Norwegian Cruise Line follows the money with itinerary optimization

The pier at Icy Strait Point. Alaska is one of Norwegian Cruise Line's most lucrative destinations.

The pier at Icy Strait Point. Alaska is one of Norwegian Cruise Line’s most lucrative destinations.

Last winter, the Norwegian Spirit did 11-day runs from Barcelona to the Canary Islands and back, a traditional warm-weather cruise in Europe’s colder months.

But on a recent conference call, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio described it as “one of the historically lowest-yielding areas” to sail.

Jump forward a year, and the Spirit will emerge in February from a $100 million drydock and head for Asia, where it will sail nine-day cruises around Japan and cruises of 12 days or longer to Japan and China.

Del Rio said it is an example of Norwegian’s strategy of itinerary optimization, in which the line looks for the highest-returning itineraries available at a given time and concentrates its ships in those areas.

Asia, Del Rio said, and other exotic itineraries will “take advantage of our huge customer base, our past guests who have never been to those areas because we’ve never sailed to those areas before.”

Norwegian is scouring its deployments to see where customers are willing to pay the most, and it is capitalizing on their extravagance.

One area in which it is loading up on capacity is Alaska, where other lines have traditionally reaped the market premium. Although Norwegian has been sailing to Alaska for 20 years, its interest deepened in 2018 with the success of the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Bliss in its first Alaska season.

Christened in Seattle, the Bliss was a smash hit, according to Norwegian — so much so that when faced with obstacles in the Chinese market, Norwegian pulled its purpose-built Norwegian Joy out of Shanghai and sent it on short notice to Alaska in 2019.

Norwegian Bliss, Photo credit Dave Jones – https://flic.kr/g/GZdoW 

Next summer, the line will repeat the feat, while also redeploying the 1,936-passenger Norwegian Sun to Alaska from the Bahamas — another low-yielding market, according to Del Rio.

In addition, to squeeze in more high-yielding cruise days, Norwegian is pushing the limits of what until now has been considered the cruising season in Alaska.

“Alaska used to be a three-month season — June, July and August. Now we’re getting there in April, and we’re not leaving until October,” Del Rio said. “It’s now a six-month season of very, very high-yielding — not only on tickets but incredibly high-yielding on onboard [spending]. And so we’re going to continue doing that.”

One of the keys to high yields in Alaska is to have land infrastructure that maximizes revenue opportunities from shore excursions as well as pre- and post-cruise extensions to lodging in the interior.

Norwegian recently announced a new aerial lift transportation system at Icy Strait Point designed to make its dock there more attractive.

The line is also extending the season in Europe, rather than bringing ships back to the Caribbean in October. Del Rio said he likes Europe because, for Norwegian, it means carrying high-spending guests.

In addition to North Americans, Del Rio said, “Guests for these itineraries do not come from locally sourced Europeans but from the rest of the world, including Australia, Asia and South America.”

He added: “And that’s a very important differentiator for us because we know that a guest who flies long distances to board the ship is a higher-yielding guest than one who drives their car or takes a bus or train to the port of embarkation.” 

Next year, Norwegian is going back to the eastern Mediterranean, another high-yield area that Norwegian was one of the first to drop in 2016 after a spate of terror attacks and a coup attempt in Turkey.

At times, however, the itinerary optimization strategy backfires. The most recent example of that is Cuba. It was a natural destination for itinerary optimization when it opened to cruises from U.S. ports in 2016, and NCLH put more resources, proportionately, into Cuba than some of its rivals did. 

But that also meant that when the Trump administration abruptly shut down U.S. departures to Cuba in June, NCLH was disproportionately hurt. In the third quarter, the withdrawal from Cuba reduced NCLH net income by $53 million from a year earlier. 

“The year-over-year comparisons are night and day, in terms of pricing, because Cuba’s demand was at such a high price,” Del Rio said.

Literally overnight, twice-weekly Norwegian cruises from Miami and Port Canaveral that had included Havana had to be repriced as “Bahamas-intensive” cruises, said NCLH CFO, Mark Kempa.

Redeployments that will fully take effect in the second quarter of 2020 will finally end the economic penalty that resulted, Kempa said. 

