Remember the early days of the Internet Mark II – after the tech wreck – when it was growing faster than a three-year-old and everyone was really, really excited before it became routine?
Well, that’s what the Australian cruise industry feels like right now. Business is booming and there is no end in sight. People are happy and optimistic that they’re in the right place at the right time.
“Every year you think and wonder when the peak is going to come – but it never does,” said Craig Chisholm of Ozcruising.com.au.
January was huge for the Australian industry, which has more ships based here than ever before.
The biggest operator, Carnival Cruise Lines, had its biggest month ever, taking reservations for 565,000+passengers.
That’s 17% more than the previous year, fabulous growth.
Yet Australia’s overall industry has been growing even faster – 130% since 2009, according to Cruise Lines International data.
Most Australians travel on cruises out of Sydney or Brisbane although an increasing number are heading overseas.
European river cruising, as part of a grand tour, is especially high-profile with key local operators building and running their own ships on the main rivers.
All this activity means Australia is now the world’s fifth biggest cruise market contributing 760,000 passengers in 2013 and 3.6% global passenger share.
Demand is being driven by local capacity, high-profile marketing and price.
You can never forget price. Or packaging. Nor those magic words “all-inclusive” which has the power to sell a lot of cabins.
The ageing population doesn’t hurt either.
Time after time, cruise lines cite 50+ couples as their major market, and the advertising reflects this, good looking older people having the time of their lives.
(This is a global thing of course – just take a look at the new Princess Cruises campaign, freshly launched in the United States, which features at least one Mrs Robinson).
In Australia, the demographics mean cruise still loves traditional media like print and TV that other travel sectors have largely abandoned.
Cruise dominates print advertising in the Sunday travel supplements with its share of voice reaching maybe 40% to 50%, and there is also plenty of TV advertising.
Australian Pacific Tours, for example, was a major TV partner of the Australian Open grand slam tennis tournament – promoting its European river cruises with the tagline “Unforgettable”.
Its ads appeared every second or third commercial break – that sponsorship would have cost an absolute bomb – and reflect the bullish optimism (and opportunism) surrounding the sector.
At this point it should be noted that most other (slower-growing) travel sectors have abandoned traditional media for web-only media.
But the major cruise companies still find it effective in driving business, both direct and through travel agents.
They are also extremely active online, especially search marketing on Google, although there’s been a big shift in how companies compete over the past six or seven months.
The catalyst was the decision last year by Carnival to enforce its Google copyright and prevent travel agents from bidding on its brand terms.
This has forced a strategic rethink from the major online travel agents – who previously had essentially one strategy, bid on popular brand terms – in how they approach their search marketing.
Many are opting for more of an SEO focus (build organic search listings) and there are a couple of major website relaunches in store.
Facebook is also huge with the social element of cruising really playing well in that space.
User generated content on sites like CruiseCritic.com, owned by TripAdvisor, is also gaining very real traction.
“Our users are very engaged,” said Editor in Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown.
And there are more of them every month.
Cruisecritic.com had a record January with more than three million unique visitors to its site, which features a mix of editorial, review and forums.
The forums are particularly active and the site, which has operations in both the US and UK, is looking at further geographic expansion with Australia a strong possibility.
Outside Australia, cruise is also on a roll with the user base, so to speak, rapidly diversifying as operators, led by North American companies, seek new opportunities outside their home base.
According to CLIA, Scandinavia/Finland, Australia, Brazil, Germany, France are the fastest growing top-ten markets.
No real pattern there, some from the New World, others from the Old World.
However, all have large coastlines and a population with an urge to sail away. Perhaps the same factors are at play as in Australia.
All this growth cannot mask the fact that it’s not all plain sailing in the United States, by far the world’s biggest cruise market with 51.7% passenger market share.
It’s had just 15% growth over the past five years, albeit from a very high base (during 2013, for example, more than 11 million Americans took a cruise).
North American cruise companies also dominate ship fleets. Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean are the biggest – just like some of their ships.
The largest is Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, which, according to the New York Times, has 2706 rooms, 16 decks, 22 restaurants, 20 bars plus a casino, waterpark and theatre or showroom.
This behemoth can carry nearly 6300 passengers and 2394 crew – “the equivalent of a small town towering over the waters of the Caribbean Sea”.
No wonder cruise is dominating the travel headlines – there’s always something new, fuelling public curiosity, exemplified with the performances of newer markets like Australia.
The question now, though, is can the golden run continue?
People in the Australian cruise industry believe there is plenty of strong growth ahead, though they are publicly cautious.
This growth, many say, will come from increasing diversification of passenger demographics (families a major target), maintaining high repeat visitor ratios and new product – “finding the right ship for the right person”.
Logic backs this up the optimism with the share the cruise industry has of the total Australian travel market sitting at around 3%.
That low share encourage the thought that “the only way is up” but the mature US market serves as a warning: total travel share there has stabilised at 3.3%, the world’s highest market penetration.
So can Australia breach this benchmark and continue its impressive growth trajectory- or have growth rates peaked?
“Maybe next year,” Craig Chisholm from Ozcruising.com.au jokes.