While the cruise market is sailing "full steam ahead," small ship cruise lines continue to attract a core audience. According to Shirley Linde, president of SmallShipCruises.com, the small-ship market is also growing, despite lacking the general industry drivers: economies of scale and volume. Linde described these vessels as part cruise ship and part private yacht, with prices ranging from $100 to $1,000 per day.
"There has always been a small, steady market for it, but I think now more than ever, people are realizing how wonderful it is," Linde added. "While offering many of the advantages of cruising, you can go to remote locations, and out of the way ports where big ships can't go," she said.
Most commonly, learning about the environment, people, and cultures of the area, is part of small ship programs, while lectures by naturalists and historians contribute to an educational backdrop.
Generally, the clientele for small ship cruises varies somewhat between lines, but many companies agree that passengers are very well-educated, experienced travelers, approximately in their fifth decade of life, with a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to explore the world from an up-close perspective.
As far as small ship accommodations go, they typically range from basic to comfortable, but without the bells and whistles of the big ships.
American Canadian Caribbean Line (ACCL), which builds and operates its own fleet, presently has three 100-passenger vessels, specializing in in-land waterways and coastal cruising. "In the case of ACCL, and with many niche cruise lines, our fares truly reflect operating costs," a spokesperson said. "We do not rely on onboard revenue to assist with any costs of operations. ACCL even offers a 'bring your own booze' option, designed to create a homey non commercialized environment - an atmosphere like being on a friend's private boat," she added.
Many lines noted that lower fuel costs, less cost for food, and the absence of port dues, combined with efficiency and planning makes things very manageable from a monetary standpoint.
Another successful long-time operator is Travel Dynamics whose president George Papagapitos doesn't see anything wrong with customers going on larger ships. In fact, he implores it. "The more people go to megaliners, the more the smaller lines increase," he said. "As people learn and become more sophisticated, they will realize that small ship cruising is the way to go. And that's the market we are pursuing: the sophisticated traveler who wants to learn about the world, not just sit under an umbrella."
Travel Dynamics charters its vessels. Its newest addition is the 106-passenger Orion, which will be sailing on the Great Lakes, to Greenland, and Antarctica, while the 88-passenger Clelia II will be doing theme cruises in the Mediterranean from March to November 2004.
Travel Dynamics specializes in marketing to alumni groups, and other academic groups, and utilizes mostly direct mail.
Quark Expeditions will charter four vessels in 2004, operating 11- to 20-day sailings along the Antarctic Peninsula and South Atlantic islands. As small-ship lines tend to market themselves differently, Quark does not engage in typical advertising to promote its business either. "We have a considerable repeat business, and many of our customers come from word of-mouth," a spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Lindblad Expedittions said she has seen a rise in the number of families on its ships. "The authenticity of small ship cruises brings out the kid in all of us, so you can imagine why children would be interested," she said. "The fact that a child can be so close to nature is not only enthralling, but it teaches them that science and culture is fun." Lindblad operates five ships ranging from 60 to 110 passengers in capacity, and sails primarily in Central and South America, as well as in the Mediterranean, and in Northern Europe.
Adventure Canada, based out of Ontario, charters three to five ships, with a maximum capacity of around 100 passengers each, and focuses primarily on the Canadian coasts, but also offers some programs in the U.K. "Each year since 2000 has been significantly better for us," said David Ferguson, managing director. "I think the key is that people are now realizing that with bigger lines the ship is the attraction; but with smaller ships, the destination is the attraction."
Zegrahm Expeditions' President Scott Fitzsimmons elaborated on the economics of small ship cruising. "As long as small ship operators can substantiate their higher prices, they can be very profitable," he explained. "This means differentiating the product from the large cruise ship experience. Aspects like far-flung destinations, in-depth itineraries, and experiences with an educational component, set the small ship programs apart, and help justify premium pricing." Fitzsimmons concluded that the end result is higher yield business that offsets the need for volume.
Travel agent Lynda Maxwell, at Destinations, in Maryland, also agrees that small ship cruising has gone up in the last few years. "I'd say maybe if it were five percent two years ago, it's closer to 10 percent now," she explained. "I think more people are desiring the experience of the destination, than the experience of the cruise ship itself."
But Alfred Hernandez, a travel agent at Destination Cruise Center, in Miami, said that unless they are recommended, customers are usually clueless to smaller cruise ships even existing. "They only know the big names," he explained. "That's not to say that small vessels don't offer wonderful things. I suppose they just don't have the means to be as 'out there' as the major lines do."