Setting sail for new horizons

The cruise market has been simmering for several years without making the big time, but the expansion of the sector within the region is an indication that holidays afloat may soon make bigger waves. Kathi Everden reports

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By  Kathi Everden Published  December 5, 2006

|~|Lux-main-large.gif|~||~|Cruising is a hot topic – for family holidays, luxury retreats, cheap and cheerful resort hopping, leisurely round-the-world trips, and for cuisine, culture and spa related breaks. Within the Middle East, Dubai is predicting 50 cruise calls during the winter season, debuting as home port for two cruise ships that will introduce Gulf itineraries, and will also welcome the QM2 on its first visit to the region. While the Costa and Aida ships that will make the Gulf waters their own for four months are not the first to attempt to establish a permanent presence in the market – Star Cruises, the Lebanese-owned Orient Queen, a Russian liner and a smaller yacht-style operation have all tried in the past – signs are that the developments mark the coming of age of the Arabian Gulf product as a viable ‘sale’. Interestingly, these lines are initially targeting major European markets such as Italy, the UK and Germany for their custom, avoiding the potentially tricky mixing of local and international business that was a contributing factor to the demise of previous operations. It underlines one major characteristic of the cruise sector – that there may be a cruise to suit every taste, but travel agents should be aware that there is no one cruise that suits everyone. This is particularly relevant at the premium end of the market where price does not necessarily guarantee a product that will have the client screaming out for more. Doyen of the cruise sector around the region for more than a decade, Royal Caribbean is witness to this dollar-dominated trait. The mid market cruise line, like all the rest, has a graduated product line ranging from bargain no-frills inside cabins through to window, balcony and suite accommodation, and has for many years focused on trade education to fine tune agents’ selling skills in matching budget to aspirations. However, as marketing manager Debbie Summers acknowledges, a majority of clients would have booked suite accommodation if only they had made their reservations earlier, before the premium cabins had sold out. “Booking lead times are crucial. Here, it can be as little as three days before departure, while around half of reservations are two months out, and when I look at bookings for balcony cabins this year, I reckon at least 50% of them would have taken suites if these were available,” she says.||**||Upgrading business|~|SeaDream-large.gif|~|SeaDream’s Ian Buckeridge says his passengers demand “discreet and utterly professional service”.|~|While not generally perceived as a luxury brand, Royal Caribbean presents a valuable case study in booking trends in the region, vital for any premium cruise line that aims to boost traffic out of the Middle East. More than two thirds of its business is from Arab nationals and a similar proportion books suite or balcony accommodation, with loyalty to the line paramount, even to a reluctance to switch to its sister brand, Celebrity. “Royal Caribbean and to an extent, Princess, are known entities here and benefit from the fact that Arabs like the facilities that come with a larger ship,” Summers explains. “It is difficult to switch this type of business to new lines and agents will tend only to book on request for smaller lines.” The blurring of the distinctions between small luxury brands and one-size-fits-all mega vessels is another trend that has contributed to the apparent lack of success of the top luxury cruise lines in the region. More suites, butler service, private lounges, priority embarkation and disembarkation and separate check in are now common on many lines, as well as a greater range of facilities from super spas and speciality restaurants to private cabin dining. And, indicating a possible area of specialisation that is well suited to the Middle East market, MSC Cruises has announced a dedicated business deck concept for two of its five ships on order, the MSC Fantasia and MSC Serenata, launching in 2008/09. According to MSC director Peter Pate, the Isola Felicia class will offer passengers suite accommodation on a private island of one or two decks that will also include dedicated restaurants, a spa and other facilities, but with access to the range of amenities on board the 3900-passenger ships. “It would be ideal for the Middle East market since it brings together exclusivity and all the attractions of a large ship,” he says. “No other line will offer a full-service premium deck, although Cunard and a couple of others have some dedicated premium areas, and no doubt others will follow.” The benefits are manifold for MSC Cruises, given the cheaper costs of incorporating a six-star product into a four-star operation, as well as flexibility in tailoring the size of Isola Felicia according to demand. Meanwhile, if groups and families are more suited to the larger fun ships, there is potential for the travel trade to boost sales on the traditional smaller scale luxury lines, where expats and honeymooners are among the target markets, according to Trudy Redfern, regional VP sales & marketing at Silversea Cruises. “We don’t get as much business as we would like from the Middle East and acknowledge that it is a very different type of booking market that needs a different approach,” she says. Having headed up Dnata’s tour operation out of the UK, Redfern is no novice in the market, and, with Dnata as her GSA, she is working on a series of initiatives to upgrade the line’s presence in the region. “Royal Caribbean has raised the profile of cruising here, and now we have an opportunity with Dnata to come on board with a luxury product,” she explains. “We will be doing more trade programmes, agent incentives, inviting them to visit when we have a Silversea ship in port – 14 voyages touch on Dubai alone this year – as well as participating