Silversea expedition ships to explore new destinations

By Tom Stieghorst
Silversea Cruises said its eight ships will visit a combined 845 destinations in 2016, with 107 new stops on 272 cruises.

Many of the new destinations will be visited by Silversea’s three expedition ships, which can go to very small ports not frequented by most cruise lines or by Silversea’s five luxury vessels.

Included among 88 inaugural calls on 95 expedition cruises are Gough Island, St. Helena; Lizard Island, Australia; Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles; Ko Phra Thong, Thailand; and South Cinque Island, Andaman Archipelago.

Silversea Discoverer will offer a new 17-day expedition to the Seychelles, Maldives, Mozambique, and Tanzania, with an inaugural visit to Aldabra, an raised coral atoll that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Silversea’s more traditional fleet will make 177 voyages, including a trio of 10-day cruises in South Africa aboard Silver Cloud. Among 19 new ports are Le Marin, Martinique; Shimizu, Japan; Rijeka and Rab Island, Croatia; and Bremerhaven, Germany.

Preview 2014: Destinations

By Gay Nagle Myers

Antarctica is high on lists for 2014.Twirl a globe and randomly stab it as it spins. Chances are that wherever your finger lands is a place that someone, or lots of someones, will be traveling to next year.

That said, however, a number of unknowns remain: What’s in? What’s out? Who’s going where in 2014? Does travel next year signify a return to old haunts, or will consumers throw off the bowlines, leave the safe harbors and set forth on new pathways?

A random sampling of travel agents revealed that there clearly is no single answer or set answer; it’s pretty much a mixed bag across the board.

Mary Ann Ramsey, president of Betty MacLean Travel in Naples, Fla., which specializes in multigenerational adventure travel, responded from Cuba, where she was taking part in a people-to-people program.

She said she’s had queries from clients who wanted to experience, firsthand, Cuba, Cubans and the people-to-people programs.

The Galapagos Islands are also on her clients’ radars, especially since the launch in late September of the 100-passenger Silver Galapagos, Silversea’s expedition vessel.

Cold Antarctica is another hot destination for Ramsey’s agency.

“Seabourn Quest’s new voyages to Antarctica this winter are bringing luxury to an unspoiled continent,” she said.

In terms of trends, Ramsey reported an increase in demand and bookings for privately guided programs in the U.S. national parks and in western Canada.

Shambala Private Reserve, South AfricaMultigenerational travel on African safaris is big at SRH Travel in Greensboro, N.C.

“We’re seeing quite a lot of interest there, as well as in new resorts and lesser-visited Caribbean islands,” said Shannon Haynes, the owner and travel consultant.

Europe has picked back up, she said, as has Disney, with its newly renovated Magic Kingdom.

“Travelers who are familiar with Disney parks are excited to try out the MagicBands [the all-in-one gadgets that serve as ticket, room key and more] and the new restaurants, as well,” Haynes said.

Some of the old favorites are making a comeback in itineraries next year.

Allison Harris, co-partner in the Travel Corner in Williamsburg, Va., said that national parks, travel to Hawaii and cruises to Alaska are more popular than in the recent past.

“Our clients are diverse, well-heeled and have the wherewithal to travel where and when they want,” Harris said.

River cruising has been and remains a big seller, she said, adding, “The small cruise ships, too, are getting a lot of respect from our older clients who don’t want all the glitz and gizmos of the super-large ships.”

River cruising also looms large at Cruise One in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

“There’s a lot of awareness of river cruising in Europe, but less availability even though there are more ships,” said Mara Hargarther, the franchise owner. “Clients are so surprised to find that many ships already are full for 2014.”

Most of her clientele book luxury ship accommodations “because it is the ship, not the destination, that is most important for them.”

Hargarther has branched out into niche cruising for specialty groups.

“I take a whole group of knitters, for example,” she said. “We have classes and instructions as we cruise our way to the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and throughout Europe.”

Whatever the formula, it seems to be working. Hargarther said her business is up 42% year to date, “and we’re breaking records all over the place.”

For Dan Ilves, vice president of leisure sales and marketing at the Travel Store in Los Angeles, “Europe always is hot. France is very strong for 2014, and river cruises have shown the greatest increase year over year. They’re through the roof. In fact, it’s hard to get space, especially for families or small groups. I’ve hit the wall several times on that.”

Greece is showing “a bit of activity, and so are Fiji and Tahiti, in terms of hits on our website.”

The South Pacific looms big for Terry Bahri, travel specialist at En Route Travel in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

“Bookings are way ahead for 2014, with a lot of interest in Fiji, Tahiti and private island resorts,” Bahri said. “Although Bali never recovered from the bombings in 2005, my clients go everywhere else. I’m booking India, Vietnam and China. Africa is a big seller next year.”

What her clients want most, she said, are special experiences.

“One couple visiting the Caribbean befriended some local islanders and were invited to share a dinner at their house,” she said. “That was what they talked about when they returned home.”

Experiential travel is the buzz phrase that represents a large chunk of the bookings at Strong Travel Services in Dallas, owned by Jim and Nancy Strong.

“I’m always surprised by the variety of requests we get,” Nancy Strong said. “There’s a lot of interest in Africa, especially Namibia, Rwanda and Uganda to see the gorillas.”

The agency received calls for Christmas travel to India, Brazil and the Caribbean with the caveat that it be upscale, private, unique, enlightening and new within those destinations, according to Jim Strong.

“We look for the wow factor when planning these trips for our clients,” he said. “If it’s Paris, then we find the new hotel, a special driver, a guide who will take them behind the scenes and to an off-the-beaten-path restaurant.”

