Cruise Trends

Vintage Room aboard Crystal Symphony allows guests to enjoy private gourmet dinners and wine tastings.


Exposed to high-end luxury products at every turn, consumers of diverse income levels are increasingly buying luxury cruises. “Everybody has awakened,” says Ellen Kalish, partner, CruiseCenter, Houston, TX, who calls it “a circular response,” based on what consumers see in magazines, online and digitally. Here’s a look at three top cruising trends moving into 2017.

Not surprisingly, luxury cruisers seek private, personalized experiences ashore or customized shipboard arrangements. Kalish’s agency often reserves Crystal Cruises’ intimate Vintage Room for spectacular, private gourmet dinners and wine tastings. “These are in the category of ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ evenings with extraordinary wines and comments by the sommeliers and very special food presentations,” says Kalish.

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Off the ship, cruisers on a port call at Marseilles or Bordeaux can head out with a private car and driver, stroll through a fresh food market with a local cookbook author, take a helicopter tour above vineyards and blend their own wine with a local vintner. How about lunch with savory dishes prepared by a renowned chef at his or her estate, accompanied by regional wines? One of Kalish’s agents recently worked with Crystal’s shore-side land programs department to arrange an extensive helicopter tour over Monte Carlo for a family of four, with the family providing the final instructions to the ship’s onboard concierge.

Whatever the arrangements, “we’re saying, ‘let me do this for you. I promise you it will be worth it,’” says Kalish. “The growing list of specialty arrangements includes special food requests, flowers from a husband to his wife, wildly expensive champagne and caviar, intimate cocktail parties for small groups and so on.” One change in the marketplace is that only a small fraction of Kalish’s luxury clients are gourmands who absolutely “must have” high-end, multiple-course dining day after day. Others now prefer a more casual, local and often more authentic approach, she says.

So when a trusted private guide asks Kalish about where to take luxury customers to lunch, she’ll often say, “someplace local that you love.” In other words, gourmet dining is wonderful, but for many luxury travelers, pizza in Roma or tapas in Portugal and conversation with the locals is something they’ll talk about for years. Several of Kalish’s cruisers recently toured Rome with a private guide, who truly impressed by taking the travelers to his grandmother’s home to meet his family. They watched the preparation of a fresh meal and dined with the family, before strolling through a safe, local neighborhood — off the tourist path — with a chance to meet the neighbors. The travelers loved it.

And while privatized, customized arrangements have been well-patronized by senior and boomer travelers for years, she stresses that, increasingly this year, younger travelers — Millennials and Generation Xers — are now asking for and appreciating the suggestion for private, personalized experiences in conjunction with a cruise. One new option highly appealing for Kalish’s customers is the newly introduced Crystal Esprit, a luxury yacht product that’s a good fit for those who value the luxury yachting lifestyle, but perhaps aren’t yet ready to step in to a private charter. In addition, Ponant, Windstar Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club also offer intimate sailings or mega-yachting experiences, depending on the vessel.

For advisors designing private shore trips, securing a stellar local guide is critical, according to Kalish, who works through tried-and-true local contacts, taps into the knowledge of other trusted travel advisors or the Signature Travel Network, and then, most often, sets up the private shore trip arrangements herself. Why? “The cruise lines are all catering to them [luxury clients] but with the ‘private car/driver and guide’ option they have, it’s usually a suggested itinerary and a set group of drivers or guides. She says that could end up being a “canned tour in Rome” except that it’s in a private car.

She prefers to maintain the control, using companies and specific guides she knows, and really asking exactly what the itinerary will entail. “When trying to determine the clients’ interests, I listen carefully and, if they are of a mind that, ‘if you’ve seen one church you’ve seen them all,’ I make sure the guide knows that and limits the visits accordingly. The same goes for archeological sites. I have one client who thinks they are ‘just one more pile of rocks’ but still wants to check them off his ‘I’ve been there’ list, so visits are shorter and only to the most significant sites. Since many private guides are Ph.Ds or professors, travel advisors need to spell it out as to what’s desired,” Kalish says. Prior to one family’s tour, she thus instructed the guide that “all this has to be tailored to kids 12 to 14 who don’t want to hear history all day, so just cover the basics.”

