Comment: Cruise customers have never had it so good

Comment: Cruise customers have never had it so good

Whatever is going on in the cruise market at the moment one thing is for sure, for the customer there has never been a better time to take a cruise in terms of value for money.

For travel agents who sell the vast majority of cruises in the UK that might seem like good news and certainly there seemed to be a positive mood among delegates at this week’s Cruise Convention.

We at Travel Weekly have not been able to access the latest official market data, but peel back the veneer and the reality is that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, along with the rest of the mainstream holiday market, 2012 won’t be looked back on as a vintage year.

An extended sales period well beyond the traditional turn of year ‘wave’, some incredibly low prices and added value like free flights and excursions, discounted child fares, and generous onboard credit tells its own tale.

Last year the market was described by at least one senior executive as the latest they had ever seen - well, assuming the bookings do come in, this year looks like being even later than that.

It’s often said that cruise ships always sail full, which means that cruise lines find themselves each year in what seems like an extended version of an edition of BBC hit reality show The Apprentice.

With time running out before the stock has to be shifted the big decision is whwther to reduce your pricing now and accept reduced yields or hold out to the bitter end hoping the business will eventually come.

The sector was urged to hold its nerve on pricing at Tuesday’s convention amid claims that price is not the be all and end all when it comes to customers making their decision to buy.

Agents, whose earnings are based on a percentage of the selling price, will certainly hope so because it’s as much in their interest as it is in the operators’ to keep prices up.

But the great unknown is just how the tragic events of January 13, when Costa Concordia sank after hitting rocks off the coast of Italy right in the middle of the peak selling period, have harmed the industry.

Our recent customer survey conducted by Explore Research, albeit based on a relatively small but representative sample size, suggested the damage may not be as bad as feared.

However, in a year that is clearly not turning out to be fantastic for mainstream holiday sales per se, what we don’t know is what the cumulative impact of that and a general downturn will be.

The long-term prospects for cruise remain good and the UK can look forward to much increased capacity coming to these shores with the likes of P&O Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises all bringing more or bigger ships here.

But for this year the industry – operators and agents alike – have got plenty to do to persuade a cautious public to commit limited resources to a holiday at sea.

Those that do are likely to look back on this period and realise they never had it so good.

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