Norwegian Cruise Line plans to move a number of ships to the Western U.S. // © 2014 Norwegian Cruise Line
Cruises originating in the Western half of North America are booming. With Carnival Cruise Lines declaring Galveston its number two homeport after Miami, and other cruise lines placing more ships in the region and diversifying their itineraries, the net result is an unprecedented variety of close-to-home cruise products that travel agents can present to clients.
An impressive number of sailings are scheduled along the Pacific coast, from Texas to the Caribbean and from various Western ports to Mexico, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, Asia, Australia, South America and the Panama Canal. The availability of relatively low-cost regional airfares and the drive-in capability that Western ports provide are supporting the booming growth of cruising from the West.
But despite the addition of more ships and more itineraries — signs of a healthy marketplace — the industry is battling a problem of perception. Some travelers question the quality of the cruise product and the diversity of itineraries offered out of the West, especially compared to what’s available from Eastern ports.
Refurbished ships, appealing destinations and a new approach to marketing by smaller lines are all key to sustaining the success of cruising out of the West, according to Scott Koepf, vice president of sales for Avoya Travel.
New ships are not an essential draw, but major refurbishments must be completed on all of the ships deployed from Western ports so they have the same features cruisers can get when sailing from the East Coast, according to Koepf.
“You have to be able to convince the traveler that the product is comparable to what’s in Florida, and then it opens a huge door in Southern California and Texas,” he said.
And this means more than just updating ships. Ports, destinations and itineraries also must be appealing enough to compete with cruises out of Florida.
“The ports have really worked on that, and there are new developments in ports like Honduras,” Koepf said.
He called Norwegian Cruise Line’s recent work on developing a private island in Belize “brilliant.”
In the Pacific Northwest and the Sea of Cortez, where expedition cruise lines dominate, Koepf believes there is an issue with simply getting the word out to potential travelers about what is available.
“These products are bucket list material,” Koepf said. “But these are smaller companies without big brand awareness. These cruise lines should partner with strong retailers that are marketing-driven. They will get more targeted and useful promotion than the advertising they can afford to do.”
Norwegian Cruise Line returns to Houston this year after a seven-year absence, with Norwegian Jewel sailing Western Caribbean cruises. The line also has plans to move a number of other ships to the Western region.
“As the fleet grows with Epic, Breakaway and Getaway, we can move more ships into the West,” said Crane Gladding, senior vice president of itinerary planning, revenue management and passenger services for Norwegian. “Houston was the beneficiary this year. Next year, the Mexican Riviera will receive more tonnage.”
Norwegian will also return to South America next year with the Sun, which will sail during the summer on one-way cruises in Alaska, creating a new market in land tour sales for travel agents.
“Many people want to arrange pre- or post-cruise land stays in Alaska,” Gladding said. “Now, with north and south one-way cruises instead of only the roundtrip Seattle and Vancouver sailings, we offer three- to six-day tours.”
Un-Cruise Adventures draws a majority of its passenger from the West, said Tim Jacox, executive vice president of sales and marketing. California is the biggest source market for all products, followed by the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Active cruisers from 40 to 65 years old are the prime demographic.
Based in the Pacific Northwest, Un-Cruise offers very unusual itineraries in Alaska, although the line is still best known for its Columbia and Snake River cruises and spring and fall programs in the San Juan Islands.
Un-Cruise’s luxury exploration ships also sail Washington state and Canada, and the line has itineraries in the Sea of Cortez and in Hawaii that operate well away from the usual ports.
Competition among cruise lines in the Pacific Northwest is heating up as well. American Queen Steamboat Company brought American Empress to the region this year. It’s the largest steamboat in the Pacific Northwest, sailing on the Columbia and Snake rivers. American Cruise Line’s paddle wheeler, Queen of the West, also sails on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and the company’s American Spirit ship cruises Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and Alaska.
As the market continues to evolve, input from travel agents has been a key factor in shaping the product.
Travel agents played a large part in setting Carnival’s strategy to have the newly renovated Freedom join the Magic and Triumph in Galveston year-round, according to Terry Thornton, Carnival Cruise Lines’ senior vice president of revenue management and deployment.
“We have some very good agents in Texas, and they told us they needed more diverse itineraries and that the market would bear more capacity,” Thornton said.
According to Thornton, there is a very strong drive market in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and other major cities that are up to a five- and six-hour drive from Galveston.
“The Texas market is affluent and steady,” Thornton said. “During the economic crunch, it held up very well.”
There is also substantial short haul flight appeal, with a good supply of low-cost carriers coming into Houston from the Midwest. A variety of new itineraries is available out of Galveston as well. Magic and Freedom will each sail three different week-long Western Caribbean itineraries, with Triumph offering the shorter three- and four-day sailings.
Thornton said the different routes have begun to stimulate interest in back-to-back seven-day cruises, with a turnaround in Galveston. Once a month, Magic and Freedom will sail seven-day cruises to Nassau and the Bahamas, calling in three ports with three days at sea. That itinerary is proving very popular, since Carnival is the only line offering the route from Galveston.
