Comment: How the cruise industry can appeal to the travellers of tomorrow

Louise Robertson, senior lead for brand strategy and planning at marketing agency ScienceMagic, assesses how the sector can continue to keep attracting customers

I recently took two weeks off for the most diverse holiday I have ever had in my life – Glastonbury Festival followed by a luxury cruise around the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Enjoyable on all fronts obviously, but very different. I should add, Glasto was my choice, while the cruise was a bucket list holiday with my parents who had always wanted to visit St Kilda.

I’ve never thought of taking a cruise myself. Nevertheless, as a curious brand strategist, it got me thinking about the cruise industry in general, and some key shifts it needs to make to appeal to the future consumer (not just the brand strategists who go to music festivals).

The global cruise market size was valued at USD 7.67 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) 11.5% from 2023 to 2030 (Grand View Research 2023). This is impressive… but I see eight key shifts cruise companies need to make to make this a reality.

  1. Market the destinations, not the vessel

A lot of cruise companies’ channels are covered with pictures of their ships. And clearly, you need to know you’re staying somewhere nice (after all, 40% of cruise guests never get off the ship).  But I believe that for the next generation, it’s all about where you’re going.

We’re all more time poor than ever, and with a growing cost-of-living crisis, cruising offers a cost-efficient way to see a lot of the world’s most amazing destinations at once. The Hebridean Princess cruise I went on with my parents was a way to see the remote and eerie island of St Kilda – the luxury boat was simply a bonus.

  1. Focus on time over value

Value is obviously a key driver for the current cruise ship community. The UK cruise customer over-indexes on looking for value pricing when booking a holiday (Global Web Index). However, for the luxury community, time is money. A cruise enables you to see beautiful places in a small amount of time, without the added stress of packing up and moving on to another destination.

  1. Tune into the new meaning of luxury – because it’s different now

Luxury means different things to different communities. For some, luxury is tasting local cuisines in a remote restaurant or drinking glacier water. Luxury is now more about meaningful values. Which community are you targeting as a cruise liner and what do they value? For example, the cycling community may value a guest speaker who is an ex-professional cyclist, a yoga community may value sunrise yoga on deck.

Our recent research into very wealthy people in Saudi Arabia showed that they spend every day of their life in luxury homes, luxury restaurants, and in luxury surroundings. For this community, a luxury is feeling human, having time, and a natural landscape that takes your breath away, making you feel small, insignificant almost.

When communicating your luxury credentials, consider your community, and what values truly mean something to them and their lives.

  1. Go to off the beaten track, not the main ports

The next generation values special experiences over product, and wants to be the first to see things. While they’ve probably done the Barcelona harbour, they may not have visited the Albanian Riviera. This is a hot topic for the loyal cruise community. Cruise reviewer Gary Bembridge recently wrote about MSC Cruises, saying: “They are very limited as to where they can go due to the size”.

This shift toward experiences will drive the growth of the cruise market. According to recent research from Grand View, “The rising popularity of river cruises is likely to drive the global cruise industry. River cruises offer attractive packages that travel inside the countries and not just the coastal areas. These types of river cruises are becoming increasingly popular in European countries”.

But what will then happen to the huge ships that can’t go off the beaten track? They can be used for philanthropic or creative purposes: housing asylum seekers or being turned into stationary museums, hotels, or housing. Or they could be destroyed responsibly, recycling materials.

This brings me to shift number 5…

  1. It’s not about being well-travelled – it’s about travelling well

All cruise ships are talking about ESG, but few have made significant progress, and this will impact the growth of the market with the consumer of tomorrow…

According to Grand View, “The growth of the cruises market is restrained by the increasing concerns regarding the environmental pollution, caused by ocean cruising. Cruise passengers and crews generate a significant amount of waste and pollutants. Ocean cruise ships are responsible for approximately 77.0% of the marine pollution, globally.”

Amsterdam even just closed its cruise terminal to stop mass tourism as it doesn’t match the city’s sustainability ambitions.

  1. Focus on communities, not demographics

Communities are driven by values, not demographics, and this is true for travel. Think about Glastonbury – it attracts people of all ages around the brand’s passion for kindness, fairness, and a love for the arts. Cruise holidays, in particular mainly attract older people (22% of cruisers in UK are over 55, according to Global Web Index data). This is partly because a lot of cruise marketing is focused on value for money, comfort, and ease of travel.

If cruise companies focussed more on passions and their destinations, they would attract much more likeminded communities, going beyond age.

For marketeers, boomers are often a core target due to their high levels of disposable income, but by focussing on passions and values cruises, can collate ships full of likeminded communities that spread across demographic categories and will keep coming back.

  1. Considered eating over gluttony

One of the biggest cliches about cruises is that they involve a lot of gluttony. I experienced this on my recent cruise, which offered a two-course breakfast, three-course lunch, afternoon tea and three (or more) courses every evening.

With an increasing focus on managing our own health and nutrition, cruise companies can do a lot to promote healthy eating. For more expensive liners, a personalised menu to suit customers wellness goals would be a nice touch, and the opportunity to try local cuisine could be key for younger explorers.

  1. You need to digitalise to personalise

Many customers prefer booking their cruise over the phone, but this is changing fast. So, get ahead whilst you can. Having a digital home is also a great way for your community to engage with each other when not on your ship.

In summary

There are a lot of structural, digital, physical and psychological changes that cruise ship organisations need to make to appeal to the future consumer.

The key is for these companies to understand their core community, as knowing what they value will enable them to build an unforgettable experience, and a loyal following.

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