“Holy cow, people are ready to go,” says Sean Schultz, owner of a Dream Vacations franchise in Daphne, Alabama.
Travel Market Report first met Schultz at last month’s Dream Vacations annual conference onboard Celebrity Apex. At the time, he’d said he was expecting an extended and robust wave season. Two weeks later – and after news of the Omicron COVID-19 variant hit the airwaves – he still feels the same way.
“My crystal ball broke about two years ago but I still see an extended wave season,” he says. “I don’t see demand dropping off at all. It may be a challenge for where people can go, but the demand is there.”
Wave Season Underway
In fact, Schultz says, it feels like Wave Season has already started.
It’s a sentiment Travel Market Report has heard from advisors, agency group executives, and cruise lines alike: The wave of cruise bookings that usually begins in January is already well underway.
“We’ve already got a solid base on the books for next year,” Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of Cruise Planners told TMR, nearly a month out from the first quarter of next year. In fact, bookings for next year are already 22% higher than they were at the same time in 2019.
Drew Daly, general manager of CruiseOne/Dream Vacations, said the same. “We’re seeing it now. Bookings into 2022 and beyond are up… We are extremely optimistic about the upcoming Wave Season and for all of 2022.”
Norwegian Cruise Line, which has seen steady growth in bookings since it returned to sailing this summer, has already experienced at least two “waves” of bookings. The first was when the line’s upcoming Norwegian Prima broke all previous NCL booking records. The second wave was this past Black Friday, during which sales were nearly on par with 2019 levels, senior vice president of sales Todd Hamilton told TMR.
So far, there are no signs of a slow-down.
Demand Overrides Omicron Fears
“There’s such a built-up demand,” Dream Vacations franchise owner Schultz says. “I have people calling up and saying ‘Am I going to be able to do this trip?’ They’re not concerned about going on the trip, they’re concerned about regulations preventing them from doing it. They want to travel.”
Since news of the Omicron-variant broke, he’s booked at least a dozen cruises, he added.
“People want to get back to a more normal life environment,” says NCL’s Hamilton, and cruising is part of that.
“There is so much pent-up demand to travel, I believe it will be a strong Wave Season,” Susan Walsh, executive VP for Keene Luxury Travel, a Signature Travel Network agency, tells TMR. Though she’s had some cancellations since news of Omicron broke, she said most of her clients are continuing with their plans.
Julie Schear, owner of a Cruise Planners franchise in Southwest Ranches, Florida, echoes Walsh’s belief. “I do expect the industry to have a strong wave season… Travel is a privilege and most are willing to comply with the new rules to earn that privilege. I’ve only had one client mention the Omicron variant, in passing, as she was booking a suite on an 11-day voyage.”
Of all the advisors and executives TMR spoke with, Cruise Planners’ Michelle Fee struck the most cautious tone. With booking trends tied closely to the highs and lows of COVID-19 cases, she said it’s still a bit early to know how Omicron will affect future bookings.
“Is it going to carry over into Wave Season? Or are people who are booking travel for next year going to continue looking forward to their vacation plans,” she asks.
Daly agrees that it’s something to be monitored. “There are a lot of unknowns right now,” he told TMR. “But it is important to stay the course and not panic. Our goal always is to help our network of Travel Advisors so they are more prepared to assist their customers, answer their questions and help reduce any friction on their travel journey.”
Advisors Front and Center
One thing everyone agrees on, cruise advisors will be front and center in driving sales whether the upcoming Wave Season is dinged by Omicron or not.
“We’re not going to come back without the trade,” NCL’s Hamilton said. “That’s just not the way this business works.”
Fee says Cruise Planners hears the same from its cruise partners about the importance of travel advisors in driving sales for the cruise lines.
“We hear very good things because we never stopped booking. We never stopped marketing. Our agents are still in the communities pounding the pavement… We’re trying to drive people to think about travel.”