Cruise Bookings on Rise

Springtime wave of business hits lines, travel agencies

By: Theresa Masek Norton

The traditional annual wave of cruise bookings has finally begun to crest with a surge in business.

Cruise and travel industry officials said last week that bookings are up anywhere from 17 percent to 100 percent, compared to the same time last year. “We’ve watched our numbers go back to Wave-Season booking trends, which makes me very, very, very happy,” said Brad Anderson, co-president of Anderson Travel & Cruises/American Express in San Diego.

Traditionally, the cruise industry’s Wave Season takes place in the first quarter every year, gradually extending from a week to a month to three months. But this year’s Wave Season was lackluster at best, as consumers postponed travel amid rising fears of war in Iraq and the economic uncertainty. Now, however, cruise bookings have begun to grow as the war in Iraq no longer dominates the news and the economy looks less stagnant.

Cruise bookings increased by 17 percent for three straight weeks, the AAA National Travel Barometer reported on May 8.

“Americans clearly have resumed planning their vacations as improved consumer confidence combines with discounts being offered by much of the travel industry,” said Sandra Hughes, AAA Travel’s vice president.

Tour and hotel bookings also rose the week of April 28, by 9 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

Norwegian Cruise Line officials said this month that bookings and pricing in the past three weeks have strengthened and are ahead of last year.

Luxury line Silversea Cruises is also experiencing a late-breaking wave. “This uptake we’ve seen since the week before Easter is a significant increase and would compare to volumes we’ve seen in past Wave periods in January,” said Jim McHugh, Silversea’s vice president of sales.

McHugh said Silversea noticed a sudden increase in business, once the Iraq situation cooled.

“As the war activity started to decrease, we almost immediately saw an increase in bookings,” McHugh said. “The week right before Easter is when we saw booking volumes increase exponentially.

“In the following two-week period ending May 4, we were seeing another 100 percent increase in booking activity and another 40 percent increase in phone volume.”

The boom in actual bookings has impressed McHugh.

“I think there was a lot of shopping going on in January and February,” he said. “Now people are making decisions for July and August trips. Historically, we would’ve seen a lot of that activity in January or February.”

For Anderson, at Anderson Travel & Cruises/ American Express, the booking pace could make it “the best Wave season we’ve ever had,” he said.

“Or maybe it’s just after being in a drought, these little drops of rain seem like a downpour,” he joked. “It all started about a month ago, and I hope it keeps going.”

Anderson said he is hiring travel agents and considering whether to get a new phone system because calls were missed in the recent onslaught.

Both McHugh and Anderson said that while attractive cruise discounts are still out there, cheap prices aren’t the main lure for consumers these days.

“Cruise pricing seems to be firming and increasing,” Anderson said. “There are still good values out there, but we’re not selling at fire-sale prices anymore.” McHugh said Silversea’s Silver Savings program offers 40 percent to 60 percent discounts on certain cruises, but that hasn’t been the driving force of the new business.

“The buying decisions are not surrounding our most heavily promoted savings dates,” he said.

At Crystal Cruises, fares have been lowered on inaugural season cruises of its new Crystal Serenity, scheduled to be christened July 3. “We have lowered fares in some categories, so the revenue has dropped, but the number of bookings has picked up,” said Adam Leavitt, Crystal’s senior vice president of marketing.

“It’s coming back, slow but steady,” he said. “Everyone’s kind of cautiously optimistic.”

Jeff Dash, president of Viking River Cruises, said the European river business picked up noticeably after the statue of Saddam Hussein was knocked over in Baghdad.

“Since no one declared the war over, we call it the post-Saddam-statue-falling period,” Dash said. “In the post-Saddam-statue period, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in business, but it’s still fairly close in and fairly price-sensitive.”

He said recent weeks have been “on pace to be on the level of the end of January.”

Even business to France has picked up, although that was spurred in part by fares as low as $599 for a weeklong cruise. Still, he thinks a turnaround is in the works. “Call me in a month,” Dash said. “I bet I’ll be beaming.”