With strong appeal for cruise passengers seeking to avoid coaches and crowds, shore excursions offered by third-party providers, especially those emphasizing small groups, immersive experiences, and off-the-beaten path destinations, are growing in number and popularity.

Independent excursions, which unlike most ship-sponsored excursions pay commissions, are also finding favor with travel advisors who say they result in more customization and trip satisfaction for clients while also boosting the bottom line.

“People are really looking for experiences, and the more you can personalize something like a shore excursion, the stronger you are as an agent,” said Vicky Garcia, co-owner and chief operating officer of Cruise Planners, a franchise network with 2,500 agencies. “People are less likely to want to get on a bus with 40 others these days. I feel that way myself.”

Growing Ranks of Third Parties

Among the most successful of the growing ranks of third-party excursion providers is ShoreTrips, which was launched in 2002 by two Milwaukee-based travel advisors, Barry and Julie Karp. The fast-growing company, whose agency group partnerships include Virtuoso, Ensemble Travel, and Signature Travel Network, offers over 3,000 excursions in 400 ports and serves about 600,000 passengers a year.

“We noticed that many of our clients were not raving about what they did on their cruises, so we started dabbling in doing some independent excursions for our own clients,” said Barry Karp. “Then we started offering our services to other travel agents, and they started buying them. We realized we had a business.”

ShoreTrips focuses on small-group experiences that avoid congestion and emphasize cultural immersion and less-visited sites, Karp said.

“For instance, we wanted something less commercial than Bacardi in Puerto Rico, so we found a smaller rum distillery that takes just four to six people at a time,” he said. “Instead of using a large barge to visit Stingray City in the Grand Caymans, we use a cabin cruiser. At Dunns River Falls in Jamaica, we visit it after the crowds have left.”

Pricing on the ShoreTrips excursions are competitive with those offered by cruise lines, according to Karp. Along with paying commissions to travel advisors, the company also enables advisors to earn commissions on excursion bookings made directly by clients.

“We offer an anti-poaching system where the travel advisor can register their clients with us,” he said. “We give the clients their own accounts that they can use to make their booking direct. So even in cases where the client doesn’t book the cruise through the agent but books an excursion with us, the travel agent still gets a full commission on the excursion.”

Other notable players in the shore excursion market include Viator, owned by TripAdvisor and which introduced a booking platform for travel advisors two years ago, and Shore Excursions Group, which also pays commissions to advisors. Seeking to expand its reach in North America and UK is My Cruise Excursion, which is the leading independent provider in Germany, according to marketing manager Sridhar Karanakaran.

“We’ve already signed partnerships with more than 1,000 travel agencies in the U.S., so it’s a growing and important market for us,” Karanakaran said. “Our biggest advantage is the group sizes and the familiar atmosphere of our tours. We usually run these in small groups of eight to 12 people and often at lower prices than the cruise lines.”

Getting Back to the Ship

While some may feel more protected with a ship-sponsored tour, particularly when it comes to getting back to the ship in time, both ShoreTrips and My Cruise Excursion told Skift that this is not an issue passengers should worry about.

“We have never left one person behind in 20 years,” Karp said. “However, we do offer a back-to-the-ship guarantee. If anyone misses a ship on our excursion, we will fly them to the next port and cover any expenses.”

When using any third-party provider, Garcia at Cruise Planners noted that travel advisors should always vet them thoroughly.

“We only use companies that we have a relationship with, that we know are in tune with the ship’s schedule,” she said. “You need to make sure the company is licensed and insured. What are their rules in case you do miss the ship? What is their contingency plan?”

Lisa Silvestri, owner of Silvestri Travel, who often works with Viator and ShoreTrips, said her experiences with the third-party shore excursions providers has been positive, often exceeding that with cruise lines.

“I think ShoreTrips and Viator are often better about vetting and qualifying the tour companies they work with than the cruise lines are,” she said. “Their products are superior, and they pay commissions to us.”

Cruise Lines Take the Challenge

As third-party options proliferate, some cruise lines are upping their game on shore excursions, offering creative new options and exclusive experiences that are a far cry from the traditional coach tour.

“Many [cruise lines] are working with their tour providers to create new, exclusive experiences not offered by third parties or marketplaces,” said Lauren Birden, Lead, Pre Cruise Commerce for Celebrity Cruises.

As an example, she pointed to Celebrity’s Small Group Discoveries, specially curated excursions designed for groups of 26 or less that feature culinary and outdoor adventure themes. Celebrity, along with its sister brands Azamara and Royal Caribbean, also offer a program called Private Journeys.

“Private Journeys are customized tours in all ports that are tailored to the guests desires,” Birden said. “These experiences can be requested and created pre-cruise or on board.”

Other examples include Carnival Cruise Line’s Only-on-Carnival offerings in the Caribbean, which feature experiences such as visiting a Jamaican home for the day. Another is Princess Cruises’ Global Partners and Local Experts program, which enlist local experts to curate behind-the-scenes excursions in European ports of call.

Importance to Cruise Lines

How big a source of revenue are shore excursions to cruise lines? While little data is available, industry experts usually estimate that on-board spending, of which excursions are a significant part, account for slightly less than a third of overall revenue. A statement issued by Royal Caribbean in 2018 reported that the average passenger spent $1,560 with the cruise line, with $444 (28.5 percent) going toward onboard spending.

The lengths that cruise lines go to in promoting shore excursions is an indicator that the returns must be sizable, said Tanner Callais, founder of the cruise site Cruzely.

“Anyone who has been on a cruise knows there is an entire area of the ship devoted to booking excursions,” he said. “Meanwhile, announcements and sale flyers come each day telling passengers about the excursions they can book. If the amount made by cruise lines on shore excursions was small, we don’t think they would go through this much effort.”

Photo Credit: Barry and Julie Karp, owners of ShoreTrips, on a shore excursion in Mexico City. Passengers are increasingly looking for shore trips that are off-the-beaten-path and with smaller groups than cruise-led excursions. ShoreTrips