Who is the Luxury Cruiser?

Luxury, according to Bob Sharak, CLIA’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, “may be one of the most used and potentially abused words in travel.”

By: By Ralph Grizzle

Luxury Cruising

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White Star service on the Queen Mary 2  // © CunardLuxury, according to Bob Sharak, CLIA’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, “may be one of the most used and potentially abused words in travel.”

Certainly, we’ve all seen cruises promoted as luxury that truly did not live up to the luxury standard. “Win a luxury cruise for two to the Bahamas!” Well, we know that few, if any, luxury cruises go to the Bahamas — at least not bustling Nassau. Moreover, Sharak says, identifying the luxury traveler is not as easy as it used to be.

“They are not all cut from the same mold and often are not easy to identify as was the ascot-wearing Thurston Howell from the old ‘Gilligan’s Island’ television series,” Sharak said. “As noted in the best-selling book, ‘The Millionaire Next Door,’ a luxury travel prospect may appear unassuming but has considerable wealth and enjoys vacationing in style.”

Diane Moore, executive vice president sales and marketing for Majestic America Line and Windstar Cruises, agrees that luxury clients are not easy to identify, because they no longer fit the stereotype.

“When you look at our generation [the boomers] versus our parents, it isn’t all about white-glove service for us,” she said. “We want great wine and great food just as they do, but we want it in a casual environment. So there are two different markets looking for luxury.”

The face of the luxury traveler truly is changing. And in many ways, it’s becoming a younger face. At Crystal Cruises, the luxury cruiser is certainly trending younger, thanks in big part to strides to keep them connected while they’re away.

Crystal recently made a huge investment to create what it believes is the “fastest” Internet at sea with its new WebAccelerator technology.

“We’re definitely seeing more younger people doing longer cruises in general as technology has improved and it’s easier to stay in touch,” said Crystal’s vice president of public relations, Mimi Weisband.

Weisband says that many of today’s luxury cruisers use their staterooms as offices. It’s important for them to be able to manage their businesses and stay in touch while they’re away.

But is connectivity an important sales point to convey to clients considering luxury cruises?

“It certainly is for us,” Weisband said. “It’s important for agents to convey the connectivity to their clients for us, because there are so many people who think they can’t possibly take a 10- or 12-day cruise. They can’t possibly be away that long.”

With more and more people now addicted to their BlackBerry devices and PDAs, “the thought of being on vacation and being shut off from their connectivity is just overwhelming for some people,” Weisband said. “It used to be that you would go and get away from the day-to-day routines, but very few people want to give that up now.”

One thing is for certain: Those who use their staterooms as offices couldn’t ask for a better view from the window. Pam Danziger heads up Unity Marketing, a boutique research firm specializing in consumer insights for marketers and retailers that sell luxury goods and experiences to the “masses as well as the classes,” and regularly consults with Crystal Cruises.

“There really has been a shift in the market from an old luxury point of view to what I call a new luxury point of view,” Danziger said. “Old luxury has really come to a close. Old luxury is luxury defined by the intrinsic quality of products and services, a certain thing or certain experience that had the allure of luxury.”

She said old luxury is represented by the conspicuous consumption of, say, Donald Trump or Martha Stewart (before she went to jail).

“Old luxury is really luxury that came of age during the Reagan years,” she said. “But today there is a new luxury embodied by younger people, young designers with new ideas about what luxury is and what it should be for the consumer. So the focus today is the consumer and the consumer being the final arbiter of luxury for themselves. It doesn’t have to have a brand name and all the bells and whistles or some expert or celebrity saying it is luxury. It’s defined by the consumer.”

The new luxury, Danziger said, is a verb. It is experienced and felt, and not about the product qualities or attributes. Today’s luxury cruisers are looking for life-changing experiences, she added. Surveys indicate that they get the greatest satisfaction and happiness from experiences, not things. Their motivation is to enhance their quality of life. So-called “super affluents,” with annual household incomes of $150,000 and up, spent more than $30,000 on average in 2006 on luxury experiences. However, only about 10 percent of those luxury consumers spent that money on cruising.

Cruises, however, are well-suited for luxury travelers. Of the travel experiences luxury consumers desire, relaxation and stress relief ranks number one; sightseeing, number two; and fine wine and dining, number three.

Who are the luxury consumers? The top 25 percent of U.S. households based on income, with an average annual income of $141,000 (about 32.5 million people).

“There are more and more Americans becoming members of the luxury class,” Danziger said.

She also maintained it’s important to present value to luxury consumers. Nearly all, 90 percent, rose from middle-class origins and made their own wealth. They know the value of a dollar.

“If the price is too cheap, that means nobody wants to buy it,” Danziger said. “Focus on offering triple the value at only double the price. That’s the new luxury pricing equation.”

It’s also essential for travel sellers to brand themselves for the luxury cruiser.

“Branding is not just for big companies,” Danziger said. “Developing and nurturing a brand is for every business ... You have to say, ‘I serve you by ...’ then tell the ways and put a story behind it.”