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A couple seeking a “Shark Week” adventure of their own books a cruise to Honolulu, where they can cage dive with great whites. A woman builds her Alaska sailing around the availability of a helicopter ride to explore a glacier. A third client asks his travel agent to set up visits to local rooftop bars in every port on his upcoming cruise.
These are real-world examples of how exceptional shore excursions are quickly becoming the deciding factor when a client is choosing a cruise line and itinerary. In fact, advisors now often need several resources to satisfy the escalating demand for special immersion in a destination: the onshore excursion offerings of the cruise lines; land-focused destination management companies; and their own personal contacts.
This has become a quiet revolution driven by consumers, who, according to Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises, are now making booking decisions based on “authentic local experiences surrounded by human connection.”
“Experiential travel is exploding,” he said. “The baby boomers with time and money are embracing the ability to get to know the culture that defines a destination — and themselves, too."
It’s no wonder cruise lines are competing to provide top excursions. Norwegian Cruise Line passengers can help sail an America’s Cup-winning boat in St. Maarten; Holland America Line offers the chance to climb to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; Azamara guests can spend the night in a Bedouin camp in Egypt; and passengers sailing with Celebrity Cruises to Ketchikan, Alaska, can dance with the Tlingit People at Saxman Village. In addition, Hurtigruten takes travelers to an ice hotel or a glass igloo in Kirkenes, Norway, to watch the aurora borealis; Royal Caribbean International guests can book a hands-on lesson in Roman gladiator combat near Italy’s Colosseum; and Carnival Cruise Line’s “Only-on-Carnival” excursions in the Caribbean feature exclusive outings such as touring Bonaire on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Exclusive ExperiencesAccording to surveys, it’s hard to overestimate the consumer demand for experiential activities. In the most recent quarterly Industry Outlook report from Cruise Lines International Association, 91 percent of its 1,000-agent research panel rated uniqueness and exclusivity of experience as “important” or “very important,” demonstrating that travelers are seeking to immerse themselves in local culture and life.
Scott Koepf, vice president of strategic development for Cruise Planners, sees a strong desire not to visit places just for travel’s sake, but to go deeper and have life-changing experiences.
“This trend may have started with millennials, but it now applies to all demographics,” Koepf said. “It’s part of a broader trend: The consumer is looking for experiential travel, along with exclusivity. If your friends and family can do it, it isn’t exclusive."
Indeed, this type of travel is at the heart of today’s idea of luxury. Suppliers are taking special experiences and making them extraordinary. John Stoll, vice president of land programs for Crystal, says that when it comes to tours, the line has seen the largest increase in those that are customized or enhanced. It’s one thing to take an excursion that includes the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro; it’s another for a dozen people to leave the ship early in the morning for a private mass at the small chapel behind the sculpture, as a group of Crystal guests did. Stoll also arranged tickets to the hit play “Hamilton” in New York City for a limited number of passengers, as well as dinner with two of the cast members.
Likewise, witnessing Carnival in Rio is a thrill, but Barry Karp, co-owner of ShoreTrips, created an experience for a small group that included a special viewing area and costumes so his clients could march with one of the parade groups
During Royal Caribbean’s gladiator experience in Rome, passengers do some hands-on learning.Credit: 2018 Royal Caribbean International
Holland America guests visit a koala sanctuary.Credit: 2018 Getty Images
ShoreTrips arranged a VIP experience in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival.Credit: 2018 ShoreTrips
A fire-dancing show with Windstar.Credit: 2018 Windstar Cruises
Oceania passengers can take guided culinary tours.Credit: 2018 Oceania Cruises
Windstar offers a memorable dining experience in Kusadasi, Turkey.Credit: 2018 Windstar Cruises
Azamara, which built its brand on “destination immersion” and even had the term licensed as a federal trademark four years ago, has offered shore experiences such as a visit to Kotor, Slovenia, where the mayor agreed to close the city center so that top wineries could gather and serve the cruise guests — all while an award-winning a cappella vocal group sang for them.
“You couldn’t do this unless you were on that cruise,” Azamara’s Pimentel said. “The onshore experience is so important that our cruise brochure is now a destination guide."
According to Daniela Harrison, travel consultant for Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz., success in this market can be rewarding for advisors.
