Cruise Sellers 'Pretty Happy' With FEB Sales

Cruise Week

Europe sales are exploding.

Europe is exploding, futures are strong across all markets, and the booking window is as close to being the longest it's been in recent years.

Little wonder that at the State of the Industry panel at the Seatrade Global Cruise conference in Ft. Lauderdale , cruise CEOs were bullish on business.

Indeed, Tuesday's announcement by Viking Ocean Cruises that it will build six more vessels, meaning 12 are on the way within 10 years, punctuated the optimism on the future.

Even so, there is a growing dichotomy between what some agent leaders report and what cruise line officials are indicating when it comes to Eastern Caribbean bookings over the second half of Wave Season.

For instance, here's the overview comment from a top retail source: "Sales for the past month are down and not meeting expectations. The further out [the sailings are] from the second quarter, the better the bookings are, relatively speaking."

 In other words, bookings for July and on look better than last year, but April and May not so much.

 Here's a succinct remark from a national top producer: "Business in the last month is soft, largely because of weak Eastern Caribbean bookings." He's referring to bookings made in February, not for sailings departing in February.

In terms of the close-in Caribbean bookings, one agent concurred with those cruise execs who have reported, "It could be less available inventory," as the reason why some agents are reporting a partial Caribbean softness, while cruise lines themselves are very happy with business.

This retailer notes that while Eastern Caribbean business has slowed, there are not the normal pricing promotions that one would see if business was truly off: "Demand is weak, but prices haven't tanked."

But another retail leader said a slowdown is persistent, and predicts it's likely to be reflected in second quarter reports, at least with Eastern Caribbean.

 He pointed to lots of discounted agent rate space available in the Caribbean on Easter Week as one example of softness. When there's an unusual amount of agent space made available close in, it's usually unsold inventory made available to travel agents for their own travel/educational purposes. Others pointed to recently launched bonus programs as indications of softness.

Most attribute Eastern Caribbean slowdown to reaction to hurricanes catching up with booking trends and a few cite February being a milder weather month in the Midwest and Northeast than January, which was cold. Some think Eastern Caribbean softness in February is merely a blip, based on strong booking trends further out.

Part of the difference with close-in comparisons versus further out may simply boil down to unwavering positive reports on a strong Europe market.

Not only was 2017 far stronger than 2016 and ocean cruise volume and rates are stronger in 2018 than 2017, but European river cruise and land tours are stronger this year, too. Looking ahead, that bodes well for the cruise business overall; when just one sector bumps over another, the bump tends to be short-lived.

The strength of Europe vacations is why some retail leaders think the cruise business is going to be just fine, barring geopolitical setbacks. Tellingly, 2019 is off to a very positive start for Europe cruise sales.

The story is different for Alaska, but even here there's a connection to Europe business. "I do wish Alaska sales were stronger this month," said one big seller of February.

His take: "Alaska really started picking up when Europe struggled back in 2015. Europe is exceptional now, and it's so hot some people who might normally take an Alaska cruise are going to the Med or the Baltics instead."

Mind you, Alaska continues to be strong overall. As one example, land tours in Alaska combined with cruise continue to be very popular. That's particularly great news for Princess and Holland America Line, the latter of which is expanding its Alaskan land product.

"We were very happy with January," reported one top retail leader. "We were pretty happy with February. Overall, we're happy with Wave Season."

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