Seatrade Tackles Small-Ship Cruising

March 16, 2006
In "State of the Industry: Beyond the Big Four," the folks at Seatrade aimed to offer a panel of small-ship cruise lines that are not owned by the quartet of dominating cruise companies (NCL, Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean/Celebrity and MSC) to talk about the unique challenges they face as Davids versus Goliaths.

In this first-time event, which played to a room packed with industry folks, the opening speech was actually made by a banker rather than a cruise honcho. This actually makes sense in this context because the smaller ship lines often have less backing, financially speaking, than those with big ships and even bigger monetary support. As well, these participants, which included representatives from Clipper Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal, SeaDream, Oceania and American Cruise Lines, are generally privately held rather than publicly.

They also don't often weather major challenges as easily (impacts on travel from outside events, ranging from wars to terrorism) -- so their financial issues are quite different. What was most interesting in what was otherwise a rather dull session, honestly, was a sense of bullishness for a prosperous year in 2006 among both the financial community and the cruise lines. Credit, says Regent's Mark Conroy, the fact that there is a benefit to being small in a big ship world. "As the big guys get bigger they're creating a huge pool of experienced cruisers."

"There is," says Crystal's Gregg Michel, "a migration of folks who want luxury, want exclusivity, customization and personalization."

A handful of insights we thought were worth passing on:

Michel, who presides over what is arguably the best service staff in the cruise industry, noted that we "hire on attitude and train on skills." Wish that other employers in the hospitality industry take that approach!

The luxury cruise segment is evolving, in large part due to the influence of baby boomers who are rapidly flooding the market. Michel says that in 2004, 21 percent of Crystal's passengers qualify as baby boomers. In 2010 he expects that number to be 70 percent. The reason for the evolution is that baby boomers have different interests in traveling then the preceding generation. Cuisine, personal service and hotel-room sized accommodations are key pillars here -- and a distinctive, individualized and unique onshore experience in ports that range from greatest hits marquee places to completely offbeat stops, as we noted in our report from the deployment session -- is critical. Credit Regent Seven Seas, for instance, in developing an onboard position for a travel concierge who can make individual arrangements for everything from a serene hilltop in Greece for a yoga workout to private after hours tours of major museums.

An interesting aside came from Oceania Cruises' Frank del Rio who bristles when his line was classified as a luxury operation. "Is Oceania a luxury brand? We're quick to say a resounding no. That's the last thing we want to be. We're an upscale brand -- and more up to date in what we offer rather than mountains of caviar and bathtubs of Champagne -- but offer an affordable way to pursue travel dreams at an affordable price."

All small-ship operators on the panel agreed on one thing: The type of person drawn to this type of cruise experience is the distinction between tourist and traveler.