gras back in 1972,” Donald said.
The Mardi Gras was the first ship that launched operations for its namesake Carnival Cruise Line, which became the catalyst over the ensuing 45 years for a company that grew into the world’s largest leisure travel business with 10 cruise brands, he said.
The cruise industry has grown significantly in the last decade by about 1 million more cruise passengers annually, Donald noted. In 2017, some 25.3 million people are expected to take a cruise globally, according to CLIA estimates.
Industry growth is likely to hinge on cruise operators’ ability to not only attract more first-time cruisers, but to continually create and offer fresh, innovative offerings and new destinations to generate repeat business.
That’s one area where travel agents remain a critical partner for the cruise industry, in addition to being a top source of cruise bookings even in the Internet and digital age.
Other key roles include helping cruise lines to communicate the value of cruising as a vacation option and help convey the character of each brand to prospective guests and “match the brand with the guest needs, with their dreams at that moment,” Donald said.
“You are absolutely the key to making the relationship between the cruise experience and the guest work,” he noted. “You need to help discover what your clients’ [vacation] dreams are. We think it has to start before the guest ever steps on board our ships.”
Travel agents are also on the front lines when it comes to helping to dispel old myths and stereotypes of cruising, such as ‘it’s boring with not much to do,’ Donald said.
In a panel discussion, top executives from Carnival, MSC Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Norwegian spoke about how new technology available today can provide benefits to travel agents to help grow their businesses.
New tools include internal programs offered by the cruise operators, as well as free social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“It’s a way of marketing that’s cost effective for the little guy,” said Larry Pimentel, Azamara’s president, of social media.
Others warned that as powerful a marketing tool that social media can be, messaging needs to be more personalized.
Earlier Thursday, luxury lifestyle and hospitality brand Crystal unveiled details of a multimillion-dollar “re-imagining” of its existing ocean-going cruise ships Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity to media attending Cruise360.
The ships will enter drydock late this year and in 2018 respectively for upgrades to staterooms, public spaces and dining venues.
Crystal Symphony’s enhancements will include 28 new penthouses and 12 penthouse suites with butler service and new and redesigned culinary offerings. Crystal Serenity will undergo its makeover in the fall 2018 to take on 36 penthouses and two penthouse suites.
Onboard both ships, existing restaurants including the main dining room and Lido Café will be redesigned into different offerings called Waterside and Marketplace respectively, The Brazilian steakhouse Churrascaria and Asian eatery Silk will also debut.
The Palm Court social lounge on Serenity will be redesigned with more intimate seating and the Starlite Club on Symphony, will also get a new look, Crystal said.
Guests sailing on both ships starting Oct. 21 of this year will have free Wi-Fi access.
Crystal Serenity is slated to offer a series of Caribbean sailings from Port Everglades starting in mid-October. Symphony will arrive there in mid and late 2018 for a similar deployment
As part of a bullish brand expansion, which includes new river and expedition yachts, new ocean-going vessels with private residences, an air charter division and AirCruises unit, the company is now calling itself Crystal to better reflect the diversity of its luxury offerings.
“We don’t just call ourselves Crystal Cruises anymore,” said Edie Rodriguez, Crystal’s president and CEO. “We’re now Crystal, the world’s most luxurious lifestyle and hospitality brand portfolio and under that is our core foundation of Crystal cruises.”
“Sadly in the cruise industry new is only new for a year, it’s like even when you have a new-build, next year, it’s last year’s thing,” she said. “So we continue to invest many, many millions of dollars into them to make sure that they’re exciting, revitalized, reinvented.”
With an expanded main dining room Crystal will be able to offer single-seating dining, meaning guests can dine whenever they want, instead of being locked into a scheduled time due to space constraints.
“We’re the only luxury brand today that doesn’t have true single-seating dining,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, more suites will mean [fewer] staterooms in total, and that will mean less guests, but the guest-to-space ratio in the public spaces will be even better…so it’s going to be an even more intimate feeling.”
Other news released at Cruise360 Thursday included Carnival’s announcement that its next new ship Carnival Horizon, set to debut in April 2018, will boast the first in its fleet to feature the Dr. Seuss WaterWorks water park on its 12th deck.
The park will offer 450-foot enclosed raft slide dubbed The Cat in the Hat Slide as well as a 150-gallon tipping bucket patterned after The Cat’s hat. There will also be a holding tub with larger-than-life characters from the famed children’s book series including The Grinch, Carnival said.
Carnival Horizon will debut in Europe and then sail from New York on a series of summer cruises before repositioning to Miami in September for year-round cruises to the Caribbean, Carnival said.
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