Cruise lines brace for a downturn as presidential election looms

Photo Credit: Elnur/Shutterstock

With less than a year to go until the 2020 presidential election, travel suppliers and sellers are bracing for the slowdown that typically accompanies an election year’s commotion and distractions.

Every four years, sales run into headwinds as politicians and interest groups load up on ad time and consumers, especially in battleground states, are besieged with debates about the fate of the nation. 

And this time, the quadrennial cycle could be a doozy, as impeachment proceedings run parallel to the election campaign.

“It will be a very interesting Wave season, for sure,” said John Chernesky, senior vice president for North American sales and trade marketing at Princess Cruises. 

Chernesky said Princess is taking steps to mitigate the anticipated pause in bookings momentum that has built up this year.

“I think at Princess we’re seeing a good forward booking curve going into 2020, but we’re not oblivious to the fact that, historically, there has been a business downturn in the election years,” Chernesky said. “So we’re trying to work with our trade partners as best we can to essentially base-load as much as possible into the [coming] year. 

“We know the marketing spend next year is going to be less effective than this year, because there’s going to be so many distractions,” Chernesky said.

In 2016, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent $1.8 billion on the election, much of it for television ads, some of the same news, public affairs and sports programming favoured by cruise lines.

Eva Jenner, vice president of sales at Holland America Line (HAL), said what’s true for Princess and HAL is true industrywide.

“We all are aiming at the same goal of base-loading and having a further [out] booking window than ever before,” she said.

For agents, that means that some of the best pricing for 2020 is available now when consumer receptivity to the cruise line marketing message hasn’t yet become blocked by political static.

“If nothing more, it might be a great year for consumers,” said Michelle Fee, president of Coral Springs, Fla.-based Cruise Planners. “It’s the travel advisor’s job to let the consumer know, ‘Hey, this is a great deal. You might not see this next year.’ So we need to continue to be in the marketplace and get the word out.”\

Although travel advisors have been aware of it for years, the presidential election-year slump in sales was documented in research by the Virtuoso travel network that it released at its Las Vegas conference in August.

Virtuoso found that U.S. travel sales grew an average of 14.3% in a year before a presidential election, but only an average of 2.9% in the year of an election. In 2016, sales actually fell 0.2%, after growing 15.4% the year before.

One reason for the slump, according to some, is the reluctance of consumers to make big-purchase decisions while economic uncertainty hangs in the air. Some support for that theory comes from data on auto and home sales.

Meyers Research, a real estate data firm, examined the past 13 presidential elections and found that home-sales activity dropped 15% in the November of an election year, versus 8% in the same month a year later.

And a 2016 study for, a site for car shoppers, found shopping behavior dropped 9% year over year in the months going into a presidential election in battleground states where no one candidate was a clear favourite.

James Grace, then director of analytics product management at the site, attributed some of the slumps to a spike in the cost of digital advertising, leading to fewer car ads and diminished shopping.

Sheer uncertainty could also factor into the presidential election-year slump. For example, travel sales in the U.K. have sputtered this year as the government has repeatedly tried and failed to resolve the terms of its exit from the EU.

But Fee said the daily combat between Trump and Democrats might have already caused consumers to tune out.

“If you look back historically, there are things that happened that used to shut our business down,” Fee said. “If something would happen in Europe, it was six months before people would travel there.” 

Not anymore, Fee said. “Today, we’re numb to all of it, so they might be numb to the presidential election, too.”

Fee is telling Cruise Planners agents to stay positive and stick to business. 

“I feel like we need to focus on people who we know travel through it all and who might be celebrating some kind of milestone,” she said.

With newly developed analytics, agency groups such as Cruise Planners can find prospects celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary or a 60th birthday, for example. 

“They’re not going to wait until next year to go because of an election year,” Fee said.

Another positive for agents that could help offset the election-year drag is a tsunami of new cruise ships. Twenty-one vessels are set to debut in 2020, including first vessels from new lines such as Virgin Voyages and the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection as well as the first ship with a roller coaster being rolled out by Carnival Cruise Line.

Doug Seagle, Seabourn’s vice president of business development, said, “A good counter to everything that’s going on in the world is that there’s a lot of new product out there. New product raises consumer awareness and creates excitement. Our travel partners want to get that message out there so that it counters the negativity in the marketplace.”

Study finds continued slowdown in U.S. cruise passenger growth

Study finds continued slowdown in U.S. cruise passenger growth

By Tom Stieghorst
The number of cruise passengers sourced from the U.S. isn’t growing as fast as it once was, leaving U.S. travel agents with a market that may contract if trends continue.

Figures from the 2014 Economic Impact study recently released by CLIA show that growth has declined in each of the past four years.