In the latter part of 2015, Carnival will initiate 10- and 11-day open-jaw cruises between Galveston and San Juan. The cruises are already heavily booked, Thornton said. The strategy allows Carnival to visit Eastern Caribbean ports such as St. Thomas, St. Martin and St. Kitts, initially sailing with one pair of cruises in the fall of 2015 and one in the spring of 2016 onboard the Triumph. While the Triumph offers these longer cruises, Freedom will show off her new renovation with 2.0 features and the new Dr. Seuss at Sea program on the three- and four-night sailings.
“In the Texas market, we have been telling Carnival to do one-way trips, especially with Southwest Airlines now in San Juan,” said Jo Anita Smith, manager of Marchi Travel Service, a 91-year-old family-owned agency in Galveston. “It really opens up the possibilities.”
Smith added that once her customers experience a cruise with a specific line, they tend to remain faithful to the brand. As a result, cruise lines diversifying their itineraries stimulates business.
“Royal Caribbean has a repositioning cruise from New Jersey to Galveston this fall, and we have tons of interest already,” Smith said.
Smith’s agency has seen the Texas market mature in the past 15 years, from newbies who tried shorter itineraries to more sophisticated and experienced travelers who are ready to support longer cruises and different destinations, including Hawaii.
In a bid to attract more first-time cruisers in the West, Carnival is deploying the Imagination and Inspiration from Long Beach, Calif., on three-and four-day cruises year-round.
“These compete very well with land-based short vacations, especially Vegas,” Thornton said. “We get a lot of rookies trying these, and it’s a great introduction to cruising.”
In the past, cruise lines have claimed that there is not enough variety in Mexican Riviera sailings, but Carnival has found an ingenious way to create choices. One itinerary sails from Long Beach to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas — the classic route. The other two itineraries spend one night in Los Cabos and two in Puerto Vallarta, or the reverse; it’s a good choice for guests who want to explore one or the other in depth.
Carnival has no plans at this time to add another ship in Alaska. Thornton said Alaska and Hawaii cruises tend to draw bookings nationwide, and an international clientele also comes onboard for Alaska.
Holland America Line’s (HAL) Western cruises also draw passengers beyond the region. Rather than putting more capacity in the West, the line is rotating itineraries to offer maximum choices from Western ports, according to Eva Jenner, vice president, North America of field, charter and incentive sales at HAL.
With cruises from San Francisco down the coast and across the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale; itineraries from Los Angeles to the South Pacific, Australia and Asia; and sailings out of San Diego to South America and Australia, HAL is drawing passengers from all over North America and internationally as well, especially Australia.
“We see more regional families on cruises to Mexico but, otherwise, we draw worldwide for these itineraries,” Jenner said.
Princess Cruises’ Western-based sailings also have broad appeal, according to agents. Coral Princess, Island Princess, Pacific Princess and Ocean Princess will all offer Panama Canal cruises next year, providing considerable choice in ship size. And Princess has four ships sailing from three homeports — Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver — to cruise the California coast, Hawaii and Mexico in 2015, including a 50th anniversary cruise in December on Pacific Princess, commemorating the company’s first cruise in 1965.
Crown Princess and Ruby Princess will sail Mexico, Hawaii and California coastal cruises from Los Angeles; Grand Princess sails those itineraries from San Francisco. Passengers can visit French Polynesia and Samoa on a 28-day Hawaii, Tahiti and South Pacific itinerary, sailing roundtrip from Los Angeles. Star Princess offers sailings to Hawaii roundtrip from Vancouver during the spring and fall, in addition to cruises sailing along the West Coast.
Three- to five-day Getaway voyages will return in 2015 on Crown Princess, Star Princess and Ruby Princess, from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver. Caribbean Princess sails Western Caribbean itineraries out of Houston.
Looking Ahead to a Robust Market
Royal Caribbean International is one of several cruise lines that sees the potential in the West Coast. The line, which moved Mariner of the Seas to Europe in 2010, has added two roundtrip seven-night cruises out of Los Angeles onboard Jewel of the Seas, calling in Santa Barbara, San Francisco (overnight), Monterey, Calif., and Ensenada, Mexico.
“We think overnight calls in San Francisco have a wide appeal,” said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service.
Radiance of the Seas will alternate northbound and southbound Alaska and Hubbard Glacier cruises, both seven-night itineraries between Vancouver and Seward. Jewel of the Seas’ seven-night Sawyer Glacier cruises sail roundtrip from Seattle. Jewel also sails two 14-day Panama Canal cruises, one to San Diego from San Juan in May and one from San Diego to San Juan in October.
In Galveston, Navigator of the Seas, with its 2.0 features, is new to the port, but the line is upping the ante in winter 2015-2016, when Liberty of the Seas will bring a newer and larger ship to Texas. Liberty has features from the Oasis-class ships, including 3-D movies, the DreamWorks experience and the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery.
Disney Cruise Line, also, returns to Hawaii, the West Coast and Galveston in 2015. After Disney Wonder’s Alaska season, the line is sailing to Hawaii in September with two 10-night cruises: Sept. 7 from Vancouver, and Sept. 17 on the reverse route. Wonder follows with two five-night Baja sailings out of San Diego and sails to Galveston in early November, operating four- to seven-night itineraries during the holidays.
With Mexico coming back and ships sailing in every direction, cruising from Western ports promises sustainable growth based on added capacity and appealing itineraries. If, as several agents contend, cruising in the West has been overlooked in the past, it is clear that the changes on the horizon will make this burgeoning market impossible to ignore.