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Agents and suppliers alike are reporting a strong “wave season” this year. Many cruise lines started early, offering exceptional deals in late 2016 that have stabilized pricing, and new and refurbished ships are continuing to drive business.
“Our wave season actually began in October 2016, and we have had steady demand since then,” said Mark Conroy, managing director of the Americas for Silversea Cruises. “Winter/Spring Caribbean did extremely well for us, as did South America.”
According to Conroy, Silversea’s air promotions generated great interest for cruises in the Mediterranean and northern Europe.
Princess Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line also report good demand in the Caribbean, Alaska and Europe, and Roberto Fusaro, president of MSC Cruises North America, says this wave season has set new company records. Cunard Line, too, has seen strong wave performance year over year, according to Josh Leibowitz, chief strategy officer for Carnival Corporation & Plc and senior vice president of Cunard North America.
Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Crystal, has seen significant increase in booking activity for this year and 2018, noting “overwhelming interest and a strong booking pattern” for Crystal River Cruises.
Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter in Houston, is among agents who reported a surge of bookings after the tension of the presidential election. However, although he says his business “took off like wildfire,” Baker is not sure whether 2017 will be a record year, as he sees Europe “still way off.”
Agents say many clients are booking close in and close to home due to concerns about the geopolitical climate.
“Some, especially the 60-plus group, tell me they are holding off for now and would only consider traveling within the U.S. this year,” said Daniela Harrison, travel consultant for Avenues of the World in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Affluent travelers are booking more short-notice trips in 2017 and are holding off to finalize their travel details until the last day of deadlines.”
Harrison says clients are also booking travel insurance that covers cancellations for any reason — a cautionary action that has impacted 2018 business.
“By this time, I usually have a good number of 2018 sailings booked, and so far I'm not even close,” she said.
Likewise, Leslie Fambrini, president of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., says the beginning of wave season was peppered with many of her most high-end clients planning close-in travels — for March and April — in nearby destinations.
The preference for domestic cruising has extended the booking curve for companies such as American Queen Steamboat Company, with sailings selling out much further into the future than normal, according to president and COO Ted Sykes.
Even so, river cruise lines report that interest in Europe has greatly improved.
“New passengers booked in the last 90 days are up over 80 percent compared to the same 90 days last year,” said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. “While France is increasing a little more slowly, all European and exotic destinations are showing substantial increases.”
It seems river cruising in general is up. According to Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, call volume and bookings for the line were significantly up in January 2017 compared to January 2016. Katharine Bonner, vice president for Tauck river and small-ship cruising, also says the company is seeing stronger booking than last year. She says Tauck’s small-ship ocean cruises were also mostly booked before the wave season started, due to “exceptional” fall business.
Both Scenic and sister company Emerald Waterways report that the Douro River is one of their hottest destinations; Emerald has nearly sold out Portugal cruises for 2017 and has opened the books for 2018.
Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles, sees this as a river cruise pattern.
“Some lines came out early with incredible offers of $1,000 per person savings and free airfare, so that drove a great deal of early business,” he said. “It has also allowed them to significantly limit current discounts because they did such a good job of stimulating the market early.”
Kaplan notes that Viking River Cruises has diverted some ships in central Europe to the Chinese market or for private use, keeping wave season marketing in the U.S. market strong with less capacity. According to a Viking spokesman, the line is seeing a strong rebound in demand from North American travelers, and it has compelling offers for 2017 and 2018 sailings.
Harrison, too, sees river cruising picking up again.
“I see a lot of repeat itineraries, but at different times of the year,” she said. “For example, clients who sailed the Danube River in the summer and winter and are now looking at the fall. They like to bring different sets of family on each trip.”
People are traveling, and they definitely want to go somewhere this year,” she added. “I think it's just a matter of making them comfortable with their destination choice and providing them with a safety net.”