Bland food, screaming children, viruses that spread like wildfire. These are just some of the many reasons travelers swear they’ll never board a cruise ship. Cruise executives say they have a plan to change that.
About 21.7 million people are expected to take a cruise this year, up from 21.3 million last year, according to data from Cruise Lines International Association. What’s more, nearly nine in 10 cruise lines report that they’ve seen an increase in first-time cruisers. But while cruising is the fastest growing segment of the travel industry, only about one in four Americans has ever taken a cruise. (Three in four Americans, meanwhile, have taken a beach vacation). And there are millions of people for whom the idea of taking a cruise has about as much appeal as organizing their sock drawer. “Some people feel they are too cool to cruise,” says Bob Lepisto, president of cruise line SeaDream Yacht Club.
The cruise industry is concerned about attracting — and changing the minds of — the 75% of Americans who fall in the never-cruised set. “It’s a serious issue…they want to milk a few more passengers,” says Jack Plunkett, the founder of Plunkett Research. These passengers represent millions of dollars that the cruise lines are leaving on the table. “The U.S. market is not the long-term growth vehicle it used to be,” Plunkett adds.
Here’s what cruise executives from Carnival, Royal Caribbean and more told us they’ve done recently to attract a new crowd.
1. Acts with names you’ll recognize.
Twenty five-year-old travel specialist Kelly Yella says that cruises don’t really appeal to her age group because the entertainment tends to be dated (it’s true: millennials don’t exactly dream of Broadway shows and oldies-playing cover bands, which is the perception many have of cruise entertainment); others think there isn’t much to do beyond sunning and swimming. Indeed, both Royal Caribbean International president and CEO Adam Goldstein and Carnival Cruise Line CMO Jim Berra told MarketWatch that one of the main reasons the never-cruised set think they don’t want to cruise is that they are worried there isn’t enough to do onboard.
But, says Goldstein, “that is a quaint notion.” Carnival will feature a record 49 concerts for travelers this year, with shows from Jennifer Hudson and Lady Antebellum, among others; Royal Caribbean brings Tony Award-winning musicals onboard like Chicago and Hairspray; and Norwegian is doing a The Grammy Experience cruise, which launched this year and features Latin Grammy Award winner Nestor Torres as a headliner. “These partnerships [with well-known acts] expose our brand to fans of the partners who may have not previously considered cruising, but will now because their ‘favorite brand or celebrity’ is affiliated with us,” says Marisa Scime, the director of social media and public relations for Norwegian Cruise Line NCLH +0.23% . Plus, the number of themed cruises has jumped from about 400 to 700 in the past three years, says Howard Miles, the founder of theme cruise listing site ThemeCruiseFinder.com.
2. Celebrity chefs and more food options.
Many potential cruisers worry about lackluster buffets filled with warm, limp iceberg lettuce and sweaty American cheese. Indeed, Carnival’s Berra says that food is one of the main concerns that the never-cruised have about getting onboard for the first time — and that’s one of the reasons that Carnival has partnered with Guy Fieri to launch on-ship burger joints. Carnival isn’t alone: Norwegian now has a partnership with the Cake Boss and restaurants by Geoffrey Zakarian and Royal Caribbean with Jamie Oliver and Michael Schwartz.
And last week, Royal Caribbean introduced what it calls “dynamic dining” — in which it is ditching the traditional dining experience (two dinner seatings) and offering a series of 18 smaller restaurants to pick from on their new Quantum of the Seas ship. It’s a move, Goldstein says, that is geared toward inexperienced cruisers (traditional cruisers, he says, seem satisfied with traditional dining options). Higher end cruise lines like SeaDream Yacht club focus on fare like raw food or gluten-free offerings, as well as mostly locally sourced menus.
3. $32-a-night cruises and kids-sail-free promotions.
Roscoe Mathieu, a 27-year-old writer living in China, says that “the #1 reason” he doesn’t want to cruise is the expense. “Cruises, to me, are big white ships full of old rich people reassuring each other that although they are visiting some exotic clime or other, they do not have to interact with the countries or peoples they visit in any way,” he says; for the money, he feels he can do better elsewhere.