By sending the Norwegian Sun to Alaska next summer from Port Canaveral, Norwegian will halve its Bahamian deployment, “thus reducing capacity from this historically lower-yielding destination,” he said.

Cruise cools to China

Image result for china cruises

By Tom Stieghorst
The cruise industry’s gold rush to China, if not over, has entered a new phase: For the first time in at least four years, cruise capacity in China will not grow in 2018.

That means that the focus and management attention that has been lavished on the world’s most populous country may now be turning elsewhere.

To hear evidence of that, listen to the list of places that Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio reeled off when asked if he’s ready to put the second ship in China.

“We have many other either unserved or underserved markets that we would also consider in the mix, should ships become available to us,” Del Rio said in response to a question from a Wells Fargo analyst. “We don’t have a presence in the mid-Atlantic states. We’re not in Baltimore. We’re not in Charleston. We don’t have a presence at all in the world’s second-largest port, which is Fort Lauderdale. We don’t have a presence in the Gulf States of Texas or Alabama. We don’t have a year-round presence in Tampa or New Orleans or in Los Angeles.”

Del Rio went on to say that the Norwegian Cruise Line brand will have three ships in Alaska this summer, where some competitors have as many as eight.

“So, given our fleet size today and the fact that we will only be taking one ship per year, it could be a couple of years before we consider adding more tonnage to China, if the conditions in the rest of the world remain as robust as they are today,” Del Rio said.

The Chinese boom really got going in 2014 when Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. announced it would devote its brand-new Quantum of the Seas, the first of a new class of ship, to the Chinese market.

In a world full of supposedly bold moves, that one really was. And it prompted other lines for the first time to put brand new ships in China, as everyone feared being left behind in the scramble to impress the Chinese.

Being the preferred brand in a market that was projected to be the biggest in the world in a decade or so was worth the gamble of putting brand new tonnage in an unproven and opaque market.

So when Princess Cruises sent the Majestic Princess to Shanghai last year and Norwegian sent the Norwegian Joy, in addition to the Quantum and ships from Costa Cruises and others, the result was a crowded field.

Throw into the mix the spat between China and South Korea that limited itineraries out of northern China, and China became a much weaker cruise market last year.

While cruise lines insist that they’re in it for the long haul, and even in the short term it has been profitable, the sense that China is going to deliver a big increase in global cruise revenues has been tempered.

Already Norwegian’s focus for 2018 has turned to introducing Norwegian Bliss to the North American market, and in particular the U.S. West Coast. Who knows where else in the U.S. Norwegian ships might be coming next?

Norwegian Encore Will Debut in 2019 in Miami, not China

Norwegian Encore Steel Cutting

Norwegian Cruise Line marked today the start of construction for its newest ship with a steel cutting ceremony.

Named Norwegian Encore, the latest addition to its fleet will sail the Caribbean from Miami seasonally beginning fall 2019.

No mention was made of the previous announcement that the ship would be designed for the Chinese market.

Norwegian confirmed the ship will begin sailings from Miami in fall 2019 in a prepared statement.

“Norwegian Encore will be the ultimate Breakaway Plus Class vessel and we are thrilled to celebrate the start of construction for this incredible new ship,” said Andy Stuart, president and chief executive officer for Norwegian Cruise Line. “Over 50 years ago the Norwegian brand began creating unforgettable vacation moments with the first inter-island cruise in the Caribbean from Miami. We continue building on our legacy of innovation with this brand-new state-of-the-art vessel perfect for exploring the natural beauty of some of the most remarkable islands in the world.”

At approximately 167,800 gross tons and accommodating 4,000 guests, Norwegian Encore will sail weekly seven-day Caribbean cruises each Sunday from PortMiami.

“We are excited to start production for Norwegian Encore and to create another floating destination for Norwegian Cruise Line,” said Stephan Schmees, Executive Board Member Project Management Ships, Meyer Werft.

The Norwegian Encore will be the seventeenth ship in the Norwegian fleet and the line’s fourth and final ship in the Breakaway Plus Class, described as the most successful class in the brand’s history.

In addition, Norwegian recently made changes to its China management team.