By building itineraries to extreme destinations, and engaging guests through deeper enrichment programs, luxury cruise lines are sustaining their relevance with consumers, and positioning themselves for growth in the next decade.
“The cruise industry has been quick with its speed to market to expand itself to the relevancy of the luxury traveler,” said Gail Grimmett, president of the Travel Leaders Luxury Brands.
“There is a lot more choice today than there has ever been,” said Ignacio Maza, executive vice president, Signature Travel Network, one of several panelists participating in a luxury travel panel at the New York Times Travel Show.
Deconstructing luxury cruising
“The experience has been deconstructed. It’s no longer about fixed dinner reservations, conventional itineraries. Now, you eat how you want, and when you want. Itineraries are longer, different, curated. You’re sailing to Madagascar, not Miami; to Port Morseby, New Guinea, not Portugal. The possibilities are almost endless.”
Sailing expeditions can be “the antithesis of what comes up in the client’s mind” when they are thinking of luxury cruising, said Navin Sawhney, CEO Americas, Ponant Luxury Expedition Cruises.
While larger cruise lines are building “magnificent ships” sailing the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and more traditional itineraries, Ponant has stayed relevant by “carving out a whole new category” launching luxury expeditions in 2010, said Sawhney.
“We assumed that people would want the creature comforts of luxury, even if they were on an expedition. We assumed they would want to travel with a shared sense of purpose, to enrich their minds and inspire their experience by becoming part of the place they visit,” Sawhney said.
In December, Ponant announced it is building the first of several luxury ice breakers, scheduled to begin service in 2021. The ships will allow the cruise line to reach the Geographic North Pole, complete an Arctic Ocean crossing, or explore Greenland’s extreme North East.
With a broader array of ships and itineraries comes a wider variety of experiences, said Ted Sykes, president and COO of American Queen Steamboat Company.
“We have butler service in the butler suites. We address all of those needs, like hotels. But today, it’s all about enrichment, onboard lecturers, catering to the lifelong learner. That is what keeps them coming back for more.”
Journeys that inspire and transform
Tauck World Discovery has 22 itineraries on small ships, a large share of those being expedition cruises, said Rick Baron, managing director. He described how its Earth Journeys exclusive partnership with BBC Earth is helping meet the enrichment expectations of luxury cruisers.
For example, the two companies are operating a 16-day, $11,990 cruise to Peru and the Galápagos Islands with Silversea Cruises. The itinerary includes Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and the colonial and pre-Columbian cultures in Peru.
“BBC Earth is the number one storyteller of the world,” Baron said, talking about how certified guides will train guests to use expeditionary devices like underwater cold cameras. “Our guests will have those gadgets at their disposal to bring that experience even a step further,” he said.
Tauck is also teaming up with documentary producer Ken Burns on two new itineraries to Vietnam.
“You really need to offer these unique and exclusive experiences today. They make a vacation a bit more relevant to the destination than can be purchased off the shelf,” Baron said.
Similarly, Ponant has partnered with Christie’s on a cruise from Vancouver that includes art and wine lectures from key experts from Christie's auction house. Guests can learn how to become a wine collector and bid at an auction, said Sawhney.
“The luxury cruise industry is giving people a lot of choice,” Sawhney said, noting how guests also can go kayaking and snowshoeing on Artic cruises. “These are classic destinations, with different ways for our clients to become part of the environment they are in.”
In Los Angeles, Ponant guests have an expert take them to a contemporary art studio. “We’re curating experiences that allow people to come back transformed, inspired,” he said.