Nothing says luxury like a bespoke small ship sailing. Imagine leisurely exploring the culture and history of the Indonesian Archipelago and West Papua on a private yacht … or being immersed in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Bordeaux on a river cruise with a limited number of guests onboard. There is privacy, an intimate ambiance, personal connections made with fellow travelers and crew, the finest cuisine, indulgent service, and the experience of venturing deep into the heart of more remote destinations.
Destinations define the experience
Small ship sailing is just as much about the destinations reached as it is the superior quality and atmosphere onboard. “The number one reason travelers choose small ship sailings is the uniqueness in destinations. Small ships can go places large ships can’t, and with that you’re discovering hidden gems instead of well-worn destinations that all of your friends have already been to. It makes you look like quite an adventurer,” says Jimmy “Chip” Barker, of Oceans & Lands Custom Travel Planners, and a platinum agent with Travel Planners International (a member of Signature Travel Network).
Toni Day, president of Toni Tours, and a NEXION member, gives this example of a more immersive experience: “Large ocean vessels will usually stop in Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia, but smaller yachts can hit those places in addition to several of the smaller islands and mainland ports in Croatia, giving guests the opportunity to explore just Croatia for a week or more with one to two stops a day. They can walk off the ship and are in the heart of town. They enjoy a walking tour to tell them about the history and culture of the place and then they have several hours to explore the place on their own. They get to interact with the locals, sample the local food and drink, and come away feeling like they got to experience and touch a place, and not just tour through it without having any intimate experiences. River cruises do the same by sailing in the smaller waterways of Europe focusing on a particular area.”
These days, there are opportunities to embark on a small ship on the rivers of Europe, the Mekong, or the waterways around Japan, for instance; or journey on expeditions to far-flung places like the Artic, Antarctica, the Baltics & Fjords, the Northwest Passage, Greenland, Iceland, or Polynesia and the Pacific Islands.
An immersive mindset
Whatever the destination, this type of cruising is more about a certain mindset than a particular age-related demographic profile of a traveler.
Small ship sailing appeals to “experiential travelers who enjoy immersing themselves in the culture of a smaller area,” says Day. “They enjoy trying new foods and meeting people from the region they are visiting. They don’t need the big, flashy shows, casinos, etc. They prefer to enjoy a glass of local wine or beer and talk with the locals. They like to grab a book about the place they are visiting and soak up all they can about the local culture.”
Barker explains further: “It’s easy for some people to think that river cruising and yacht-style ships are for the older crowd, empty nesters with a fair amount of disposable income. But in working with my clients, and from personal experiences onboard these types of small ships, I’ve found that isn’t the case. Sure, you’ll find that profile onboard, but you’ll also find younger people as well. I’m seeing more and more 30-somethings onboard, and selling these experiences to them as well.
“So I would say the profile isn’t so much of a demographic one, but one of the traveler’s mindset. People with a sense of adventure who are keen to learn from and really engage with different cultures are the right fit for small-ship experiences. The small ship experience is perfect for the traveler who typically shuns cruising and opts for land-based touring. I’ve turned more ‘non-cruisers’ into cruisers by introducing them to river and yacht-style cruising.”
Another reason why travelers choose smaller river ships or yachts is the personal connections made, the “intimacy and being able to truly connect with like-minded fellow travelers. It’s not so easy to bump into the same people on a ship that holds 5,000 people, but with just a handful onboard, you’re seeing each other often, sharing stories and experiences, and usually coming home with new lifelong friends,” notes Barker.
A misperception of boredom busted
We asked travel advisors to tell us one myth or misperception about small ship sailing that they encounter when selling this niche, and how they overcome it with prospects.
“It’s absolutely got to be that they will be bored,” explains Barker. “At first, to discover there is no surf simulator or choice of 15 nightclubs onboard sometimes makes people think it will be a boring trip. When guests realize they’re going to be spending extended time in destinations, often until late at night, they realize that an entirely new definition of fun is at their footsteps.
“The destination is the entertainment, and you’re out exploring all day and into the evening. For example, I had a group of clients with me who were huge jazz music lovers, and they discovered through the crew onboard that there was an incredible jazz club in Cologne, Germany. Since we weren’t leaving until after midnight, after dinner they all set off, with a crew member escorting them, to enjoy a night of music out in town.” Boredom busted.
Day has a successful strategy to address a prospect’s concerns about potentially having a blasé experience onboard. She explains what a day onboard is like from when they wake up until they go to sleep. “If you paint a picture for them as to what it will really be like, they can begin to see themselves in that situation and give it a try. With my clients who try small ship cruising, they all come back saying, ‘I’m done with the big ships. Smaller is so much better!’”
Changing how people travel
In a similar way, that big ship cruising (with all of its bells and whistles) took off as a travel trend beginning back in the 1980s, the slower pace and more immersive experience of river cruising has forged a new path over the past 10 years. The small ship adventure has been capturing the attention of a growing segment of the population and is starting to change the way people travel on the world’s waterways. Travel advisors play a major role in ushering the trend forward.
“Personally, I love small ship cruising,” says Day. “I find it very easy to connect with the crew (who are amazing), and I love being able to walk off the ship into town to do my own thing. And most of the yachts have a water sports platform off the back that allows me to kayak, paddle board, or lounge in the sun -- something else the bigger ships don’t offer.”
“As to selling them, it is a win-win for the advisor and the client. The client comes back happy and is pretty much guaranteed to rebook - and the advisor receives a commission check each time with a comma … Post-Covid, I’ve switched my focus to selling small and luxury ships, and I’ve never looked back. It’s all about working smarter and not harder.”
Barker talks about the impact of small ship sailing on his life: “Of all of the cruises I’ve experienced in my life and during my career in the travel industry, the ones I talk about the most, and have the fondest memories of, are river cruises and yacht-style ships. They’re also the trips I come home from feeling enlightened and inspired.
“One afternoon at sea on a recent voyage, I had some free time and popped into a lecture on plastic pollution and the oceans. How boring, right? The discovery team expert who led that presentation was so engaging and interesting, I walked out of there with an entirely new perspective. I was inspired, and actually excited to make some changes at home and in how I travel to be a part of doing something that makes a positive impact on the very world I’m out here trying to help my clients see. I would absolutely encourage anyone even remotely interested, in trying small ships or river cruises. It will probably change how you want to travel forever.”
FROM THE SPONSOR:
Scenic Group, which encompasses Emerald Cruises and Scenic Luxury Cruises, includes award-winning, intimate river and ocean cruises that take guests to many of the world’s most fascinating destinations covering all seven continents.
With only up to 228 guests, Scenic’s world-class, custom-built ships enable unique access to small ports by river or sea. Guests enjoy an extensive range of truly all-inclusive luxury, while immersive experiences await on shore with handcrafted Scenic Freechoice activities and exclusive Scenic Enrich events. On Scenic Eclipse ultra-luxury voyages, exploration is enhanced by an expert Discovery Team, who lead fascinating discoveries in remote landscapes.
Emerald Cruises launched Emerald Azzurra in March 2022 - a 100-guest luxury yacht that sails the warm waters of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Caribbean; followed in 2023 by its sister, Emerald Sakara. On the rivers, Emerald Cruises sails in Europe and on the Mekong. The line offers innovatively designed ships, outstanding service, and a focus on active shore excursions and onboard wellness offerings through their EmeraldACTIVE program.
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