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In the past couple of years, cruise executives started talking about a new approach to selling voyages that flew in the face of conventional practice: No longer would they resort to deep price cuts to fill empty cabins in the final weeks before a sailing.
Instead, they said in calls with analysts, they would start to maintain discipline in their pricing — some called it “price integrity” — even if ships did not sail completely full. That followed years of sluggish pricing and several public relations blows to the business.
Now, after some adjustment on the part of consumers and travel agents, the effort is paying off. Leaders of major cruise companies said in recent financial updates that passengers are locking in their cruises earlier than ever, leading to record booking windows and higher prices.
And a new question has emerged: Are cruise operators getting too many customers to book too early, possibly at the cost of even higher fares?
“Is it to the point where you’re sort of maxed out, like you actually don’t want to be more booked in advance than you are now?” UBS analyst Robin Farley asked during a recent Royal Caribbean earnings call.
Executives say they’re considering that issue constantly.
“This is a nice problem to have, but sometimes we do feel that we shouldn’t get too booked because we give up opportunities at higher prices,” Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, said during the call. “We still are at record levels. And simply the question is do we want to continue to expand that or do we want to raise our prices a little bit and, in fact, slow down the booking velocity. That’s exactly what’s happening, and it’s a debate that we had here every day.”
Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, fielded a similar question in his own call just days later.
“That’s something that we look at constantly, the trade-off of an incremental booking versus the outlook for future price increases,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that when demand is there, you take it and you take it and you keep pushing pricing until that demand hits a resistant point.”
Fain laid out his strategy in 2015, while Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald had said the previous year that the company was looking to hold prices steady in some markets even at the expense of occupancy. Del Rio, who became CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in early 2015, announced that he would avoid discounting to fill ships in favor of adding value and investing in marketing.
Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz said the benefit of a longer booking window is that it lets cruise operators know farther in advance what kind of revenue they can expect. She said the traditional window has been four to six months for North Americans, who tend to book earlier than European and Asian passengers.
In an email, she said Norwegian executives described one particular benefit of getting a passenger to book sooner: “The earlier booking and deposit gives customers a longer time to ‘replenish their wallet’ between payment and sailing, further bolstering potential onboard spend.”
During his call with analysts earlier this month, Del Rio said the booking curve at Norwegian had reached an “all-time high” of a little more than seven months on average, a “significant improvement” over the same time a year ago.
“Do I want to take it higher? I don’t have any preconceived number in my mind that I want it to be eight months versus six months,” he said. “Seven months is where we are today and I’m very happy with it, and I’m also very happy with the per diems that that booking curve is generating. One cannot look at one without the other.”
Donald, the Carnival CEO, gave less detail during his company’s call in June, but chief communications officer Roger Frizzell said in an email that the booking window had “moved out significantly.”
He credited the company’s efforts to “keep price integrity,” but also promotions, marketing, and a growing awareness of the value of cruising.
“In my view, this is the natural evolution of success, possibly the new normal,” Frizzell said. “It is a consumer behavior we encourage and applaud.”
A Bumpy Start
The price integrity plan didn’t start out so well. When CEOs first announced what they were doing, they cautioned that the fill-at-any-price mentality on their part — and the wait-for-a-deal mindset of consumers — could be tough to break. And there were some negative results.
Fain said the company lost revenue in 2015 and 2016, which was painful.
“Today, it’s clear that the program is accomplishing our goal of rewarding those who book early, while disincentivizing those who push for last-minute discounts. The key to this success has been consistency,” he said this month. “We don’t do it only when it’s painless or convenient. We maintain the program even when it hurts, and sometimes we have to let cabins sail empty. That goes against every one of our instincts, but the focus and the discipline have proven their value.”
There were several reasons for the shift. Passengers who reserved a trip early ran the risk of finding out that someone who waited until just before the trip to book paid far less. That could be damaging to loyalty and encouraging more people to hold out for rock-bottom fares.
“For consumers, they’re probably able to feel more confident in their pricing,” said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at the cruise review and information site Cruise Critic. “It’s less likely than previously that they will be sitting at dinner and the person next to them is going to say they paid half of what the other person paid.”
And operators knew their product had been undervalued, especially after a couple disastrous years that included a deadly shipwreck in 2012 and disabling fire that led to the infamous “poop cruise” the following year. Those catastrophes unfolded in the years after the recession also put pressure on prices while cruise lines continued to grow their fleets, often in saturated markets.
A 2013 story in MarketWatch pointed out: “It may now be cheaper to book a cruise than stay in a Motel 6.”
Mike Driscoll, editor-in-chief of the industry newsletter Cruise Week, said the industry has done several things right since then. Capacity increases have been steady but not overzealous, and operators are deploying their ships in more global markets including China and Australia.
And while there are occasional bouts of bad publicity, nothing has really damaged the image of cruising for a few years.
“I think the industry manages their problems better now,” Driscoll said.
He pointed out that operators are also opening cruises for booking earlier than they used to. Just last week, for example, Regent Seven Seas Cruises announced that it was about to start taking reservations all the way into 2020. And Fain recently discussed the strong interest in a new ship that won’t launch until late 2018.
“They never talk about unusually strong business for any ship that is that far out,” Driscoll said.
Customers have been willing to reserve earlier in part because they are realizing prices will likely be better the farther in advance they book — but also because cruise lines have sweetened the deal.
“They’re getting more realistic in pricing, but throwing a bunch of benefits out to the consumer in the form of a value add, such as pre-paid gratuities, free beverages, open bar, free shore excursions, free Internet,” said David Crooks, senior vice president of cruise agency and leisure travel company World Travel Holdings. “They’re throwing a lot of incentives out there to entice the consumer, and they take them away close in.”
And as incentives are dangled, consumers realize they logistics require them to book early if they want to take advantage of those benefits.
“It’s really increasingly impossible, if you want to have dinner in the steakhouse, to book at the last minute,” Crooks said. “In order to get a lot of these special amenities that the cruise lines have come out with, you need to book early.”
“This is what all of us in the industry have been looking for and hoping for for the last several years,” he said.
The booking window for short cruises of three, four, and five nights has increased more than 40 percent, Crooks said, mostly due to interest in Cuba cruises.
“You add Cuba, the price goes up dramatically,” he said. “There’s no last-minute deals to Cuba at all.”
McDaniel, of Cruise Critic, said determined passengers will still be able to find good prices late in the game. The company even has a tool that tracks price drops for bargain hunters.
“There still are deals to be had,” she said. “It’s just we’re not seeing it as often.”