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Norwegian Cruise Line, which last year projected 2014 earnings to grow 60 percent, has enhanced functionalities for FIT reservations and on Freestyle Group, the line’s group booking engine for travel agents.
The booking engine now includes the ability to customize amenities, assign or distribute tour conductor credits and put FIT staterooms into a group up to seven days before sailing. Agents still have the option to use the old booking engine if they prefer.
The recent enhancements are among several initiatives designed to involve and educate agents in response to the complexity of the line’s new large ships and the pace at which they are entering the market, plus the hot competition in the Caribbean.
Other new features on the booking engine include interactive deck plans so agents can view all the available staterooms, select up to five and place them on hold for up to 30 minutes while finishing the booking. In addition, agents can do a side-by-side comparison of group and FIT rates, extend options, use coupons, enter check numbers and schedule payments.
Strong Agent Sales Expected
Travel agent sales, including those from groups, are expected to be a significant contributor to the line’s anticipated 60 percent earnings growth this year.
Several analysts, including Robin Farley of UBS, set growth projections even higher. Farley commented that Norwegian’s management “feels on track to meet expectations for 2014.” She added that by early May several Norwegian ships currently in the Caribbean will move to Europe and Alaska, so close-in discounting during the first quarter should not affect earnings.
One drive of the projected growth is Norwegian’s two new ships. Another is the line’s expanded presence in the Caribbean, the world’s most popular cruise region. Norwegian is returning to year-round cruises from Miami after more than a decade of seasonal scheduling.
Norwegian’s New Ships
The newest ship in Norwegian’s fleet, the 3,969-passenger Getaway, was introduced in January following the debut of Norwegian Breakaway in April 2013. Breakaway is themed to New York while Getaway takes its theme from Miami. Getaway is the largest ship to homeport year-round from Miami.
In good news for travel agent bookings, Norwegian president and CEO Kevin Sheehan said the new ships are commanding double-digit premium pricing compared to others on the same itineraries. According to Sheehan, onboard revenues from the first three weeks of Norwegian Getaway sailings were in the double digits and exceeded expectations.
Sheehan commented that Norwegian pioneered Homeland Cruising more than a decade ago by expanding its presence in homeports around the U.S. He added that with the line’s carefully planned newbuild program, the time was right to return to Miami year-round, as well as to bring in the biggest ship to take up residence in the port.
Norwegian has two more newbuilds in the pipeline: the 4,200-berth Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Bliss, scheduled for delivery in fall 2015 and spring of 2017, respectively. The books are open for Escape, which will homeport year-round in Miami and sail a seven-day Eastern Caribbean itinerary starting November 14, 2015.
Sheehan said Norwegian’s strategy to build advance bookings has moved in the right direction year-over-year. He described bookings for the first quarter as solid but a little behind, the result of a conscious decision to balance pricing and demand. But he added that the rest of the year is on target or already ahead.
“We are solidly priced in the first quarter of 2014,” Sheehan said. “I would say the pricing is above the mid single digits. We want to continue to push on pricing and keep a careful eye on cost.”