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From Star Trek to disco, French cuisine to yoga, themed cruises seem to be a fast-growing segment of the cruise industry. While a good source of business for travel advisors, themed cruise operators also tend to sell and market directly to consumers, which can be problematic for travel agencies.
A Boom in Bookings
StarVista Live, a division of Direct Holdings Global, which licenses the Time Life brand, has hosted 36,000 passengers on 18 music-themed cruises in the past eight years and is taking bookings for half a dozen more before next April.
According to Mike Jason, StarVista Live’s senior vice president of live entertainment, the company charters full ships from cruise lines such as Holland America and Celebrity and then creates “unique entertainment experiences that bring communities of like-minded enthusiasts together.”
The company uses its extensive entertainment industry contacts to produce cruises for fans of country music, soul, disco, ’70s rock and the flower power era, among others.
Independent British cruise line Cruise & Maritime Voyages began offering themed cruises on European sailings in 2015, including TV Comedy Legends, and Gardening & Wildlife. Since then, the line has expanded with a range of themed cruises based around music, TV programs and sports.
“Due to guest demand, CMV’s themed cruise portfolio has now grown to 10 cruises globally in 2019 and 2020,” said Darren Chigwidden, national sales manager for Australia and New Zealand.
Partnering With Advisors
Travel advisors are “a great source of bookings and wonderful partners,” said StarVista Live’s Jason, although the company, like many of its competitors, also takes bookings direct via a dedicated reservation department.
Jason wouldn’t disclose the proportion of tickets sold direct, saying that it “varies from cruise to cruise and year to year.”
Approximately three-quarters of Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ bookings come from travel agent partners, according to Chigwidden.
“Our agent partners are especially important when promoting our theme cruises as they often have access to relevant special-interest groups and are able to help communicate the theme cruise experience to prospective guests,” he told Skift.
Apart from business derived from travel advisors, Cruise & Maritime Voyages uses a combination of digital, email, social media, print advertising, direct mail and public relations activity to reach prospective passengers.
A number of travel advisors who spoke to Skift anonymously said they believed themed cruise operators prefer to sell direct and tend to downplay the role of travel agencies.
One Tennessee-based advisor identified a number of operators who “only allow people to book directly with them instead of partnering with other advisors.”
One who disagrees is Elizabeth Clarke, cruise manager of Brisbane, Australia-based The Cruise Centre, who said her team of advisors works closely with Cruiseco, one of the largest distributors of cruise products in the Southern Hemisphere.
Cruiseco, which takes direct bookings in addition to working with travel agencies, does brisk business with themed cruises. CEO Amanda McClennand was recently quoted saying “tickets (for its music-themed cruises) sell quickly, with 60-70 percent of guests returning year-on-year.”
Clarke can also attest to the popularity of music cruises, adding that the repeat factor is significant.
“I have clients who have sailed on the country music cruises for 10 years in a row,” she said. “If the theme is music, changes to entertainers each year means more repeat guests.”
At Crystal Australasia, which operates themed cruises and is part of Crystal Cruises, travel agency bookings comprise around 95 percent of sales in the Australia and New Zealand market, according to Karen Christensen, senior vice president and managing director.
Crystal’s Experiences of Discovery program currently includes 21 themes, many of which are combined to allow guests to pursue both new and established passions. They range from golf to cruises for devotees of tai chi, yoga and Pilates.
Connecting With Clients’ Interests
Christensen stressed that themed cruises provide a great opportunity for travel advisors to connect with their individual clients’ interests.
“Creating a perfect cruise holiday experience begins with understanding what clients want out of their cruise experience,” she said. “Whether they wish to experience a particular world-class event or want the opportunity to tee off on a world-famous course, cruises that offer experiences in line with a client’s interests are an additional benefit.”
StarVista LIVE helps prepare agents by regularly producing webinars and developing engaging content for them to share with their clients, Jason explained.
“We also offer marketing materials, both physical and digital, agent newsletters, have a dedicated reservationist just for the agents, and we offer exclusive on-board events for the larger agents, e.g. brunch, cocktail parties or shore excursions,” he said.
The variety of themes covered by the cruise market presents a broad range of options for a wide and varied demographic spectrum, Clarke said. “It’s just a matter of finding the common interest groups.”
Jason believes there is still significant growth opportunity.
“Everyone feels a particular and powerful emotion from a type or time period of music and our aim is to bring each guest great music that evokes those emotions and support them as they build a community,” he said. “We have lots of untapped ideas that we hope will bring guests that experience.”
Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ Chigwidden believes insights from existing clients are some of the most valuable assets travel advisors have.
“When speaking with your clients, take note of their life outside of travel, including family status, interests and hobbies while at home,” he said. “This will ensure you can match the right client to the right cruise. Better still, you will be able to suggest unique travel experiences that offer a sense of discovery and delight, both on shore and onboard.”
“Your clients will feel appreciated and heard, and will often have like-minded friends that will be interested in these types of experiences, which potentially means more business for you.”