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Cruise Groups Boarding Now

Since its initial boom in the 1990s, the modern cruise industry has been on a nearly unstoppable upward trajectory, with hundreds of millions of travelers worldwide taking up cruising over the past 30 years.

Today, groups have more opportunities than ever to embrace the cruising lifestyle with adventures on oceans and rivers around the world. In response to growing demand, cruise lines continue to innovate, rolling out new vessels, enhanced experiences, enticing food and other new features.

For groups looking to cruise in 2019 and 2020, the waters are more inviting than ever. We spoke with representatives of four cruise lines to find out what group leaders can expect from a wide variety of cruise products in the coming years.

Innovative New Builds

Hardly a month goes by without some cruise line announcing its plans to build a new ocean liner or riverboat. With constant building and refurbishment projects underway, innovation in vessel function and design is moving at lightning speed.

MSC Cruises, a worldwide ocean cruising brand, has launched a number of new ships over the past year, with more scheduled in 2019 and beyond. The MSC Seaside was the first in a class of ships designed with increased outdoor space and an emphasis on technology; its sister ship Seaview launched this June. Another Seaside class ship, Bellissima, is scheduled to join the fleet next year.

“We’re launching Zoe on the Bellissima, coming out in March,” said Lori Sheller, vice president of strategic sales and groups for MSC Cruises USA. It’s kind of our own Alexa in the cabin. From the tech standpoint, all the ships have the newest technology available.”

In October, MSC announced an order for four more luxury cruise liners, which will enter the market between 2023 and 2026.

Sailing rivers in the United States, the American Queen Steamboat Company launched in 2012 with two legacy vessels, the American Queen and the American Duchess, that had been heavily refurbished to accommodate modern cruising. Now, work is underway on The American Countess, a 2,445-passenger vessel that will cruise the Mississippi River.

“We build and operate vessels in the traditional wedding-cake style, with multiple white decks and a big red paddlewheel for propulsion,” said president and CEO Ted Sykes. “In the case of the Countess, we’re taking a former gaming vessel, cutting it and lengthening it by adding a 16-foot mid-body section. Everything will be brand-new, built to a very high standard.”

Scenic Cruises and Emerald Waterways, sister companies that have made their name in European river cruising, both have exciting new vessels in the works.

“Our newest and greatest ship coming online is the Emerald Harmony,” said Lisa Norton, vice president of brand management for Emerald Waterways. “It’s going to be sailing on the Mekong River. It will be introduced in 2019. It’s going to be an amazing, 84-passenger ship and the only river ship that can sail right into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.”

Scenic will christen a new vessel next year as well. Designed for the affluent market, the Eclipse will feature 10 dining venues, as well as a private helicopter and submarine for memorable and exclusive destination experiences.

New Destinations and Itineraries

To accommodate evolving consumer demand, cruise lines are adapting itineraries and adding new destinations for the coming years.

“Costa Rican and Panama are booming for us,” said Tim Jacox, president and COO of UnCruise Adventures, a small-ship cruise line focused on adventure activities. “We just start operating there less than two years ago, and we’re there year-round. We’re going to be doing 10- and 12-night itineraries there starting in 2019. We’ll be the only small ship there year-round doing a full transfer through the Panama Canal.”

MSC Cruises, which has been a favorite of European travelers for many years, is expanding the number of options it offers from North America.

“We have sailed from Cuba round trip, but never for the North American market, because it left from Havana,” Sheller said. “But starting in December of this year, we’ll have a ship sailing year-round from Miami that will overnight in Havana. And our new ship coming in 2019 will be doing a few sailings to Canada and New England out of New York.”

MSC is also preparing to debut Ocean Cay Marine Reserve, a private island that will be featured on a number of its Bahamas itineraries beginning next year.

Emerald Waterways’ most significant new itinerary will be the Harmony’s sailings on the Mekong in Asia. Sister company Scenic launched a cruise on the Douro River in Portugal in 2017, and Norton said the product has proven quite popular.

Culinary Expansion

As culinary arts continue to grow in popularity among the traveling public, cruise lines are innovating in the food and beverage offerings to attract travelers who value fine food and distinctive culinary experience. Often, this means expanding beyond the traditional dining room or all-you-can-eat buffet.

MSC Cruises is partnering with celebrity chef and Hawaiian-Asian fusion pioneer Roy Yamaguchi on its Seaside class ships.

“He has an Asian market and teppanyaki grille on those ships,” Sheller said. “He was personally involved in every aspect of the restaurants, menus and decor. He designed them from the ground up.”

Culinary experiences play a large role in the programming at Emerald Waterways and Scenic as well.

“We’re doing our first ever wine specialist cruise,” said Norton. “We’ll have a master sommelier from each of our core markets — Australia, the U.S., the U.K. and Canada — on one of our Sensations of Burgundy and Provence sailing next year.”

Scenic has made food a hallmark of its brand with the Culinaire program.

“They’re expanding that in 2019,” Norton said. “They have set up a beautiful area on the ships where groups can work with the chef. They can also go with them to the markets in ports and help them prepare the meals.”

UnCruise Adventures has found success with similar programs.

“We have a culinary and wine series on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the fall,” Jacox said. “We have our own sommelier on board, as well as other wine experts and guests chefs. That cruise goes through some of the best wine regions in the world, so we’re going to be visiting a lot of wineries and focusing on the various wines.”

The culinary program is part of a focused effort UnCruise is making to highlight local cuisine with sustainable ingredients.

“In Mexico, we’re sourcing fish and produce locally,” said Sarah Scoltock, the company’s senior director of communications. “We have a plot of land where they’re actually growing food for us. In Alaska, we’re sourcing wild Alaskan seafood locally. And in Hawaii, we’re buying produce and meat locally. We also have a pastry chef on each ship — that’s always the most popular person on board.”

Demand and Pricing Trends

Though the largest cruise lines employ dynamic pricing models that can lead to discounted pricing on some departures, the strong demand for cruise products means that boutique and mid-sized brands are holding steady on their prices or, in some cases, raising rates.

American Queen Steamboat Company, which sells all-inclusive fares and operates every cruise at full capacity, plans to keep pricing flat.

“We’re an expensive ticket because we pay American wages,” Sykes said. “But we think we’ve found a sweet spot in pricing. We don’t mark it up to mark it down. We have kept our pricing flat year over year, and then we sail full. 2019 is selling very fast for us — we’re way ahead of last year. And we have 2020 itineraries and pricing in the marketplace already.”

Emerald Waterways is seeing similar success.

“Our 2019 cruises are selling phenomenally well, particularly in the U.S. market,” Norton said. “We had been the new kids on the block, but we have had tremendous response from groups. Groups have been about 35 percent of the business for Emerald Waterways, and it continues to grow and grow.

“We’re out with our products for 2020, and our message has always been ‘book early and get your cruise for last year’s price.’ That is good until about Feb. 1.”

MSC Cruises offers some pricing flexibility. The company also offers a group rate with discounts below standard FIT fares. Groups may also qualify for an amenities program as well, which increases the value travelers get for the price of their cruise.

Jacox said that UnCruise Adventures’ small ships and exclusive experiences don’t lend themselves well to discounts or dynamic pricing, although the company sometimes offers on-board credits or activity discounts as part of special promotions. But in general, high demand is helping the company keep its pricing integrity and pay full commissions to travel agents.

“You won’t find us crossing out our prices or offering free air,” he said. “Our prices have increased. Our 2020 Alaska rates and dates are out in the marketplace. Our other destinations are out there through spring of 2020. There are some increases you can already see there, about 5 to 7 percent on average.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.

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