“It can be quite an upsell when you arrange a special driver and custom itinerary,” she said. “And if you design this for one port, clients often want it for all of them.”
Mathy Wasserman, partner at Flying Giraffe Travel in Los Angeles, agrees.
“A client wanted to do the local markets in one port, so we designed that,” Wasserman said. “And then she wanted to do it in all of them.”
Wasserman estimates that only 5 percent of her clients want off-the-shelf land experiences, and the rest want extraordinary moments, regardless of the cruise’s price. She says that distinctive tours don’t have to be expensive — just unusual and targeted to the client’s interests. For example, she sent foodie clients truffle hunting north of Rome with a driver who supplied a picnic of local specialties.
ShoreTrips looks for good value options, as well. It offers premium shared excursions in ports where — for the same price as large group trips — agents can reserve individual seats in an eight-person van with the same guides who conduct customized private-car excursions.
Changing Cruise ProductsThe desire for intensive onshore experiences is also leading consumers to choose longer cruises that provide overnight stays and late-night departures.
“We have had really good results when we educate people about the benefits of extended cruising, where they can have more adventures and save money,” Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel said. “People who have only cruised up to two weeks are booking four- and six-week cruises, and even world cruises. You might think some of these clients were too young, but you would be surprised.”
Besides pre- and post-cruise packages, clients are adding midcruise overnight and multiday programs, too; these are usually offered on days when the ship will stay in port overnight or when there is a sea day before it reaches the next port of call. These all broaden the consumer appeal; they take guests to remote local communities and to iconic sights away from the water.
Azamara’s Overnight Adventures program can extend to two or three nights onshore, as can Celebrity’s Multi-Day Adventures, such as the three-day expedition to Machu Picchu and Cusco, Peru, via the Orient Express train. Other lines, including Royal Caribbean, Oceania Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises, have advertised such midvoyage overland tours for some time now. Pre and post options range from visits to amazing sights — such as Seabourn’s five-night UNESCO India’s Golden Triangle: The Taj Mahal and Jaipur excursion, to encounters in remote communities, including Silversea’s private helicopter service to meet reindeer herders in Mongolia.
Meaningful culinary experiences rank high with travelers, as well. As part of its partnership with “Bon Appetit” magazine, Princess Cruises offers Bon Appetit Guided Tours, including Scones From Scratch in Dublin, while Oceania features an enhanced portfolio of Culinary Discovery Tours in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Guests onboard Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours’ Eclipse in Peru can opt for private dining at a resort set against the backdrop of the Andes mountains. And Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers Gourmet Explorer Tours where ship and local chefs guide passengers together.
Meanwhile, ShoreTrips provides a free service for agents who sell $8,000 or more of its product in a year: The company will arrange hard-to-get reservations at Michelin-starred and James Beard award-winning restaurants for foodie clients.
Another type of shore excursion may involve a cause. Stoll is particularly proud of Crystal’s You Care, We Care voluntourism programs, which are free for passengers.
“There is so much interest,” he said. “We respond to emergencies, too. In Hawaii, guests cook, pack and deliver food to support people impacted by the volcanic eruption. And Crystal Symphony will be back in December with even more opportunities.”
Holland America has expanded its Cruise With Purpose shore excursions to include visiting a koala sanctuary and planting trees in Brisbane, Australia, and contributing to a reforestation project in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Lindblad Expeditions periodically offers the Citizen Science BioBlitz, where guests take thousands of photos and gather data that would be expensive for classic scientific survey expeditions to accumulate.
“The Lindblad-National Geographic vessels bring a greater number of people to a greater number of places than professional scientific parties can touch in a year” said Kathleen Sullivan, a retired NASA astronaut and guest speaker on Lindblad cruises. “That’s such a fantastic resource.”
Ultimately, the desire for special experiences is a gift to advisors, says Koepf of Cruise Planners.
“This is a great trend that really gives agents a chance to demonstrate their value,” he said. “The key is the qualifying process — it is vital to ask a significant number of questions, not just about the clients’ vacation histories, but also about their passions.
Agents can create exclusive, experiential travel regardless of the product, and by doing that, they will end up with lifetime customers and great referrals.”