by Andrew Sheivachman / March 02, 2015
While river cruises have exploded in popularity in recent years, with booking windows lengthening and prices surging, adventure and small-ship cruising is experiencing a kind of renaissance as well.
As demand for small-ship cruises to more exotic locations grows, the need for travel agents to help cruisers plan those trips has become more important than ever, according to small-ship cruise line executives.
“A lot of travel agent clients who have done the European river cruise circuit feel really satisfied with that experience, but now they’re looking for something more exotic and maybe something bragging-rights worthy,” said Kristin Day, director of travel agent sales at International Expeditions.
So-called ‘specialty’ cruises grew 21% annually from 2009 to 2014, according to data from CLIA.
Experts divide small-ship cruising into two main categories: cultural and expeditionary. Many itineraries and cruising experiences, however, merge the two in an attempt to craft a more diverse vacation for more experienced cruisers.
“For agents, it’s a matter of matching the right person with the right cruise experience,” said Katherine Bonner, Tauck’s vice president of river and small ship cruising.
“The person who wants a more in-depth experience, who stays in higher-end hotels and has maybe cruised on a Regent, Crystal or Silversea cruise but is looking for something different now, is [a prime candidate] for small-ship cruising,” she said.
Small-ship cruises lines have focused on refining their product in recent years to appeal to a wide range of cruisers, especially multigenerational groups and families.
“We’ve always had a high number of multigenerational families, and those cruisers tend to be more focused in the Galapagos, Alaska and Antarctica for us,” said Jacinta McEvoy, vice president of travel agent sales at Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.
“Those can be groups of four people or a whole family of 25-30 people at a time,” she added.
For other lines, the focus will always be on the cultural experience centered on the destination.
They have ramped up educational offerings and specialty trips and while they may cruise rivers at times, the experience is more curated than a traditional river cruise.
“Norway is not a first-timers’ destination,” said Gordon Dirker, managing director at Hurtigruten. “We do get the highly-educated, well-traveled travelers; they watch PBS and have a high interest in world affairs.”
Hurtigruten remains focused primarily on Norway and Antarctic cruises, staying true to its roots after more than a century of cruising Norway’s shores—and becoming a part of the country’s culture in the process.
Lines like International Expeditions, however, are looking to innovate and enter new markets.
“To satisfy the travel desires of our cruisers, we’re really excited to be planning a Cuba cruise,” said Day. “We are working on it and we’re looking to have our first departure for Christmas 2015.”
The focus for all these lines remains on the experience, even as demand increases.
“The average ocean cruise company makes 30% revenue onboard,” said Bonner. “We find, especially in the premium and luxury space, that people want to be less nickel-and-dimed; they want to know you curated the vacation for them and chose the best of what a destination has to offer.”
But who are the typical small-ship cruisers?
Older, more intellectual clients are bywords for agents who want to target clients for this niche, according to the executives.
“The kind of person who takes a small ship cruise is looking for something a bit more intimate and more social,” said Bonner.“You can be more alone on a big ship than a small ship.”
McEvoy believes the standards of luxury travel are more important than ever to small-ship cruisers, since clients with the time and money to spend on a trip are used to a high level of comfort and service.
“Accommodations are important now to the small-ship cruiser, whereas 15 years ago they wanted more of an expeditionary experience,” she said.
And, of course, limited supply means small-ship cruises are being booked 12 to18 months out for the most wanted destinations like the Galapagos.
“The booking trend is super-positive at the moment,” said Dirker.
Despite limited supply and ships ranging from 15 to 200 passengers, small-ship cruises are especially popular with solo travelers.
Bonner said Tauck sets aside from 8 to 10% of its river and small-ship cabins for solo cruisers.
“It’s a great way for singles to travel, because of the social-mindedness of the experience,” said Bonner.