One issue she sees regularly is that some luxury cruisers pride themselves on searching the Internet and telling their travel advisor, “Hey, I’ve found the perfect private guide.” She urges cruisers who’ve independently arranged to use a certain guide to actually talk on the phone to that specific guide they’re hiring — not just the company — and assess language skills. “Don’t rely solely on English in e-mail, as the note could have been written by a cousin. Make sure you can understand them,” she cautions her travelers.

She also tells people to ask any potential independent guide (directly arranged by the traveler) about what specific vehicle will be used for the tour, what insurance coverages the guide or vehicle have, and what’s the back-up vehicle, should the first vehicle have an issue. Also, with many pre-paid private tours arranged directly by the traveler, if the tour isn’t satisfactory, there may be no recourse. Travel advisors bring value to the customer because they know what questions to ask and they deal only with truly “known and trusted” professionals.

An advantage for advisors who book families on personalized, customized tours? Increasingly, “a lot of the travel people do is sentimental,” Kalish notes. In one recent case, she arranged a visit to an African elephant sanctuary for 25 family members to see a place their parents had loved and to meet the specific elephant the couple had “adopted” years before. “These adults with grown children of their own wanted to visit the place they had heard so much about while growing up,” she says. Similarly, adult children who have fond memories of travel with their parents often may wish to share those same places years later with their own children on a customized day tour.

Soaring River Cruise Interest

Decades ago, luxury travelers only wanted to sail on big ocean ships, as European river cruise products, even if designated “luxury,” were not designed for the most upscale travelers, according to Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., Fort Worth, TX. In her 40s, she sailed on Peter Deilmann, then the top luxury operator by many standards. She says the guests were all elderly, the programming not to her liking and, customization and active river adventures weren’t yet on the horizon. Thankfully, Turpin says today’s river cruise marketplace is very different.

“I attribute the wonderful impetus to Viking River Cruises, as they were very smart and targeted their advertising to the exact market they needed to attract,” says Turpin, citing videos showing the river cruise experience that ran in conjunction with “Downton Abbey” and other PBS shows. She also credits AmaWaterways, Uniworld, Tauck, Avalon Waterways and others for raising the quality of river cruising and the public’s knowledge of it.

Having sailed on China and European river cruises, Turpin says it’s a fabulous way for luxury travelers who’ve always wanted to do in-depth touring to get an immersive international experience. “Our travelers typically have cruised the world on an ocean ship and are now ready to see the inside of a continent,” she stresses. Yet, until recently, that did not include Turpin’s traditional Crystal clients. They weren’t ready to try river cruising as they wanted an all-inclusive product and the same experiences they had on the line’s ocean vessels. She says it’s a plus that the line has launched Crystal Mozart, a Danube River vessel, this year. Her Crystal loyalists have returned happy and next year, the line will add Crystal Debussy, Crystal Bach, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel.

The age for guests on river vessels is dropping, especially on shorter cruises. She says that’s much the same way Alaska cruising changed over the decades. Potential Alaska cruisers in the 1970s or 1980s often said, “I’ll take that trip right before I die,” Turpin notes, but now Alaska attracts people who love eco-tourism and active soft adventure. Similarly, “today’s river cruising isn’t your mother’s old ‘sit around in a rocking chair’ kind of cruise,” Turpin quips.

Many lines now carry bicycles on their vessels or have active shore trips. Turpin’s cruisers have enjoyed the Backroads adventure program on AmaWaterways, and she says even families are sailing. Many river lines, including Tauck, Uniworld, Avalon Waterways and AmaWaterways (in partnership with Disney) now have family-themed departures in Europe.

Echoing Kalish’s views of the rise of customized, personalized arrangements for luxury cruisers, Turpin recently worked with Crystal River Cruises to organize a four-day customized itinerary for two couples in and around Budapest, with pampering accommodations at the Four Season Gresham Palace and a special dinner at a Hungarian restaurant in a private room. “These were two socialites from Dallas who wanted to see Budapest in style, and did not just want a car and driver,” Turpin says. For another couple celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary, her agency arranged a lovely celebration and special concert in Vienna.

Usually when Turpin is setting up private arrangements for shore trips on ocean cruises, she does it herself, but “when we’re enhancing the river experience, it’s usually pre- or post- and not during the cruise itself.” She says the river lines offer many alternative options during the sailing, which encourage people to get on and off, and go at their own pace. Turpin likes the “levels of tours” river lines offer — such as active, regular and gentle.

