Is the cruise business in the process of turning a corner?
There’s no objective proof that it is, but as with improvements in the general economy, turning points are often discernable only in retrospect.
Subjectively, it feels like something is happening. Business feels like it is getting better. People feel primed to spend again, and travel is one of the areas they want to spend more money on.
Some travel executives have been saying this for awhile. “I do feel like travel is back,” said Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, who noted her company is having a record year for both franchise and travel sales.
The legs for a turnaround are in place. The stock market is consistently hitting new highs. Equally important, home prices have been resurgent for some time now. Unemployment remains a drag, but the jobless rate is several points below its peak of a couple years ago. Driven by a potential easing of tensions with Iran, oil prices have fallen for the past four months, which should give cruise lines leeway to offer better fares without destroying the bottom line.
The prevalence of fare sales and promotions suggest that the bedrock seven-night domestic cruise market is still in recovery. But cruise lines continue to make impressive gains in cost reduction, leaving room to fill ships profitably at somewhat lower prices.
Individual agents who are having good years are not hard to find. “Personally, my business has been fabulous,” said Muffett Grubb, a Cruise Holidays franchisee in Knoxville, Tenn., who said travelers are loosening their wallets to take cruises in Europe rather than the five-to-seven-day Caribbean trips of 2011-12.
Likewise, Rose Stevenson, who owns a Cruise Holidays franchise in Charles Town, W. Va., said she’s doing well and that clients have a comfort level with Alaska and Hawaii cruises they didn’t have before.
Kevin Weisner, president of Cruise Holidays, said that in the big picture, success depends on market segment. Once you take the first-time cruiser out of the equation, “business is very, very healthy,” he said.
Those consumers that have never been on a cruise became tougher to persuade after the Carnival Triumph incident in February. But memories of that incident are fading, and barring some sort of lightning strike for the third year in a row, the cruise industry could finally be on its way to the smooth sailing it used to enjoy routinely during a good economy.
If November turns out to be a tipping point, that’s something everyone in the cruise industry could be thankful for.