Leading cruise line bosses discuss the 2018 market and prospects for growth. Harry Kemble reports

Leading cruise figures have revealed the ocean sector sailed clear of the slump in holiday sales widely reported to have hit other travel sectors during the UK heatwave and World Cup.

Prices for last-minute flights and land-based holidays were slashed as Britain enjoyed the joint hottest summer on record and the England football team progressed to the World Cup semi-finals.

However, with 29 ships slated for delivery in 2019 and cruise booking cycles getting earlier, the ocean cruise lines – and the agents that sell their product – bucked the trend and enjoyed bumper sales.

Strong bookings

Speaking at a Clia round‑table discussion in London, five executives said their respective lines saw strong booking trends throughout the year, including during the school holidays.

Antonio Paradiso, MSC Cruises’ managing director for the UK and Ireland, said: “The heatwave did not affect us – it has been our best year ever. I am basically up 50% year on year, so it would be tough to say that I have been experiencing issues.”

Marella Cruises managing director Chris Hackney said the Tui-owned line had enjoyed another “very good year” and that there had been a trend for bookings being made earlier each year.

Oceania Cruises’ Bernard Carter, managing director for the EMEA region, said he had anticipated slow sales in June and July as England progressed in the World Cup but that his fears did not materialise.

Both Paradiso and Tony Roberts, Princess Cruises’ vice-president for the UK and Europe and current Clia chairman, highlighted how early bookings enabled the sector to avoid a downturn in sales.

Roberts said: “There has been a very strong trend to book cruise early over the last three years.

“The result is there is not a lot of stock available late. I think this is particularly true with the summer holiday and family markets.”

Chris Edgington, marketing director at P&O Cruises, said he believed “a sunny Saturday” encouraged people to book a cruise rather than stay at home. “I think the hot weather has got people going ‘Wow, I wonder what this would be like on a cruise?’,” he said.

High street trend

Asked about recent trends in distribution, the executives said that while cruise specialists were enjoying a return to the high street, any type of agent could sell a cruise in today’s market.

Since January, independent cruise specialist stores have opened in London, Manchester, Wales and the Suffolk town of Woodbridge. The Manchester store, in the Lowry Shopping Centre, was the first opened by online agent Cruise1st.

Giles Hawke, Avalon Waterways’ chief executive, said there were “few barriers” restricting a non‑cruise agent from selling a sailing.

“I think selling cruise is a really easy area for agents to get into, but they just have to put a bit of focus into training themselves,” he said.

“It is much easier to put together a cruise holiday than putting together a multi-centre holiday.”

Royal Caribbean UK and Ireland managing director Ben Bouldin said investment by Cruise1st as well as by other online agents such as Cruise.co.uk and Iglu suggested there were ample opportunities for both agents and lines to grow sales.

“Those best equipped to take a slice of the pie will succeed,” he said, adding that Clia training and tools provided by cruise lines had meant it was easier for agents to sell a cruise now than five years ago.

New cruise lines

This summer, Virgin Voyages unveiled plans to name its first ship Scarlet Lady at an eye-catching event at the Fincantieri shipyard in Genoa, where Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson danced on tables in front of the national media.

The event came a month after luxury hotel chain Ritz-Carlton announced it would build up to five more yachts, beyond the three 298-passenger vessels it has on order and which launch from 2020.

Hawke welcomed the news. He said: “[New cruise suppliers] get more people thinking about cruise. Once people think about it they explore the other options available.” He added that Branson was “a shot in the arm” for the cruise industry.

Richard Twynam, Azamara Club Cruises’ managing director for the UK, Ireland and EMEA, said: “Branson is a pretty important travel influencer. He influenced the airline space and I am sure he can do it with cruise.”

Expedition expansion

The expedition cruise sector has seen significant growth activity.

Seabourn signed a letter of intent with shipbuilders earlier this summer to build a pair of luxury expedition ships, for delivery in 2021 and 2022.

Thirty-two expedition ships are now on order for delivery by 2022, raising questions about whether supply will outstrip demand.

“The jury is out a little bit,” Twynam said. “Can the [expedition] sector sustain its price points? Typically, in expedition they are higher.”

Roberts said he believed that despite growth in expedition capacity, the sector was “not hitting demand issues at this point”.

Hackney said: “Once we get those customers on cruise ships, you tend to get them back time and time again. The challenge is, can we attract the customers?”

Quick quotes:

Chris Edgington on the chances of river operators being bought by ocean lines
“The sailings might both be on ships but they are very different holidays and therefore from our perspective we’re sticking to what we do [ocean cruises].”

Giles Hawke on overcapacity in the expedition cruise sector
“For years, growth has been exponential but there have been these questions about overcapacity. But we keep growing and cruise companies keep being profitable and we keep taking cruise holidays.”

Andy Harmer on industry reaction to passenger Kay Longstaff going overboard on Norwegian Star
“I think the interesting outcome from that story was how many cruisers took to social media saying ‘that cannot happen’.”

Ben Bouldin on why agents should sell cruise over land‑based holidays
“We are higher-margin.Travel agents will make more from cruise than selling any other sector. That is partly because we have got a lot to sell to keep this industry going.”

Andy Harmer on the support that cruise lines give travel agents
“We should not underestimate the support that cruise lines give to travel agents. Cruise is like no other sector. The cruise lines offer the learning, the opportunities to see ships and sail on ships.”