Ready to rock out? After an 18-month hiatus, theme cruises have returned to the high seas, with all the entertainers, bands and avid fans onboard -- along with comprehensive COVID-19 health protocols for all onboard -- that make concerts on the high seas seem safer than those on land.
Sixthman, the theme cruise juggernaut that's a subsidiary of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, has restarted with some of its most popular sailings. The Chris Jericho Rock 'N' Wrestling Rager At Sea took place in late October, followed by KISS Kruise X in early November.
In total, Sixthman has returned with six theme cruises -- what it calls festivals -- in 2021, with another 16 coming in 2022. The company's lineup next year includes pre-pandemic favorites such as Cayamo, the Outlaw Country Cruise, Kesha's Wild and Wonderful Rainbow Ride and The Rock Boat XXII. KISS is returning for KISS Kruise XI.
Other theme cruise companies are also staging events at sea. The Malt Shop Memories Cruise, run by StarVista Live and featuring acts from the '50s, took place in late October. ECP has a full lineup planned for its 80s Cruise in March 2022, and its jazz concerts and Star Trek cruise are also on track to set sail again next year.
Far from killing theme cruises, the COVID-19 pandemic made music and entertainment fans even more appreciative of live concerts and experiences where you're gathering with like-minded people, said Sixthman CEO Anthony Diaz.
"The pandemic might actually throw gas on the concept," he said.
The return of theme cruises has been marked by the same focus on COVID-19 prevention as the rest of the cruise industry. Theme cruises are generally full-ship charters, and the onboard health and safety protocols are dictated by the cruise lines.
In the case of Sixthman, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings had already set a company-wide vaccine mandate for all crew and passengers and also required antigen tests at the pier, Diaz said. In addition, Sixthman has asked everyone onboard its theme cruises to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result, taken 96 hours before embarkation.
The double testing protocol, along with the vaccine mandate, meant that while masks were strongly encouraged in indoor venues, they were not required, Diaz said. Organizers of the 80s Cruise said in an email that the current vaccine mandate on Royal Caribbean also means that its concerts will be able to go on, mask-free. It's worth noting that on theme cruises, a significant number of concerts and events are held on the ship's outdoor decks.
"We had no instances, no spread," Diaz said. "We caught a few cases on embarkation outside on the pier, but single digits… Because of the attention to detail we put into the protocols, it (COVID) became a non-issue."
The vaccine requirements for musicians, entertainers and their crew are the same as those that the passengers face. Making calls to artists during the pandemic to see if they would sign on for 2021 and 2022 was "scary," Diaz said.
"If we didn't have those 12 bands, it doesn't matter," he said. "Fans come for the band, they aren't sailing for Sixthman."
But most artists were "thrilled" to hear that a vaccine requirement is in place onboard ships because "it ensures a safe environment," Diaz said. "We wanted to be able to put on the same environment that we did prior to the pandemic where fans can really enjoy the experience."
A few artists dropped out for medical reasons, Diaz said, but they were quickly replaced. An example: on the KISS Kruise, the lead singer of the 80s band Ratt couldn't get the vaccine. "We had to respect that and Ratt came off the lineup… but then we booked Night Ranger," Diaz said.
The 80s Cruise had similar luck retaining artists. "When our 2020 sailing concluded, we had a full lineup in place for the 2021 cruise. Even after we had to move the 2021 sailing to 2022, almost all of those bands stuck with us," ECP Executive Director Chris Hearing and Greg Laubach, executive director of business development, said in an email to Cruise Critic.
"There were a very small number of scheduling conflicts that we addressed by easily and quickly bringing in other artists to fill in. In fact, we will have more bands on the 2022 sailing than ever before."
Once the artists were onboard, Sixthman put the cruises on sale -- in the middle of the pandemic, Diaz noted. "We did what most people thought was crazy," he said. "And we sold almost all of them out. It was unbelievable."
One group of people who couldn’t come onboard in 2021 were international fans, at least until this month, due to travel restrictions. That meant that the 2021 cruises, for the most part, had a reduced capacity; the KISS Kruise, normally a sell-out, sailed at 70 percent capacity, Diaz said.
(International KISS fans who were not able to come in 2021 are being given preferential booking for 2022, Diaz noted).
Having fewer people onboard dovetailed with NCLH's current capacity strategy, however, Diaz said. "There wasn't a hard number, but they asked us to reduce, which we did," he said. "It happened organically, though."
Royal Caribbean is also ramping up capacity, but ECP said the 80s Cruise, which is sold out, is expected sail full. "When we sail in March, it will have been two full years since our last 80s Cruise and during that time the overwhelming majority of our guests have never wavered. Many booked their reservations almost two years ago. We’ve offered refunds and very few have requested them," Hearing and Laubach wrote.
In many ways, the pandemic showed both artists and fans how much they need each other, Diaz said. "I think the shutdown made artists realize just how alive it makes them feel to do what they do," he said. "Artists are born to entertain and tour and be with their fan base."
And more and more, musicians are realizing how lucrative a theme cruise can be, he added. "The fans leave the ship, they go back to all these states and countries and they are incredible ambassadors. They are doing the social sharing. They are buying the merch," Diaz said.
"Even though it's only 2,500 people, it's the most passionate 2,500 people."
Theme cruises are also a good pipeline for the cruise industry overall, Diaz said. "We bring new people into cruises and then they realize that cruising is a really great way to vacation.
"If you try and compare the concert or festival experience to a cruise, theme cruise companies will win all day long. Where else can you get housekeeping, a steak dinner, a spa, casino, Jamaica and see KISS with only a thousand or two thousand people when they tend to play arenas with 30,000 people? The comparison is just off the charts."
Updated November 17, 2021