River cruising is also expanding in the Pacific Northwest and in America’s heartland, and internationally from the Amazon to the Mekong. For example, Uniworld offers a 15-day “Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong” itinerary from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, while A&K has a “Family China & the Yangtze” program including a three-night cruise. “Yesterday, a cruiser who mainly likes Crystal booked two river cruises — an African safari river cruise and a Mekong cruise on AmaWaterways,” Turpin notes. She likes that the particular African itinerary — with a river cruise on the Zambezi Queen — ties in both Botswana and Tanzania and is “one of the very best ways to do a safari.”

Sometimes impromptu tours or options surface, even if they’re not on the schedule. Why not ask the concierge or shore desk about a desired activity and see if it can be arranged? Turpin was among eight people who shopped with one river vessel’s chef as he strolled through a local market, essentially leading an impromptu tour. “We picked out the fish, veggies and everything for that day’s meal, plus we were treated to fresh bread and cakes,” she says. For Turpin, a top benefit of river cruising that guests love is just walking off the river vessel into the center of town.

Culinary & Wine

Turpin, Kalish and other top advisors tell us that the evolution of culinary and wine experiences, both onboard and ashore, is another top trend heading into 2017. From private dining rooms to onboard alternative restaurants, from hands-on cooking experiences to programs with celebrity chefs, here’s a look at some of the latest developments for luxury “foodies” and wine aficionados.

To celebrate the 80th birthday of famed Chef Jacques Pépin, executive culinary director, Oceania Cruises, the line has introduced a “Happy 80th, Jacques Pépin,” culinary class in its onboard Culinary Centers on Marina and Riviera. Cruisers can prepare delicious dishes and practice Pépin’s techniques, as they toast him with a glass of champagne. The line’s annual Jacques Pépin Cruise on Marina sails to northern European ports on June 2, 2017, from London to Copenhagen. Pépin himself will host the epicurean-inspired cruise with signature menus, lectures and culinary demonstrations.

SeaDream Yacht Club plans new Wine Voyages in the Mediterranean for 2017, with premium tastings from wineries like Château Gassier, Tenuta San Guido and Taittinger Champagne. As an exclusive to the Taittinger Voyage, Clovis Taittinger will sail followed by Maison Louis Jadot. At the Winemaker’s Dinner, guests will enjoy a special menu and wines of Philipp Wittman, Marilisa Allegrini and Francesco Mazzei, among others. Ashore, cruisers have such foodie options as learning to make paella and pair it with Cartagena wines.

Foodies with a sense of adventure can check out Silversea Cruises’ new Culinary Expedition Voyages on the all-suite, 132-guest Silver Explorer. An “Atlantic Europe’s Epicurean Journey” departs May 20, 2017 from Lisbon and guests explore ashore in Portugal, Spain, France and Guernsey to taste pintxos in Bilbao, oysters in Saint-Malo and croissants in Bordeaux. Guests can also expect market tours, special menus and cooking classes hosted by Rudi Scholdis and David Bilsland, who oversee Silversea’s L’Ecole des Chefs program. Silversea’s wine ambassador, Lawrence D’Almeida, food and wine expert James Robinson, and cheese specialist Tom Badcock will host onboard enrichment activities.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ newest vessel, Seven Seas Explorer, has been hosting new culinary-inspired shore excursions in the Mediterranean, while Crystal Cruises recently debuted its new interactive online Cruise Guide, which outlines and showcases such experiences as the “Ultimate Vintage Room Dinner.” Seabourn Cruise Line has launched The Grill by Thomas Keller on Seabourn Quest; Azamara Club Cruises’ Aqualina restaurant serves up everything from a forest mushroom risotto to a Venetian seafood platter; while Viking Ocean Cruises’ Chef’s Table offers a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings and a new Scandinavian Bistro menu in its rotation. Premium lines, too, are focusing on cuisine; in September, Holland America Line introduced its new America’s Test Kitchen program.

Wine aficionados and foodies also typically love river cruising, our experts say. Usually, cruisers sail first along the Rhine or Danube rivers, before spreading out to the Seine, Douro, Rhône/Saône or Bordeaux. Many lines bring on wine speakers, provide wine-focused tours and tastings and design themed cruises. Local wines are also served onboard. “AmaWaterways has done a particularly good job with wine cruises,” Turpin believes.

So moving into 2017, private, customized arrangements, expanding river cruise options and robust culinary programs are expected to continue to be high on the list of “must-haves” for luxury travelers seeking the very best on the high seas and global rivers.

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