There is good news in the travel marketplace as travel agents are reporting higher cruise sales in 2008 versus 2007, according to Vacation.com, the leading travel services marketing organization in North America and a representative voice of the leisure travel industry.
At the same time, the retail agent network, with more than 5,000 agency locations, is reporting that consumers are spending more cautiously, booking closer to travel dates and opting for both mass-market and premium cruises while reducing the overall number of days at sea.
In addition, the survey results indicate that the Vacation.com Engagement Direct Marketing and E-mail Marketing programs have helped participating member agencies to show stronger increases in bookings and sales over those non-Engaged members in 2008.
The report comes as a result of an economic and booking survey conducted by Vacation.com of its membership following the conclusion of the 2008 Wave Season (the first three months of the year) in which cruise lines traditionally promote and sell the lion’s share of cruise berths for the year.
“As the largest organization representing leisure travel agents in North America, we are a very good barometer for the leisure industry and are encouraged by the continued growth in the cruise vacation market compared to last year,” said Steve Tracas, president and CEO of Vacation.com.
“All indications are that consumers are still taking cruises, but they are adjusting their plans to shorter cruises spread-out over the growing and diverse products offered by the many cruise lines,” Tracas added.
Ultimately, the 2008 Wave season was solid and sales were generally better than 2007 with 76% of the member agencies reporting sales equal to or above last year, according to the Vacation.com survey. Cruises booked averaged $1,426 per person, slightly higher than the previous year.
Most agencies were reporting a shorter booking window for cruises, a phenomenon experienced by tour packagers for the past decade. However, even here, some retailers said they were getting bookings as far out as 2009 cruise sailings.
The Vacation.com Engagement program appears to be a solid business tool as Engaged agents typically reported sales gains and were less likely to report declines in the premium/luxury cruise market and the 14-day sailing category.
Engaged agents are the most likely to report much better results in 2008 compared with 2007. Among the Engaged agents reporting, a total of 81% said that sales increased as compared to 69% for non-Engaged agents.
Engaged agents were also more likely to show an increase in premium or luxury cruises with 20% reporting an increase in bookings as compared with 15% among non-Engaged agencies. The latter are also less likely to book luxury cruises altogether with 15% not operating in this segment.
Although down year-over-year, Caribbean cruises continue to lead the market in popularity with more than half of all cruises booked in the 2008 Wave season. The Caribbean was followed by Alaska (18%) and the European cruise market (15%) in consumer preference.
Agencies participating in the Engagement program show a higher percentage of sales for Alaska cruises at 21% as compared with non-Engaged agencies at 16%.
Other results of the Vacation.com survey revealed:
* 42% of the members said bookings were better than in 2007; 40 % said bookings were about the same. Only 18% reported a decrease in bookings from 2007.
* 42% claimed revenues had increased over the prior year; while 34% stated they were about the same. Only 24% reported revenue down year-over-year.
* 17% of the membership claimed premium/luxury cruises have increased over the prior year; 52% said they had stayed the same.
* Family and reunion cruises measured the greatest percentage increase in bookings at 35%.
* Only 15% of the agencies reported significant increases in honeymoon cruisers.
* 14-day cruises only increased with 27% of the membership, while almost an equal amount, 24%, experienced a decline.
* 4/5-day cruises only increased with 22% of the members, while 18% experienced a decline.
* 6/7-day cruises reported the largest increase with 33% of the members while only 10% reported a decrease.
When asked which of four issues influenced consumer purchases most: recessionary fears was the most prominent issue, followed by a weak U.S. dollar, the housing crisis and then the cost of fuel.
Cruise sales now make up more than half of the total business mix of the Vacation.com agency network, which consists of predominantly leisure-oriented agencies servicing the vacation needs of consumers across the U.S. and Canada.
Tracas said: “Our survey reflects the current environment in the cruise industry that is positioned for record growth between now and 2012. The industry is gearing up for an additional 36 ships which will represent an additional 77,000 berths. Cruising is quickly becoming a year round, global experience for travelers.
“While no industry is recession-proof, the cruise industry has been very resilient over the course of history. With the many changes upcoming within in the industry, we see this trend continuing. Contributing to this fact is cruising has become more global with reported new destinations in Europe, South America, Asia and Australia. Also, river cruising is an extremely fast growing segment of the cruise market.
“All this bodes well for the consumer as well as the travel agent whose experience and expertise is required to cut through the clutter to provide the traveler with the best value, products and destinations based on the individual client’s preferences. Cruisers and travel agents align very well today and into the future.”