While the absolute number of U.S. passengers has grown since 2010, from 10.1 million to 10.7 million last year, the relative share sourced from the U.S. has dropped from 68% to 61%.

Growth was a barely positive 0.3% in 2013, following increases of 2.2% in 2012, 3.5% in 2011 and 6.2% in 2010.

Separately, the number of passengers embarking on a cruise at a U.S. port last year fell 1.3%.

What accounts for the slowdown?

Andrew Moody, one of the authors of the study and president of Business Research and Economic Advisors of Exton, Pa., cited several factors that could be diminishing growth in the U.S.

One is that cruise lines have put the brakes on ship construction in recent years, to try to allow prices to rise. That has slowed growth in the supply of cabins available for sale.

At the same time, the industry has been devoting ships both new and old to distant markets and has increased its capacity to sell cruises on those ships in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

“Marketing is becoming global,” Moody said. “As more and more capacity comes on, they’re going to move it to some of these markets. Certainly Australia has been a singular market [that has] benefited from all that.”

The Carnival Spirit and Royal Caribbean International’s Rhapsody of the Seas are among the ships operated by North American lines that have been shifted full time to Australia in recent years, helping to make it the fastest-growing cruise market.

In contrast to the Australian economy, which never really lost its footing, the U.S. economy has been in recovery mode since 2008, Moody said, another factor slowing growth.

And while the U.S. economy is on the rebound this year, growth in the cruise sector has been uneven. That shows up in the count of passengers embarking from a U.S. port, which fell in 2013 to less than 10 million, vs. nearly 10.1 million in 2012.

The number of passengers sourced from the U.S. includes residents who went abroad to catch their cruise, be it to Barcelona or Vancouver. The number embarking from U.S. ports could include foreign customers who fly to the U.S. to board a cruise but is mostly Americans.

That 1.3% decline Moody attributed mainly to a slump in the Western states.

“Some of that decline has to do with the Mexico/West market,” Moody said. “It still remains very weak, and that has an effect on the California ports.”

On the East Coast, Florida ports are holding their own, and New York has seen an increase in embarkations, Moody said. “The California declines offset a lot of the growth elsewhere in the country,” he said.

In a separate study of the impact of the cruise industry on the global economy, Business Research and Economic Advisors said the top 10 sources of cruise passengers worldwide, in descending order, were the U.S., U.K., Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada, Brazil, China, France and Spain.

Beyond the slowdown in U.S. passenger growth, the impact study estimated that for the first time, direct spending by North American cruise lines, passengers and crew in the U.S. topped $20 billion.

The global study pegged direct spending by cruise lines, passengers and crew worldwide at $52.3 billion last year.

Thin order books for cruise shipbuilders

By Tom Stieghorst

*InsightThe slowdown in new cruise ship orders is starting to bring consequences for the shipyards.

Two of the yards that churn out big cruise ships are on the market, according to a spokesman for STX Corp., the Korean shipping conglomerate that owns them.

A downturn in the shipbuilding and shipping sectors has left STX heavily in debt, and a spokesman said it plans to pare its focus to domestic shipbuilding by divesting overseas assets.
In 2008, when STX acquired yards in Saint Nazaire, France and Turku, Finland, the cruise industry was already putting the brakes on its headlong construction of ships. The surge that culminated with delivery of the $1 billion Oasis and Allure of the Seas ships left the industry with enough berth supply that it was difficult to keep prices moving upwards.*TomStieghorst

Cruise chiefs since then have hewn to a strategy of measured capacity growth. Carnival Corp., for example, has said it plans to order only two to three ships across its 10 major brands each year. The result for shipyards is that they compete for fewer, larger ship contracts than in the past, raising the stakes for each order.

One recent example involved a third copy of the Oasis-class sought by Royal Caribbean International. First crack went to the STX Finland yard that built the Oasis and the Allure, but when the desired level of financing guarantees wasn’t forthcoming from the Finnish government, Royal instead turned to STX France.

As a result, the Finnish shipyard’s order book has just two cruise ships in it for delivery in 2014 and 2015. The Finnish government has already agreed to buy the Turku shipyard site from STX.  Further restructuring may be coming in the second half of the year, STX says.

Germany’s Meyer Werft has four ships in the pipeline, including Norwegian Getaway and Quantum of the Seas. In Italy, Fincantieri has seven, including Regal Princess and Costa Diadema.

In 1989, after the Finnish shipyard fell into bankruptcy, Carnival Corp. had to step in and buy part of it to assure completion of the Fantasy and Ecstasy ships.  Carnival sold the stake two years later.

No one knows if that kind of rescue might be needed again. But until cruise lines step up the pace of new orders, European ship builders are going to have to be creative and flexible to stay in the game.