Both Goldstein and Berra say that one of the big barriers to getting first-time cruisers is price. “People think it is more expensive than it is,” Berra says. So the cruise lines in the past year have thrown out some compelling deals. Carolyn Brown, the editor-in-chief ofCruiseCritic.com , says that this year’s unprecedented breadth of kids-sail-free deals — offered by Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Azamara and Carnival — were designed to attract new cruisers. Indeed, Carnival’s Berra confirms that Carnival’s deal was intended to bring the never-cruised on board by making it more affordable for them to cruise.
The deals weren’t just limited to kids-sail-free promotions. After the norovirus outbreak on Royal Caribbean earlier this year — these kinds of incidents tend to put off those who have never cruised more than old timers, surveys show — the cruise line offered up rates of $32 per person per night. And cruise prices overall hit near record lows last year amidst the bad press.
On the higher end of the cruise spectrum, it isn’t about price but about not nickeling and diming consumers. Kunal S. Kamlani, president of Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises says that they try to get new cruisers by focusing on how they don’t nickel and dime consumers on everything from shore excursions to cocktails. “We’ve strategically taken a more inclusive nature to cruising,” he says. “With Oceania Cruises, we include roundtrip air and complimentary amenities without compromise such as dining at all specialty restaurants, unlimited non-alcoholic beverages and free shuttle services from the ship to city centers in most ports of call.”
4. Satisfaction guarantees.
Many people — especially those who had never cruised before — were put off from cruising by incidents like viral outbreaks, the poop cruise and the crash that happened in the past few years. Glenmore, Penn. resident Susan Murray, 61, says that she will “never take a cruise, due to the prevalence of norovirus.” And 25-year old travel specialist Kelly Yella says that “not only have I never been on a cruise, I’ve never booked a cruise for a client…I think cruises have become a joke for most travelers, especially after the Carnival Cruise mishaps.”
Indeed, in May 2013 following the Carnival Triumph incident, 43% of consumers who had previously taken a cruise said they were “less likely to take a cruise now than a year ago” but that number jumped to 58% of those who had never taken a cruise. Carnival responded by offering a satisfaction guarantee — which it is still offering — that gave unsatisfied consumers a 110% refund — a move made in hopes of attracting new cruisers. “It’s designed to reassure people who say ‘I’ve never tried this before, what if I don’t like it,’” says Berra.
5. Faster, cheaper Wi-Fi.
Connecting to the web on a cruise ship has long been a pricey hassle. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, a staple element [of cruise lines’ messaging] was that cruising was one of the great ways to disconnect,” says Goldstein. “That message is unthinkable today.” But now, many cruise lines are scrambling to offer cruisers access to WiFi — an offering that Goldstein says appeals to new cruisers who don’t want to be disconnected for the duration of a cruise. Royal Caribbean, for example, is testing a new, faster Wi-Fi network on its Oasis of the Seas ships and says it hopes that by the end of summer it will be operable on three of its ships.
Despite these moves, some of those who have never cruised say things like these won’t change their minds about cruising: just because there is a celebrity chef, music act and cheap prices doesn’t mean that the experience is up to their standards. Indeed, the hatred of cruises is so pervasive in some circles that there is even a cottage industry of cruise lines that are pitching themselves as an anti-cruise cruise line with things like smaller ships that house only a limited number of passengers (often 200 or fewer, compared with the thousand-plus on larger lines), more immersive shore excursions (you get off the boat for many hours and go to culturally significant or unique spots) and locally sourced foods or unique dining options. Un-Cruise Adventures (yes, the name is deliberate; the company changed it to that last year) is one of them, trying to appeal to travelers who aren’t interested in the traditional big ship experience, says Tim Jacox, the executive vice president of sales and marketing of Un-Cruise Adventures. The ships house a maximum of 88 guests and take people into remote areas — think inner river passages of Alaska — where larger ships can’t go. Another cruise line, SeaDream Yacht Club (notice the name doesn’t say cruise), says that its mission is to “deliver a cruise that’s like a yachting experience.” The ship is limited to 112 passengers, has a nearly 1 to 1 staff to traveler ratio, lets passengers stay in ports until late in the evening, and just began offering an entire raw food menu last year.
Still, many objections to cruises are misconceptions, says Stewart Chiron, founder ofCruiseGuy.com . For example, there are many inexpensive cruise options, especially for those who can take advantage of last-minute deals, and the incidence of norovirus — while horrendous and certainly worth worrying about — is still rare on ships, as are accidents and mishaps. Plus, cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean have made a number of recent moves to make their ships safer.