Seatrade Update

Annual convention draws record attendance

By: Ana Figueroa

There’s nothing like the annual Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention to remind everyone that cruising is first and foremost, a business a huge business. And, this year’s gathering of cruise line owners, suppliers and operators at the Miami Beach Convention Center March 15-17 was a testament to the industry’s explosive growth in recent years. In contrast to the first Seatrade event in 1985, which was attended by 150 people, this year’s convention attracted over 9,000 participants from more than 100 countries, as well as more than 200 worldwide media outlets. 

The main themes of the convention were trends, projected growth and current challenges facing the cruise industry. The opening day’s State of the Industry panel was a standing room-only event, in which cruise line executives gave an overview of their respective companies, answered questions from the audience and took a few good-natured digs at each other. 

The cruise line executives, as well as industry analysts who spoke during the convention, predicted that annual growth in the industry will cool down from its unusually strong average of 12 percent in recent years. That’s not to say, however, that anyone was less than bullish about the prospects for the industry. All agreed that Asia’s potential as a destination, as well as source market, is downright mind-boggling. And, Carnival Cruise Lines President and CEO Bob Dickinson emphasized that cruises remain a bargain, compared to similar land-based vacations. In fact, even though cruise prices will probably rise across the industry, they’re still a better value today than they were a quarter-century ago, said Dickinson.

The industry is facing some unique challenges right now, such as the high cost of oil, and the persistently weak American dollar. But, that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm about improving existing fleets. Though there is nothing on the drawing board that compares to the record-breaking 68 new ships that came on line between 2000 and 2005, new ships continue to make big news.

“We have the challenge of replenishing our fleet and taking out our old ships,” said Norwegian Cruise Line president and CEO, Colin Veitch. 

“When stocks are cheap, you back up the truck and buy. But when stocks are expensive, you don’t stop buying,” Veitch said, when asked about the higher shipbuilding prices engendered by the weak dollar.

Veitch proudly pointed out that NCL will launch two innovative new builds this year, Pride of America and Norwegian Jewell. He touted the “New NCL,” with “seven big, modern ships” that will make its fleet the youngest in the industry. 

Royal Caribbean’s president and COO Jack Williams (a few days before announcing his departure) indicated that the Celebrity fleet will grow, but gave no details. And, of course, bookings have already opened for Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, which will be the largest ship in the world when it debuts in the spring of 2006. The line recently signed a letter of intent for its third 158,000-ton, 3,600-passenger Freedom Class ship. 

Only Carnival’s Dickinson was a bit coy about future expansion plans. When asked about the reported “Pinnacle project,” class of ships, he demurred, saying that it was “premature” to make any announcement at this time. 

Various Seatrade panels discussed new and exciting shore excursions, passenger amenities and technology, all of which are key to attracting new passengers, said CLIA president, Terry Dale. 

Cruise lines have shrewdly realized that today’s consumer wants to pack as much as possible into their limited leisure time, said Dale. That means the range of shore excursions and onboard activities will continue grow, with more lines offering special interest classes, such as cooking, yoga, and arts instruction. 

“The variety is crucial in these days of multi-generational cruising,” said Dale. 

Other Seatrade highlights included a performance by the Second City comedy troupe, now performing on the Norwegian Dawn. And, curious attendees (and skeptical cruise line executives) listened to a pitch from London-based “serial entrepreneur” Stelios, chairman of easyGroup, which operates the easyJet discount airline in Europe. Stelios plans to launch easyCruise in May, a no frills Mediterranean cruise that allows passengers to board or depart at any stop along the way, provided they stay at least two nights aboard easyCruiseone, the refurbished former Renaissance 2. 

The easyCruise product will be sold primarily online, although Stelios indicates that he is considering a special travel-agent booking structure.

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