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// (C) 2010 Silversea Cruises
Despite the difficulties of selling travel in a struggling economy, top agents say the demand for small luxury ships has grown and continues to strengthen. While the definition of a small ship has changed drastically during the past few years, the spirit hasn’t and, despite ever-growing mega-ships offering an unheard of range of activities, many very successful agents are finding that small luxury vessels are the backbone of their business.An example is Tom Baker, president and partner at CruiseCenter in Houston. Although Baker was placed on the list of the World’s Leading Large Ship Specialists by Conde Nast Traveler in 2009, he is passionate about small luxury vessels. He has seen a great increase in requests for smaller ships, especially The Yachts of Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Azamara Cruises. Baker’s company has pursued a policy of making sure they are front of mind with established luxury clients, and it is paying off. “We took a group of 200 Crystal clients to dinner and closed almost half a million dollars in business,” he said. “And we are doing the same with past Silversea passengers.”Likewise, Bonnie Habel, president of Fuller Travel in San Antonio, Texas, sees the demand for small ship luxury cruising growing significantly. “Regent is our biggest seller,” she said. “With their exceptional all-inclusive package, our clients feel they are getting the most bang for their bucks.”Agents say luxury clients are asking to book far in advance to be sure they can get the specific accommodations they want.“Some of our clients are quite frustrated because bookings don’t open as early as they would like,” Baker said.Habel added that guests who don’t book well in advance may be disappointed by choice limitations and/or find that prices have gone up dramatically as demand increases. Although a case is made that mega-ships have luxury accommodations and dining and a choice of private areas, the small ships are distinguished by guests’ sense of ownership. “Luxury customers are willing to spend a great deal for intimacy and exclusivity,” Baker said. “They don’t want to stand in line; they want the ship to be like a private hotel, and they want private arrangements on shore.” These passengers also value the smaller ships’ ability to take them into seldom seen ports as well as the better known ones, to give their guests an authentic taste of local culture rather than following the tourist trail.This was underlined recently by Azamara Club Cruises’ announcement of its new focus on multiple nights in ports and multiple-day excursions on shore. Although clients are paying substantial sums for upscale cruises, they are more discreet about their spending nowadays. “They may be keeping it quiet, but they are spending and demanding the best,” Baker said.