Theme Cruising Gains Popularity

Theme cruising is a growing trend and cruise lines are helping travel agents cater to clients By: Marilyn Green
The boom in theme cruises brings added value and new clients // © 2012 Regent Seven Seas Cruises
The boom in theme cruises brings added value and new clients // © 2012 Regent Seven Seas Cruises

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The lure of theme cruising has become so strong and the products so complex that entire websites are devoted to them. On ThemeCruiseFinder.com, for example, agents, cruise lines and other entities can post their offerings. Cruise Critic also has a large listing, as do some of the major consortia.

There is also a site run by Landry & Kling called Seasite.com that takes travel agents through everything that they should know about setting up groups and charters for special-interest cruises in a form that is easy to navigate — all free to the agent. Travel agents can enter their needs — size of group, where and when they want to cruise, how long the cruise should be and what facilities and types of accommodations they need — and receive competitive information from one source. Agents can also fill out a form describing their theme cruise, duration, projected number of participants, geography and their prospectus is delivered directly to cruise line executives, who contact the agent to offer options.

There are wine fanatics, bridge aficionados, fitness addicts, baseball nuts, music lovers, scrapbooking devotees, motorcycle enthusiasts, passionate gardeners, tireless dancers, avid poker players, dedicated golfers: name an interest, and there’s most likely a theme cruise organized around it. There are annual chocolate cruises, Zumba cruises, faith-based cruises and a host of wine and culinary sailings. Some include everyone onboard but most have their own branded activities within the larger passenger mix.

The theme cruise trend is growing rapidly according to Jo Kling, president of travel agency Landry & Kling and an expert on events and special-interest cruises at sea.

“Coupled with heightened awareness about the cruise experience and more clients adding cruises to their bucket lists, the timing to capitalize on this trend has never been better,” said Kling.

Generally, theme or special-interest cruises fall into one of three types: those generated by the cruise line and available to any passenger booked on a certain cruise date or dates; those generated by a third-party partner, such as Sixthman or Men’s Health, and which usually can be booked by travel agents; and those created by agents and booked exclusively through them for their clients.

A Captivated Audience
Bill Smith, vice president of cruise sales and exclusive product for Virtuoso, has previously served as president and COO of Silversea Cruises and as senior vice president of sales and marketing at Crystal Cruises and Princess Cruises, among other positions. Smith sees theme selling from both the agents’ and the cruise lines’ vantage points.

“From the cruise line’s standpoint, a main driver behind theme cruises is to establish a point of differentiation,” he said. “Agents, of course, can do the same thing by finding a popular local chef and approach clients by marketing his name; the chef can also market to restaurant clients in order to enhance his or her own reputation.”

Smith noted that such pied pipers may be national or international names. For instance, Crystal has built theme cruises around Billy Casper, a great golfer and known celebrity, who agents can market to golf clubs and country clubs in their own areas. The same is true for Crystal’s Nobu restaurant. Crystal offers a couple of theme cruises every year when Nobu Matsuhisa is onboard the ship and agents can market that through Nobu restaurants in their cities.

“It’s an additional tool to develop new business and to push a client who wants to cruise into actually booking,” Smith added. “The group is the net that brings them in and, once they are in, the agent has them in his or her database and can develop the relationships.”

Likewise, Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales for Royal Caribbean International, said that theme cruises definitely bring in first-timers and expand the agent’s database with new clients.

“It becomes an annuity,” said Freed, who suggested that travel agents can start a circle of interest — go to a local country club, for instance, and find a golf pro and market a golf cruise.

“There are so many possibilities,” she added. “If an agent’s children are on a soccer team, there’s a real opportunity for an end-of-the-year cruise together. Bowling leagues are huge potential groups, and you can make a theme cruise group from a fan club or a charity such as Make a Wish Foundation.”

In general, Freed thinks it is better for agents to put their own groups together, setting up their offerings a year in advance. She cited impressive agent-organized theme cruises in the industry from poker tournaments at sea to a cruise developed around Pandora jewelry fans. And the cruise lines know how to play along — at an American Girl theme cruise on Celebrity Cruises, the waiters had instructions on how to serve the dolls brought by 500 passengers to the dining room. Freed stressed that selling a theme cruise rests on getting the word out, a process made much easier by social media.

“Just about everything is on Facebook, and it’s a very quick way to communicate with thousands of people sharing a particular interest,” said Freed.

King agreed.

“It’s so different now with social media,” she said. “With a theme or special-interest cruise the longing to cruise crosses paths with an interest the person already has.”