at exhibitions such as Seatrade and Arabian Travel Market.” In addition, Redfern aims to ignite consumer interest by organising meetings with local clubs and societies, as well as ship tours for targeted groups of individuals. “We will not ignore the national Arab market, but expect a younger profile with honeymooners in particular, as well as the ex-pat community, and will work through the Dnata infrastructure and the web site, where we are developing a ‘Toolbox’ for agents that will give them collateral to download to assist sales.” But while Silversea has an increasingly visible presence in the Gulf, Redfern says she does not expect many bookings for ex-Dubai cruises to originate from the region. “Dubai has proved one of the most popular gateways for cruise passengers from the UK – with a wait list for our first Dubai roundtrip voyage – but from the region, realistically, we would expect to sell other destinations,” she explains. Underlining this trend, wholesaler Emirates Holidays reports that Asia is its biggest cruise sell with Star Cruises’ short sea options out of Singapore proving popular. The company’s destination development manager for Europe and North America, Marco Heinrich, predicts the Baltic/Scandinavia as the next big thing, as well as the Mediterranean. “Luxury cruising features many one-off voyages rather than repeated sailings (on the same itinerary) and this makes it difficult to put these in our brochure,” he explains. Heinrich says travel agents should not be scared of the cruise product because it is a good sell with potential for add-ons such as pre and post hotel stays.||**||Going places|~|Rania-large.gif|~|The Rania Experience in the Maldives offers a private island with a three-bedroom suite and three beach villas, plus the four-cabin Rania yacht.|~|For most luxury cruise brands, new destinations are key to expansion given the high repeat factor they enjoy, and for those with a penchant for six-star sailing, the choice of itinerary covers international waters. According to cruise industry analyst, Tony Peisley, the total cruise market was expected to reach 16 million in 2006 incorporating an 8-10% growth rate, with supply driving demand. “The luxury sector was hardest hit by 9/11, but there has been a renewal of confidence starting in 2004 with record returns in the past two years and this has been reflected by new ship orders.” However, Peisley says while Seabourn has committed to two new vessels, Silversea has long talked of an additional one, Crystal says it will order a third, and MSC has indicated an interest in acquiring a luxury cruise brand (in addition to its own onboard brand), there is little additional tonnage on the immediate horizon. What this does mean is increased pressure on availability and a return to premium pricing to match the product. “After 9/11, there was over capacity and prices collapsed, but now we have good supply/demand, the product is selling at the levels it deserves – anything less than $300 a day per person is probably not luxury,” says Edwina Lonsdale, chairperson for the Exclusive Collection, a grouping of the top 10 premium lines marketed by the Passenger Shipping Association in the UK. But while headline rates can appear to be fierce, the common stress on all-inclusive pricing as a bonus of cruising with an all-in package for accommodation/transport/entertainment is even more relevant at the top end, she explains. “When rates were low, mainstream lines looked to recoup their costs through passenger onboard spend, loading the price of excursions, drinks etc, but with luxury cruises many of these extras are included in the package and rates are actually very comparable between the products,” Lonsdale adds. What premium cruising does offer is exclusivity: the haven away from the masses, personal attention and service that appeals more than the latest Broadway blockbuster shows to many affluent travellers. “What you see is luxury innovations such as spas, balconies, alternative restaurants, drip down to four star level ships and, to keep up, luxury ships have to add something else in to the equation – more than ever, the distinction between luxury lines and the rest is how they treat their passengers,” says Lonsdale. Underlining this commitment to a passenger first policy, SeaDream Yacht Club’s senior director, Ian Buckeridge says luxury buyers are in the market for lifestyle vacations. “Our passengers want honesty and integrity from the brand they chose – discreet and utterly professional service and the finest amenities and cuisine, as well as the freedom to enjoy their holiday without being told what to wear, what to do and when to do it,” he explains. His views are echoed by Seabourn’s Barry Good, who believes the line’s appeal is largely based on the level of personalised service it provides: “The most compelling thing for our guests is that they love our staff and they really like each other – it’s a very sociable atmosphere,” he says. He notes that the average guest age had gone down in recent years in response to the inclusion of more flexible one-week cruise options as well as unusual destinations and trophy experiences. And, while there will probably always be a market for the formal trans-Atlantic voyage with its echoes of the golden age of cruise, captain’s cocktail parties and deck games, the appeal of the sea is also gaining ground in areas traditionally sold as sun’n’stay holidays. Possibly an easier sell from the Middle East, the Maldives, for instance, now offers several cruise options, two of which most definitely fit the luxury marque. Four Seasons, having just launched its second resort, also has the Explorer, a luxury catamaran with just 11 staterooms and suites offering three-, four- and seven-night itineraries visiting isolated islands and remote dive and snorkelling sites. And, if a client needs an island with their ship, the Maldives-based Rania Experience – marketed by SharafTravel in Dubai – offers a private island with a three-bedroom suite and three beach villas plus the four-cabin Rania yacht for dedicated cruising. ||**||

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