With the market buoyant and new ships and new lines entering the playing field, is loyalty in the cruise industry a thing of the past? Dave Monk reports.
With a few keystrokes, cruise clients can call up articles, videos, information and pricing about dozens of cruise lines. What’s more, travel agents, journalists and bloggers offer a whole range of tempting options.
And, with new operators, such as hotel chains also entering the market, the idea of people booking the same line year after year sounds outdated, even with schemes designed to keep them coming back.
While cruise companies try to build loyalty with discounts, perks, marketing and rewards, it can take only one disappointing trip – or a desire to try a different brand, itinerary or experience – that will lead customers to jump ship.
A survey by Cruise.co.uk, released in January this year, found that the key factor in almost 1,000 bookings was destination (44 per cent), followed by price (25 per cent). Only a fifth said the cruise brand was most important.
The poll also found that more than half of respondents had travelled on three or more cruise lines.
Even so, Tony Andrews, deputy managing director of Cruise.co.uk, doesn’t believe brand loyalty is a thing of the past. He says: “In my experience, a customer will stay loyal 80 per cent of the time and stray to another brand if it has something specific they want.”
‘Keep surprising guests’
Mundy Cruising managing director Edwina Lonsdale agrees there is still “a huge level” of brand loyalty.
She explains: “Given the whole aim of the luxury sector is to surprise and delight, it is a challenge for them to continue to do this when clients come back again and again, but this is something on which they focus closely, surprising their most loyal guests with all sorts of treats and special events.”
She continues: “High-end clients booking lengthy cruises in higher grades of accommodation tend to book early to get exactly what they want – up to two years out and more.
“Historically, there were also those who would wait for the late deals and offers, but at present, we are not seeing that so much.”
Attracting new-to-brand guests is the ‘holy grail’ for cruise lines. Lonsdale says: “The way to do it is either to steal market share from other lines or to find a new pond to fish in.
“The hotel yachts – Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Aman and more – are fishing in new ponds. Cruise lines can use different products to find new source markets, by introducing expedition cruising, for example, or river.
“Stealing from other lines can be done in partnership with agents (upgrading from premium, for example), or with one-off price incentives, sampler cruises, or unusual itineraries.”
Lonsdale also believes that “many high spenders stay loyal because they are well looked after when they come back on board”.
The allure of a new line
James Cole, managing director of Panache Cruises, says he often has conversations with people who’ll say “we’re very much Silversea people”, or “we only cruise with Regent Seven Seas”.
He adds: “In the post-pandemic world, assurance and customer service are the clear factors influencing bookings.
“People have become much more crowd-conscious and many have moved away from mass-market style holidays. In the cruise sector, this is driving more interest in small-ship cruising.
“Also, because of the pandemic, people are trying to make up for lost time. They are prepared to stray away from their preferred brands to visit the destinations that they haven’t been able to get to over the last two years.
“There’s a real opportunity for cruise brands to lure people away from their favoured lines.”
With global cruise passengers set to reach 35 million by 2027 – including a million in the luxury sector – Cole expects the number of small ships to double. “Even very small segments of the cruise industry, like expedition cruises, have grown by more than 400 per cent over the past 10 years,” he explains.
“To meet this demand, I predict that the cruise industry will become increasingly fragmented. Families will be attracted to increasingly more elaborate ‘attractions’ on lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Disney.”
The Cruise Line director Ian Buckeridge tells Cruise Trade News he has seen “tremendous brand loyalty” through the pandemic and beyond. In the ultra-luxury sector “customers expect certain standards in terms of accommodation, facilities, even little things like toiletries and soap”.
Our survey says…
A Twitter survey conducted for this article found that 57 per cent of respondents use different lines, against 43 per cent who stay loyal to one.
This backs up the sentiment from Clare Weeden, a principal lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton business school, who says brand loyalty has declined in the last 40 years for many consumer products.
“Switching to other cruise lines becomes more challenging to passengers as they lose brand attributes,” Weeden claims. “There’s also the fear they might dislike the other line, so the perceived risk might put them off. Travel agents are critical here because they can advise passengers on what else is out there.”
One company that’s had plenty of chance to build up loyal customers is P&O Cruises, still going strong after more than 180 years. But with new ships Iona and Arvia joining the fleet, it is also looking to attract new cruisers.
Asked if the new ships are designed to attract new customers, the line’s president Paul Ludlow says: “We wanted to offer the same exceptional quality and service guests expect from a P&O Cruises holiday, but also tangible firsts and surprising moments that would appeal to those guests who have never cruised with us before.”
One of the newest competitors in the market, Virgin Voyages, will soon have four 2,700-passenger ships to fill. So how does Shane Riley, the line’s sales vice-president, aim to turn new cruisers into loyal customers?
He explains: “I don’t think brand loyalty is a thing of the past but I do believe that it has become less habitual as customers move their business to brands they trust.”
Virgin’s Sailing Club and Rewards programme, launched last year, is attracting new customers while benefiting those who had been sailing with them from the start.
Riley explains: “We understand that now, more than ever, people are looking for good value in their experience, second only to superior customer service.
“At Virgin Voyages, we’ve reimagined the cruise experience from the hull up so that brilliant service becomes the norm. This is what will attract new guests and keep them coming back.”
Main image: Black Salmon, Shutterstock