Theme cruises can be built around a radio or television program, gathering people from all over a region united by their loyalty to a particular show. Kling mentioned a group of 800 people — 80 percent of whom had never cruised before — who sailed together to hear early country music stars on Liberty of the Seas. The fans came for Larry’s Country Diner and Country’s Family Reunion, which did a series of performances with their sets onboard. Kling said church groups also draw well; a recent one brought together 800 women for inspirational workshops, church music and fellowships on a five-night Caribbean cruise.

Leslie Fambrini, owner of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., uses theme cruises primarily as an enhancement.

“The sales decision is usually made first on the basis of the ship and the itinerary,” said Fambrini. “Then, if there’s a theme involved, it adds sizzle to the sales process.”

However, Fambrini has had clients specifically ask about food and wine themes.

“It’s a very good fit,” she said. “Today’s traveler is well educated, not only about travel but about food and wine, and the chefs and sommeliers the cruise lines bring on board can be a real plus.”

Scott Koepf, vice president of sales for Avoya Travel/American Express, said that the more focused and unique a theme is, the greater the likelihood for success.

“The purpose is to have an additional motivation for the consumer to choose the cruise,” said Koepf. “Cruising is already attractive.”

Koepf emphasized that a brand name helps the agent reach into a whole consumer set. In that case, the agent is introducing the concept of cruising to people who are first and foremost fans of a celebrity, radio or television show, magazine, restaurant, winery, etc.

He also added that agents should be prepared to capitalize on the initial theme cruise that they sell.

“Definitely, the second theme cruise should be planned and set up before the first cruise departs,” Koepf said. “There is no better time to get someone excited about the next cruise than when they are on the first one, but be sure to go somewhere different on the second cruise or switch lecturers — give them a reason to come back. The beauty of North American psyches is that we are joiners, and we will choose by interest level even before the start of the vacation. Price becomes irrelevant.”

Increased Offerings
The cruise lines certainly are not missing the trend toward special-interest cruises. For instance, Crystal Cruises will offer 12 different themes on 25 cruises this year, more than one-third of the line’s sailings. Themes include NFL Legends, floral design, golf, wine and food and ballroom dancing.

Oceania Cruises has announced that, for the first time, they will offer nine theme cruises in 2012. James Rodriguez, senior vice president of sales and marketing, said that the signature sailings target guests’ special interests: wellness, food and wine and music, capitalizing on the line’s partnerships with Bon Appetit, Wine Spectator and upscale spa brand, Canyon Ranch. He finds that many agents simply don’t have time to set up and market their own groups, so the cruise line does it for them.

“We do the legwork for travel agents,” said Rodriguez. “For example, there will be two sailings with the Bon Appetit Wine & Food Festival, on the Riviera’s Oct. 14 cruise or the Marina’s Oct. 22 sailing, both in the Mediterranean.”

Regent Seven Seas Cruises also offers themed itineraries.

“Our Spotlight Cruises are focused on topics from theater to public broadcasting and food and wine,” said Randall Soy, senior vice president of sales at Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Among this year’s offerings is a Seven Seas Mariner Spotlight on Theater cruise, either 10 days Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro or 32 days Buenos Aires to Miami, departing on Dec. 6.

Regent’s Voyager will host an opera cruise departing Southampton, England, Dec. 16, as well.

MSC Cruises’ Baseball Greats sailings allow agents to put their own groups on board without having to find big names who are friendly with the fans; Caribbean cruises aboard Poesia sail Dec. 11, 2012; Feb. 9 and 23, March 9 and April 6, 2013.

Worldwide Theme Sailings
Theme cruises can be found in all parts of the world. In the South Pacific, Paul Gauguin Cruises offers an unusual encounter with nature with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment Youth Program on cruises throughout the summer and during the holidays.

Silversea Cruises has a Contract and Duplicate Bridge cruise onboard Silver Spirit Nov. 30 out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for both beginning- and intermediate-level players, with opportunities to earn ACBL Master Points.

Celebrity Cruises’ Constellation has scheduled 12-night Immersive Europe Wine Cruises out of Southampton from Sept. 7 through Nov. 18. Holland America Line has more than 60 celebrated chefs, cookbook authors and television personalities from the culinary world on its culinary cruises, including Denise Vivaldo, who has cooked for U.S. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan as well as Prince Charles and Bette Midler. Vivaldo will be on the Westerdam in Alaska on July 21.

Carnival Cruise Lines’ New Kids on the Block cruise, departing from Miami on June 7 onboard the Carnival Destiny, sells out annually.

Compagnie du Ponant’s elegant L’Austral will host a classical music cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean departing on Sept. 28.

Finally, there is no reason that agents shouldn’t indulge their own passions. Theme cruises are best sold by enthusiasts who speak the guests’ language and share their pleasure. So, think about some topics that inspire and motivate you, and you might be able to turn that into sales gold.

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