It’s the most maligned segment of the travel industry – cruises. Some will say rightly so, because cruise ships have the inherent weakness of being a contained environment where people frequently are restricted in close quarters.
But others would say that this same weakness is their strength. If cruise lines can better screen who boards their ships, and establish quick response protocols to contain an onboard outbreak, to some degree, cruising could become a floating extended travel bubble.
I’m no epidemiologist, but a slew of them last fall put together a comprehensive plan for trying to minimize onboard outbreaks. In their report, they stated that “with the ongoing advances in areas such as testing and therapies, our recommendations provide cruise operators with a robust set of thoughtful preparations, innovations, strengthened protocols, and enhanced facilities preparedness that will enable them to safely resume sailings.”
Cruises will come back. I have no doubt about that. Predicting when, though, is way above my pay grade. In fact, I would warn you against believing anyone who offers you any predictions about anything related to travel and COVID.
But when cruising does return, how will you begin to market the opportunities for your clients to set sail again? Have you thought about how you are going to start posting regularly on social media about cruises? If you get invited on an initial cruise via a fam trip offer, what are you thinking about how you will promote that experience? Does the idea of promoting cruises frighten you?
Before the world changed, 14.2 million North Americans chose a cruise for a vacation, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). I’ve been listening regularly to the investors relations calls of the major global cruise companies, trying to discern what they are saying about how much available capacity they will have when they initially launch.
Needless to say, that’s a moving target. But it’s an important one, because it represents the size of the opportunity for you to sell cruises and collect commissions after your clients sail. Much of that capacity may already be spoken for due to future cruise credits being rebooked for the earliest sailings. At best, the industry has left us reading tea leaves.
Who Will You Target?
When your preferred cruise companies do begin telling you about available capacity, the easiest prospects will be previous cruisers, of course. In December 2020, a CLIA survey reported that 74% of global cruisers say they still are likely to cruise again in the next few years.
So, there you go. Identify who in your database had taken a cruise at least once in 2018 and 2019. Send them an email checking in and ask how they feel about booking a cruise again in the not so distant future. Also, ask their permission to put them on a list for near-term promotional packages you expect to receive from your suppliers.
Maybe conduct your own brief survey, to break down how far in advance those different groups of cruisers would be willing to sail again, and offer them more customized future content based on their interest cruising sooner rather than later.
What Will You Say About Safety and Experiences?
This is where things get tricky. Cruising’s reputation took a bruising in 2020. If you were to base your marketing and communications on 2020 media headlines, it might seem daunting to you even mention cruising to your clients.
But, like I’ve written over and over in this column since September, the leisure travel market is NOT monolithic.
According to a recent survey of Cruise Critic subscribers, 81% of the 3,000 respondents said they would cruise again if vaccines were required. About 5% said that a vaccine requirement would deter them from cruising. About 14% said they weren’t sure yet.
Since March, another organization, The Harris Group, has been surveying consumers about their purchasing habits across a broader group of spending options. Their database sample is not a self-selected group like Cruise Critic subscribers, so we don’t know how many of them are passionate cruisers or even previous cruisers.
In the most recent Harris COVID Tracker poll [January 2021], 84% of consumers said they would take a cruise again once they felt governments had Coronavirus transmission under control. Harris breaks down those responses by how much time they would want before cruising again, and found that 30% of consumers would take a cruise anytime between immediately and three months.
Another 23% would take a cruise anywhere from 4-11 months, while 30% would wait at least a year before taking a cruise.
Given that vaccine distribution has recently ramped up, and we’re just starting to learn about its efficacy and side effects, I would call these responses pretty good news for the cruise industry and for travel advisors looking to reengage with their cruise hungry clients.
What complicates matters for travel advisors is trying to describe what the experience will be like for cruise passengers, in order to entice sales prospects to book.
According to the most recent Cruise Critic survey, “the vast majority of cruisers were fine” with policies like mandated vaccines, pre-boarding COVID testing, contact tracing, and reduced-capacity sailings. Where your list of interested cruises may grow smaller depends on what itineraries will look like.
According to Cruise Critic, permitting only “cruise line-sponsored shore excursions” would deter 29% of customers. Cruises to nowhere would be a deal stopper for 27% of cruisers, and 24% of cruisers would opt out of sailing if they were required to wear a mask on board.
Feeling out your prospect database for these kinds of preferences and opinions might be a good idea until the pandemic wanes and policies begin to relax.
Change is NOT the Only Constant
As you embark on your cruise marketing and communications plan, take heed to the old axiom that “Change is the only real constant.” The sentiment that consumers are expressing today very likely will change as the facts and the news headlines about the pandemic change.
We’ve seen this proven out in multiple surveys, like the one conducted by Harris Group.
Back in late November, as new cases were surging and the news headlines were filled with dire warnings about a holiday Coronavirus surge, 22% of Harris COVID tracker respondents said they would never cruise again, while 26% responded saying they would cruise anytime between immediately and three months from the time that governments reported COVID was under control.
I will leave you with one more encouraging thought. There is a HUGE constant working in your favor – YOU and your clients’ need for your expertise and service.
Stay true to your mission of delivering value to your clients, helping them not only make the best travel choices from all of their options, but also helping them meet the various requirements they will likely face to enjoy a cruise.
We have seen the story borne out time and again since this pandemic began, that do-it-yourself travelers, at best, leave themselves vulnerable to making uninformed choices that detract from their vacation enjoyment. At worst, they find themselves scrambling when travel requirements and policies change – and even stranded with no idea how to get home, or fix an important and immediate problem.
News headlines will improve and cruise industry marketing will begin to reflect increased confidence in cruising. That will change the interest levels of consumers depending on the restrictions cruise lines, ports, and the Federal authorities collectively decide on. You have no control over this. But as we move closer to relaunching cruises, staying up to date on this news will be critical to your future success.
So, I put the question to you: Are you figuring out who you will target for future cruises, and what you will say to your clients and sales prospects to remind them that returning to cruising again is best done with your care and commitment?
That, you do have control over.
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.