Before the pandemic, the cruise industry was the fastest growing sector of the travel industry, with demand increasing a whopping 20.5 percent from 2013 to 2018, according to a 2018 report by the Cruise Lines International Association. The industry was worth roughly $150 billion that same year. The industry also impacts the lives of thousands of people: More than a quarter of a million individuals worked in the industry in 2018, nearly double from 2016. Everyone from cruise ship entertainers and hospitality staff to travel advisors all depend on cruise lines’ success for their livelihood. This January, before European and stateside lockdowns began, the industry expected to have 32 million passengers in 2020, up from 30 million the year before.
COVID-19 pumped the brakes this growth—with ships unable to sail from the U.S. for nine months and counting, following an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—but devout cruisers didn’t miss a beat rebooking for next year, with some lines reporting sold out 2021 sailings as early as May, just one month after the no-sail advisory began.
While cruising fanatics are eager to return, the expansion of the industry in recent years has depended on attracting new cruisers. A 2016 study by Allianz Global Network showed that two-thirds of Americans have never even been on a cruise. The industry always battled misconceptions—that short stops don’t allow travelers to connect with destinations, that cruisers are a specific (namely older, sedentary) set, and the least fortunate of all, that cruise ships are petri dishes for bacterial outbreaks. The industry is constantly trying to challenge these ideas, but after a pandemic in which cruise ships like the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess became the setting for major coronavirus outbreaks, the question feels more pressing than ever: How do you convince the unconvinced to giving cruising a shot after a year like this?
Linda Allen-Spear, a travel specialist and founder of Cruises by Linda, says it’s not looking good. “We have no new cruisers,” Allen-Spear told me earlier this fall. “[Zero] new bookings. Practically no calls. Only existing clients.” Ben Cordwell, an analyst specializing in travel at GlobalData, adds that it’s important to remember that “bookings” for next year aren’t entirely new, either, with many representing voucher rebookings from canceled 2020 sailings.
But Allen-Spear, Cordwell, and others say there’s little mystery in what the industry needs to do next. Younger travelers, who are less concerned about health risks in the near future, have a lifetime ahead of spending power, and are currently just a fraction of the existing audience, will be more precious targets than ever.
“Younger audiences have been ignored for so long because addressing their preferences and values would require transformative changes to the cruise industry’s offering, experience, and business model,” says George Bennett, whose work at New York City-based advertising agency Droga5 includes helping brands grow their audiences. “COVID-19 is going to accelerate these long-overdue transformations because they now represent a survival imperative for the industry. This dynamic is currently playing out across many industries that rested on their laurels while consumer behaviors and attitudes evolved.”
Some of these changes have been underway for years—but only a few brands are speaking to this audience directly. Virgin Voyages, whose first sailing was pushed from last April to this coming January (assuming the CDC ban is lifted), is built around this premise—instead of all-day buffets, slot machines, and off-Broadway shows, there’s a tattoo parlor onboard, and breakfast is a drag brunch. Uniworld, which runs river cruises in more than 20 countries, launched offshoot U by Uniworld in 2018, a brand targeted toward younger cruisers with weekend sailings and silent discos. UnCruise says it with their name alone—their small ship expeditions to destinations like Guatemala and the Hawaiian Islands are meant to appeal to “adventurous” travelers who don’t see themselves boarding 7,000-person liners anytime soon.
“It was about finding a particular segment of people who felt unserved in the cruise industry today,” says Nathan Rosenberg, chief marketing officer of Virgin Voyages. Rosenberg adds that, in assessing which percentage of American travelers that could be persuaded to sail with them, they found that roughly a quarter of travelers love cruising, a quarter have no interest, but an open-minded 50 percent would like to cruise—they just haven’t found a brand that speaks to them.
Brands like the above might have been considered anomalies in the past, but Allen-Spear says they simply can’t be for much longer. “All of the cruise lines have to consider targeting younger demographics, as seniors in general will not travel until there is a safe and effective vaccine.” While the vaccine is still in works, the immediate future is essential to recovery after many billions in losses this year (Carnival alone lost $4.4 billion).
The good news: A recent survey by consulting firm Mower found that 60 percent of Gen Zers would be comfortable with booking a cruise before a vaccine comes out, with half of millennials saying the same. But, as Allen-Spear notes, safety concerns increased with age: 88 percent of boomers and older adults said they would be more comfortable sticking to road trips.
Experts say the changes cruise lines need to make to appeal to younger, new cruisers, are obvious. Offerings need to focus on food, relatable and “cool” experiences, and shorter itineraries the demographic can actually afford. Smaller ships are a no-brainer, both when it comes to experience—since when has “mass” made anything cooler?—and the risk for future outbreaks (real and perceived).
Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld, says the success with U comes from much of the above. Themed cruises, built around food and music festivals, are resonating, as are long weekend sailings between European cities. When the brand reboots their river cruises in late April or early May, several other such initiatives designed to speak to younger travelers will be folded in. “We had people who were probably in their late 40s coming on board with their adult children,” says Bettridge. “We said, we have to make it even more inclusive, make it more enticing.” Beer and wine are now included at lunch and dinner, and every meal is locally sourced. And of course, Wi-Fi is (finally) included.
In support of this push for lower prices—or higher value—Mower’s research has also found that few young travelers hopping on cruises are able to pay for it themselves. “Gen Z travelers are attracted to cruises geared to their youthful interests, [but] are most likely traveling with parents or having trips subsidized by them,” says Mary Gendron, Mower’s senior vice president and travel and tourism analyst.
Dan Blanchard, of UnCruise, admits that his brand rarely pulls in travelers under 40 for this exact reason, despite their guests being young at heart. “[As] a psychographic, they’re the type that were going to Europe on anywhere from $5 to $25 a day in high school, college. They’ve always been adventuresome in one way or another, but they tend to range from when they can first afford us, which generally is in their mid 40s.”
For those reasons, Cordwell says that shifting to shorter formats that drive down price will be as crucial as any other changes. Making ships sleeker, trendier, and adding ramen to the menu cannot come at a price-prohibitive cost. Shortening itineraries is one of the most promising ways to achieve both. “There is an increasing number of short cruises lasting less than a week, and if cruise companies can target this audience by marketing their short cruises as an opportunity for travelers, it could open up new clientele to the industry.”
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