Skift Take

Being small isn't quite enough to stand out in the cruise crowd. But elements of quirkiness, fun, and surprise — along with the advantage of greater access to some destinations — could do the trick.

When John Delaney started his new role as president of Windstar Cruises in July, he said he wanted to find a better way to tell the story of the brand.

With a six-ship fleet made up of both power-operated luxury vessels and masted sailing ships, Delaney said marketing too often just revolved around wind or power.

“That’s just not the whole story,” he said.

The company is working to better communicate the itineraries that are best served by each type of vessel: the “Wind” class in warm-weather destinations and “Star” class (212-passenger ships formerly owned by Seabourn Cruise Line) for longer trips in cooler weather locations. Owner Xanterra Parks & Resorts bought the Seabourn ships in 2013.

And Delaney said he is leading an initiative he calls “destination authenticity,” delivering experiences in ports in a customized way that is made possible because of the ships’ small size.

“What we’re really trying to do with Windstar is we want to create a really fun, surprising, scrappy-in-a-fun-way little cruise line, because our ships are small. We can do some really unusual stuff, some surprise stuff, some things that you just can’t do on big cruise lines,” said Delaney. “We love the quirkiness and the fun elements of a Virgin Atlantic, and we want to build that into what we’re doing at Windstar.”

The line is also working to grow its global source market and diversify the itineraries it offers — all with an eye toward eventual expansion. One important change that has already happened is the introduction of a new reservation system that enables online bookings.

Delaney, formerly Seabourn’s senior vice president of global marketing and sales, spoke to Skift about where the company is trying to find more passengers, public perception of the brand, and the niche that small ships can fill.

Skift: Could you talk about the challenge of communicating the brand when maybe before you just had these iconic sailing ships but now you have this other experience too? What’s the challenge of really coming up with the right message that fits all of what you have?

John Delaney: It is a challenge. It’s a challenge because you’re under a single brand name trying to sell two types of cruising. Common themes tie both together, but it’s two different types of ships. I sincerely believe that our current brand tag line will help us do that and that’s ‘180 degrees from ordinary.’

We can talk about how the Wind ships are a 180 degrees from ordinary way to see Tahiti. It’s an incredible way to sail the Greek isles. 180 degrees from big ports and large crowds and what have you.

We can do that the same thing with the Star class ships. 180 degrees from the big ships, these wonderful yachts. So we’ll be using that language to craft the messages and I think we can unify it in a very fun way.

Skift: You talked about needing to globalize your source markets. Who’s the most important potential passenger or potential customer for you to reach — and is it geography or is it a key demographic that you don’t have that you want, or is it all of that?

Delaney: It’s really geography. The demographic that we go after is the same regardless of which market. Our average transaction is over $7,000, so if you look at household data, that suggests an average income of somewhere around $250,000 a year. That’s the demographic we’re targeting. It’s really the UK in particular, which is one of the most penetrated cruise markets in the world along with Australia. Those are the two biggies and we’re not even playing there right now and we should be.

Then there’s fantastic cruise markets like Germany….When we have folks from Germany sail with us, they love the product, they like our style because we’re an alternative, so that’s another big market that we’ll be working on breaking into.

Skift: Windstar as a corporate entity has gone through a lot of changes with different owners, a [former parent company] bankruptcy back in [2011], leadership changes. How much do you think that was a detriment over the last couple of years and do you feel like now you’ve reached a point of stability?

Delaney: It absolutely was hurting the brand. There’s not a question about that. We still suffer somewhat from that reputation. There’s a lot of travel agents who know the name, associate us with the Wind ships, but they have this negative connotation or impression out there. That definitely stems from the bankruptcy….So many people don’t understand who our ownership is today. They’ve heard of Xanterra, which is one of the best hotel operators in the country, but they don’t realize that Xanterra is owned by the Anschutz Corporation. [The privately held Anschutz Corp. also has oil and gas holdings, as well as sports and entertainment companies.]

When people start to understand what Windstar is now part of it’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that,’ and they love it. That is how we’re changing the messaging and yeah, so we’re incredibly stable now. We’re part of one of the most successful corporations in the world. Along with that, we’re going to be doing more with our sister companies. There’s some amazing tour companies that are part of this portfolio, Austin Adventures, Country Walkers who are doing some really fun bespoke walking tours right now in places like Europe. I mentioned that destination authenticity, this is a great example of some folks who can help us deliver within our own corporation.

Skift: The broader cruise industry has gone oversized, giant. And the reasons are not just to be big but they can put more choices on board, they can appeal to more people, with more activities. What’s the role of small in an age of huge?

Delaney: I think the cruise industry itself and the contemporary cruise lines…It’s a wonderful experience. It’s a wonderful vacation. I actually took 20-plus family members for a reunion cruise on a Princess ship this summer to Alaska and we had a wonderful time.

Small ship cruising is different. It’s more intimate, it’s more personal. You have this wonderful social ambiance that occurs and it becomes more about the destinations and where we can go and how we get there. It’s a very different social chemistry.

For Windstar, I honestly believe we can own small ship cruising. If you think about some of the cruise lines that used to be considered small ship, just a few years ago, their new ships are getting big, 600 or more passengers. There’s nobody in our niche with six ships with a global deployment. As we add additional capacity I think we can really own that category.

Skift: Is there a name for that category?

Delaney: I call it small ship cruising. Some people call it boutique cruising. We have proven to be an incredibly popular choice for folks who have had a river cruise. Their first ship experience has been a river cruise, they liked that size, we’re a perfect transition size.

Skift: Interesting. What do you think are innovations or trends that are in store for small ship cruising?

Delaney: Because we can get highly personalized, I think it’s really going to be crafting custom experiences, custom cruise experiences for our guests on board, be it a completely designed cruise from spa appointments to personalized tours to helping them make restaurant reservations when we’re at overnight in a port. And it’s really being able to be a floating boutique, bespoke type of a hotel experience, which is what we are. We’re floating hotels.

I think the other thing that we can do incredibly well is deliver these soft expeditions that folks are looking for.

If you look at Windstar — for example, we’ll go back to the Star class ships — these beautiful all-suite ships. We can take people on a cruise around Iceland now and we are able to start introducing scenic Zodiac cruising and glacial fjords right from the ship. Those kind of things, you can’t do it with 3,000 passengers. You just physically cannot get that many people on and off the small craft.

Skift: When you’re looking at growth for the cruise line, what do you see as the steps necessary for you to get to a place where you can grow and then once you take those steps, what is the best way? Do you build new ships, do you look to acquire other people’s older ships, do you do some of both?

Delaney: The most important thing is to get the global sourcing opened up, to really get the UK turned on, Australia turned on. Those are the two biggies. The other thing is there’s so many North American travel agents that don’t sell Windstar and don’t know us today that we’re very, very focused on it.

We’re really doing far more than we ever did with consortiums like Virtuoso, Signature, Ensemble, they’re fantastic business partners for us to get that message out. Once we get the distribution really healthy, we have that brand story identified or in the market in a much more powerful way, we’re generating a lot more demand….

We’re already looking at ships now and we’re also looking at options to build. We’ll do whatever we think makes the most sense financially at the time, but we want to stay true to this small ship cruising. There’s hardware out there today that we could purchase and there’s certainly the ability to build.


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Tags: cruises

Photo credit: John Delaney is the president of Windstar. He is working to expand the line's source market, emphasize destinations, and add a new element of fun to the cruise experience.

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