Food is a big factor in travel these days, Nancy said: “For many of our clients, the most important questions when we are booking their travels are, ‘Where will I eat?’ ‘What will I eat?’ and ‘What will I experience?'”

Noting that the agency is making more lunch and dinner reservations than ever before, the Strongs dubbed the growing passion for food “a new cultural phenomenon.”

Cruise CEOs debate on panel at ASTA Global Convention

Cruise CEOs debate on panel at ASTA Global Convention

By Gay Nagle Myers
MIAMI — In a lively panel presentation at the ASTA Global Convention, three competing cruise line executives discussed the challenges of balancing onboard experiences with customer preferences, the importance of destinations in cruise choices and the most effective strategies for selling cruises.

The discussion, moderated by Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, was spirited, at times contentious, and the audience of 450 or so broke into applause and laughter several times.

_ Richard FainWith the cruise market now encompassing age groups from babies to boomers and well beyond, “the beauty of cruising is that we can appeal to great demographics that evolve as public demand evolves,” decreed Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. “Our ships offer elements that appeal across the spectrum.”

The solo traveler, a market ignored for years, is now being tapped by Norwegian Cruise Line, said Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian’s president and CEO.

“Our Breakaway ship relates to the solo traveler as well as other age groups in the type of onboard experiences we offer,” Sheehan said. “This is the future of cruising, and we have to continue to be on the cutting edge, not the bleeding edge, of the industry.”

He added that the demographics of the cruise market emphasize the role of travel agents because the choices for the consumer are so overwhelming.

“Agents are the critical part of this equation and we need to simplify choices for agents and show that we are more consistent than in the past,” Sheehan said.

Key differences between river and ocean cruising were emphasized by Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen.

“Viking is a river cruise line, and we say that the destination is key,” Hagen said. “We can show your clients Europe; we can show them culture and geography. The onboard cruise experience is not that important to us, and this has worked out well.”

Viking’s customers are 55-plus, “have worked hard, are retired or should be,” Hagen said. “I don’t need to climb rock walls on cruise ships, and neither do they. Let’s be definite about who our customers are.”

Even so, Viking is about to venture into ocean cruising with four ships currently on order. “Two are financed, and we’re working on the others,” Hagen said.
Viking’s first ship, which will carry 928 passengers, enters service in April 2015 in the Mediterranean. It is 80% sold out and is being marketed as an all-inclusive to the 55-and-older segment, he said.

Torstein HagenThere will be no babies, no screaming teenagers, no casinos or water slides,” Hagen said.

Fain agreed that destinations are key because they are “the starting point of the decision-making process. Where appropriate, our ships stay in port for two to three days for destination immersion, but offering the customer variety, value and choice are important,” he said.

Sheehan asserted that Viking does not have a lock on the 55-plus market.

“Norwegian offers the right situation for that age group,” Sheehan said. “Our cruises are multigenerational and have attributes for that experience. We offer a destination on the ship and a destination off the ship.”

Fain said that he saw shared enjoyment as being a key element of cruising.

“My grandchildren like to climb the rock walls. I like to watch them,” Fain said. “Cruise lines need to communicate all that we offer and get the message out that cruising isn’t just for sedentary people.”

As for all-inclusive cruise pricing, Sheehan said the issue is complicated.

“We’re faced with the competitive nature of pricing,” he said. “All-inclusive knocks you out of the market. Cruise prices haven’t moved for about 20 years, which has forced the industry to come up with new ways to be profitable.”

Some Norwegian customers, he said, book a cruise, then don’t spend a dime throughout their time on ship, while others dine in the specialty restaurants every night and rack up some bar bills as well.

In such a market, “It’s hard to have one-size-fits-all pricing,” Sheehan said.

Hagen disagreed.

“All-inclusive is our standard on the river ships and will be on the ocean ships, with wine and beer at meals and free shore excursions,” Hagen said. “Our customers are not gamblers, so we don’t have casinos and we use that space for more staterooms.”

Viking, he said, does not aspire to be everything for everyone.

“I took my mother on a cruise 10 years ago,” the 70-year-old Hagen recalled. “I like to think of our demographic as mature people and their parents.”

In fact, he said, he told the New York Times several years ago that the difference between ocean and river cruising is that “Ocean cruising is a drinking man’s cruise; river cruising is a thinking man’s cruise.”

Fain interrupted at that point in the discussion, saying. “There are so many softballs in the air right now, I want to hit some.”

He pointed out that Celebrity’s cruise to Galapagos “is practically all-inclusive. We spend a lot of time on shore, and sea lions don’t accept tips.”

Kevin Sheehan, CEOEven so, Fain continued, “The industry has grown, and so have the options. Now, there is a cornucopia of choices. On an all-inclusive cruise, you are not making the customer pay for extras, but you are not offering him any choices.”

Sheehan said that Norwegian had considered river cruise products at one point but decided in the end that “we have an unbelievable product, and we will keep it that way.”

Hinting that it would be interesting to take a river cruise, Sheehan glanced at Hagen, then sighed, “You look tight, so I don’t expect much,” he said.

Despite the rise of the Internet, Royal Caribbean gets very few bookings that way, Fain said.

“The role of the travel agent is very robust in the cruise industry. The agent remains a dominant force for all of us,” he said.

But there is a trade-off in that relationship, Sheehan said: “It is our job to keep agents relevant, and it is the agents’ responsibility to be on the edge of what is happening.”

Hagen managed to get in the last word before time ran out.

“Viking’s business is up 35% this year,” he said, “and I attribute that to the great support we get from agents. We were the first line to abandon noncommissionable fees, and we pay 5% commission on air and shore excursions.”