Cruise sellers buoyant over results of early Wave

Despite concerns about a slowing economy in 2019, early
results from the first three weeks of cruising’s Wave season suggest that consumers
are still in the mood to spend on their vacation this year.

Several agents said business is outpacing or significantly
topping their sales from January 2018.

“I’m at $370,000 in sales already for January,”
said Christina Wandell, an independent contractor in Murfreesboro, Tenn.,
affiliated with Distinctive Cruises and More. “The Wave came in, and it
doesn’t look like it’s going to be crashing anytime soon. It’s been a very,
very busy month.”

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) officials said in a
conference call Jan. 30 with Wall Street analysts that bookings had set records
in two of the first three weeks of January.

Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC Cruises North America, however,
said Wave so far has been tempered by the strong booked position in which
cruise lines have entered the season. 

Wave season can account for up to a third of cruise bookings
in a given year, as consumers deploy their vacation plans and cruise lines roll
out some of their most attractive offers to snag business for their brand. The
season generally stretches from early January to the end of March, although
cruise lines have been getting a jump-start in recent years by rolling out
offers in December and sometimes even before Thanksgiving. Several agents said
Royal Caribbean International has been drawing client interest this year, both
for its offers and on the strength of its product lineup, which this year
includes the opening of its Perfect Day at CocoCay attraction in the Bahamas.

“My clients are very excited, it’s been busy,”
said Angie Snyder, an agent at Krouse Travel in Red Lion, Pa. “And cruising
has been the top thing that I’ve booked so far, Royal Caribbean specifically.”

Snyder said clients give a variety of reasons for wanting to
cruise. 

“Right now, I have some first-timers who are hoping to
experience it. They hear it’s a lot of fun,” she said. Other customers are
responding to Royal’s BOGO60 promotion, in which the second guest gets a 60%
reduction in fare.

Snyder said her 2019 started strong out of the gate. “I’ve
already doubled my sales from last year.”

Also expressing optimism was Katina Bradley, an independent
contractor at Wish You Were Here Vacations in the Central California town of
Morada.

“Sales have been incredible,” Bradley said. “There’s
been some really great promotions.” 

This year, the start of Wave season coincided with the
partial government shutdown, which was beginning slow down air traffic and
hinder progress through airport security checkpoints before it was temporarily
resolved on Jan. 25.

“With the government shutdown, I thought for sure that
things would slow down, but they really haven’t,” Snyder said. 

In addition to Royal’s BOGO60, promotions include Norwegian
Cruise Line’s Free at Sea Take 6 offer, which expands the menu of “free”
amenities from five to six and extends for a limited time all six perks to
guests booking balcony and minisuite accommodations in addition to those booked
in a suite or the Haven.

Carnival Cruise Line’s offer includes $50 deposits, and its
marketing is couched in terms of dollars-per-day, as in cabins can be had for a
daily rate as low as $59 per person before taxes and port fees.

Amber Costa, a Cruise Planners franchisee in Parsons, Kan.,
said, “It’s been a very busy start to 2019.

“I feel like Alaska has been really hot, I mean booking
for this summer and also already looking into 2020,” Costa said. “Alaska
has been really busy, not even just the cruise sector. Land vacations have been
busy, as well.”

Costa said the brands she’s selling the most have been Royal
and Norwegian, which are popular with the younger, family-oriented clients that
are her core customers.

“I’m finding that families are really starting to
invest in experiences as opposed to things, so those family-friendly lines that
are sailing in Alaska are a great option,” she said.

That’s likely music to the ears of RCCL chairman Richard
Fain, who has been preaching the primacy of experiences for awhile. In speaking
to analysts, Fain said RCCL had two of the best booking weeks in its history in
January, although with the addition of Silversea Cruises and ships like the
Celebrity Edge, RCCL is bigger than ever before.

“We are starting 2019 with some very good cards,”
Fain said.

For example, in Alaska where RCCL has 5% of its annual
capacity, it is sailing newer, larger ships than in the past, and its Azamara
Club Cruises brand, having added a third ship, will be represented there for
the first time this year.

Outside of the U.K., which has been impacted by Brexit
uncertainties, Wave bookings are up both in rate and number, RCCL CFO Jason
Liberty said. 

“All three weeks have gone exceptionally well,” he
said. “We’re still in the early days of Wave, but what we’ve seen so far
is a good news story on both volumes and pricing.”

MSC’s Sasso said the industry hasn’t rolled out its most
dramatic, high-impact promotions this year because it hasn’t had to. “I
think we’re all doing very well. I don’t think there are any red flags out
there that the Wave is not robust.”

However, he said, the strength of bookings before January
could mean a softer Wave for some. 

“Everyone has turned the year with more booked
passengers than we’ve ever had before,” Sasso said. “So you haven’t
seen crazy deals out there for the start of Wave. That alone may reduce the
volume of phone activity you get.”

Sasso said MSC recently rolled out a promotion aimed at
stimulating bookings from passengers who aren’t interested in a lot of extra
amenities. 

“We felt it was necessary to have a cruise price
without added value,” he said.

Wandell, of Distinctive Cruises and More, said MSC has been
a big part of her Wave season success, particularly the high-end cabins of the
MSC Yacht Club, which represent two-thirds of her January bookings.

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