There are many things cruise companies say that they hold to be true. One of these is, if you’ve been on a cruise, you will become a fan for life.
I don’t necessarily believe that to be true – I went on my first sea cruise when cruising was just taking off in Singapore in the 80s with the launch of Star Cruises, and it certainly didn’t convert me. Perhaps it was the wrong ship, wrong time, and the stars didn’t align for me.
Another thing they say is cruises are hard to sell online – it’s a complicated sell, all those cabin types, all those shore excursions, all those activities and facilities onboard and it’s an experience, not a commodity like hotel rooms and airline seats.
I believe this to be partly true, but I also wonder how much of this is due to suppliers not wanting the status quo to be changed or the fact that no one has yet come in to disrupt the business the way Expedia and Booking.com did with hotels 20 years ago, or the way AirAsia did with aviation in Southeast Asia.
I am sure there are other reasons – for example, supply is highly consolidated in the hands of only a few giants and that traditionally cruise customers have been older and therefore more comfortable with the traditional way of buying.
So why, pardon the pun, rock the boat?
I wonder though if the time has come for change, and with that wave of change emanating from Asian waters.
The growth of Asia in cruising has been nothing short of phenomenal in the past decade, both as a source of cruisers with its 4.6b population and rising middle class and as a destination with cruise lines calling Southeast Asia the new Caribbean.
The growth of Asia has had massive influence in the evolution of the cruise product and experience. Destination Asia’s Bob Guy, considered the industry’s cruise guru, says in the past, cruise ships were built for Americans and then made excursions to Asia to see what new customers they could catch.
Today the cruise experience is being built and designed from ground up to cater to a new customer from Asia – younger; multi-generational; small groups – from food to tech onboard, shopping and shore excursions.
At Cruise World Asia, we heard that the first question customers in Asia ask is, is there WiFi onboard?
The investments being made in the cruise product are phenomenal. Genting Hong Kong, which bought luxury line Crystal Cruises, has launched Crystal Air. It converted a Boeing 737 aircraft into an 88-seater plane so that it can operate luxury fly-cruises. For this year end, it’s put together a double New Year countdown, flying guests first to Sydney then to Honolulu. Selling at US$99,999 per package, it’s pretty much sold out.
It has bought its own shipyard, and two years ago it bought Zouk, Singapore’s iconic party brand, and you can imagine what it can do with those customers to imbue cruising with a new, younger vibrancy.
It calls itself a lifestyle company. Sounds familiar?
Royal Caribbean is working on a project called Excalibur, which will be an app to allow customers to check in seamlessly and enjoy the onboard experience fully, says Sean Treacy, managing director for Asia. Its Harmony of the Seas has a Bionic Bar onboard with a bar tending robot which is a hit with Asian cruisers. It has rooms with virtual live balconies, screens that simulate the environment outside if you can’t afford a suite with a view. It has virtual reality dining experiences. The tech investments companies like Royal Caribbean are making to transform the onboard experience on its new ship, Symphony of the Seas, are impressive. (See video)
So just as Asia has influenced the evolution of the cruise product, I see it influencing the way it will be sold in future.
If you’ve got younger, more tech-savvy customers, then you have to sell the way they want to be sold to. If you want to attract new customers, you have to go where they are and if the next billion customers are in the secondary markets in Asia, then they are social, mobile and young.
Currently, traditional travel agents play a critical role in the sales process. With air and hotels having been disintermediated by online players, cruise is the last bastion for agents and Destination Asia’s Guy says they have to become more than order-takers if they are to remain relevant and add value to the process.
More agents need to go on cruises as well so they know what they are selling. A show of hands among the audience that day clearly showed only a minority have been on cruises.
Guy says cruise specialists were also needed and travel agencies needed to set up cruise divisions. In the US, there are cruise-only agencies and when that happens in Asia, we can say we have arrived, he says.
When I bought my first river cruise this year, I found it to be an over-complicated sale and I had to read through a lot of stuff to get it. I had chosen the cruise, all I wanted was to buy a cabin and then figure it all out later.
Michael Goh, vice president of sales of Genting, whose company gets Asia more than any other cruise company, acknowledged that change is inevitable and “we have to be where the customers wants us to be”.
Listening to the discussions that day, I was struck by many parallels between cruising and aviation and hospitality.
There was a time in Asia when some airlines believed seats could not be sold online. Along came AirAsia which gave away a million free seats and sold fares that could only be bought online. Today, more than 60% of air seats in Southeast Asia are low cost – these are the potential cruise customers. If you’ve saved on flights, you can afford to spend more on your holidays, like buy a cruise package.
Change will come. The only question is, will it happen from within or from an external force?
The good news is, a rising tide lifts all boats. Pardon the pun again.
• Featured image credit: iraanamwong/iStock-GettyImages