Luxury cruise lines are reinventing themselves to cater for younger passengers, writes Hannah Sampson.
For their next holiday, Jessica and Michael Hammer are heading to Sweden, where they will stay with friends and immerse themselves in the rhythms of daily life.
“We want to learn about the country,” says Jessica, a 31-year-old from Florida in the US, who works for a software company.
One place the couple won’t be found any time soon: on a cruise ship, which they view as “a floating prison,” “generic and commercial” and “plastic”.
Cruise companies are working hard to change this image. With craft beers, speedy Wi-fi and apps, celebrity chefs and Broadway shows, cruise lines are increasing their efforts to appeal to discriminating young adults like the Hammers, who are part of the millennial generation that accounts for an estimated US$1.3 trillion in annual spending.
“Millennials love to travel; they love to show off their travel on social media,” says Debbie Fiorino, senior vice-president of a Florida-based travel agent network. “We have a great opportunity to get them as first-time cruisers, and we think they will become lifetime cruisers.”
Earlier this year, the Cruise Lines International Association identified the growth of millennial passengers as a top trend for 2014. The trade group’s most recent market profile study, released in 2011, showed that the average age of a cruise passenger was 50 and only 7 per cent were between 25 and 29.
While the cruise industry has long been moving away from its history as a grandparents’ getaway with assigned dinner seating at set times, and limited entertainment, operators are finding even more ways to diversify options in entertainment, food, drinks, activities and itineraries.
“Cruising is adapting to this generation by adding features that will appeal to a lot of people, but are must-haves if you want to get a millennial on a cruise ship” she said.
There is no consensus yet on where the millennial generation starts and stops, but most definitions include at least the 18 to 34 age range; the number of millennials is believed to be between 80 million to 95 million.
The group is known to be tech-savvy, global in world view, careful about spending and hungry for new experiences, according to experts.
“Affordable adventures are a huge theme for millennials,” says Jeff Fromm, co-author of the book Marketing to Millennials.
He says the group has a greater desire than any other generation to visit every state and continent, values experiences over status brands, and must be able to share those adventures quickly with their social networks.
That makes them ideal targets for cruise lines, which promote value, the ability to visit multiple destinations and diversity in options that can let young workers without much holiday time steal away for a quick weekend trip.
Lucy Garcia, a 30-year-old travel agent in Florida who owns a Cruise Planner franchise with her sister, sells a lot of weekend cruises to fellow millennials, and goes on many herself. The length is a good option for first-timers, she says, as well as those on a budget. “It’s a gateway to cruising,” she says.
While lines with mass appeal such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line have historically offered three- and four-day jaunts, more brands have been introducing shorter voyages. Princess Cruises now has sailings three to five days long, and Celebrity Cruises has found success with week-long European itineraries.
Companies have also started adding more overnight visits to allow guests to get a fuller experience in port. Celebrity, a “modern luxury” brand owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, has planned itineraries around events such as the Cannes Film Festival.
“Those are in tune with how this segment is looking for experiences that give them stuff to talk about,” says Lisa Kauffman, Celebrity’s vice-president of marketing.
This year, Carnival Cruise Lines, which says 40 per cent of adult passengers are millennials, started its Carnival Live concert series featuring acts such as Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson and Lady Antebellum.
Stephanie Evans-Greene, Carnival’s vice-president of brand communications and planning, says the introduction of a Dr Seuss programme has resonated with young parents.
“There’s a real connection to the brand and millennials wanting to have quality time with their family and kids specifically,” she says.
The cruise line recently announced a partnership with Cigar City Brewing to offer its craft beers, which are popular with young adults, on Florida-based ships.
Other cruise companies have been seeking foodie cred by joining forces with well-respected names.
For the upcoming Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, Miami-based Royal Caribbean International is partnering with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and Miami’s Michael Schwartz, who has already created “farm-to-ship” menus for restaurants on two other vessels in their fleet.
Norwegian Cruise Line announced recently that it was expanding a seasonal partnership with Bar Lab, the outfit behind the popular Broken Shaker bar in Miami Beach, to consult on the line’s cocktail programme. Located at an upscale hostel, the bar was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist last year.
“This new generation is so much more educated about food and beverage and cocktails and the people who are making them,” says Frank Weber, Norwegian’s vice-president of product development, at a recent launch event at the bar. “People are looking for local experiences, authentic ingredients.”
Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian’s president and CEO, says the cruise line’s model of letting passengers do what they want on their own schedule is meant to appeal to younger travellers. Millennials made up about 15 per cent of the company’s 1.6 million guests last year.
The Miami-based cruise line’s newest ships look to draw more from that segment with Broadway shows, water parks, ropes courses and a variety of restaurants and bars.
“These ships have been designed for people to have a lot of fun,” says Sheehan, who uses his children, born in 1983 and 1988, as a gauge. “Even though I make believe it’s for me to have a lot of fun, it’s really for people of that age.”
Royal Caribbean International also offers a multitude of onboard activities such as rock-climbing walls, a surfing machine and, on the newest ship, a skydiving simulator.
“Our ships aren’t built for just sunbathing,” says Kara Wallace, the cruise line’s associate vice-president of consumer insight and marketing strategy.
And Royal Caribbean wants passengers to be able to show off those experiences in ways they never could before – at least not until they reached better Internet service. To that end, the company has been investing in greater bandwidth on megaship Oasis of the Seas with plans to eventually roll it out across the fleet. “The millennials are an enormous market for us,” Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman and CEO Richard Fain says.
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition.