Small-ship cruise lines are constantly expanding their on-board amenities and traveling to new destinations in order to attract avid cruisers—and to hopefully attract non-cruisers. John Delaney, president of Windstar Cruises, and Navin Sawhney, CEO of Ponant, joined Luxury Travel Advisor editorial director Ruthanne Terrero at ULTRA Summit to discuss the rapid changes of the industry.
The destinations are the focus of both Windstar and Ponant’s plans. Delaney says that Windstar’s club members have been demanding stops in places such as Japan and Iceland, secondary cities in the Mediterranean, and additional exotic destinations. Other destinations with new itineraries for Windstar includes Southeast Asia, Canada, New England and Alaska. In these destinations, Windstar has added Concierge Experiences, which take small groups (six to 10 people) on bespoke shore excursions; these might include cooking with a local chef of learning how to paint in Provence.
Sawhney agreed that the destination is among the top factors for cruisers when picking an itinerary. He says that Ponant has decided to look at destinations through a new lens. Recently, Ponant created the Quintessential Collection, explicitly for its American market. An example might be trying foods in Sicily with an ex-pat who has lived there for 50 years, who will tell guests about the influence of the Venetians, the Greeks, the Ottomans and more.
Ponant will be sailing to new destinations in the future, as it has six Explorer ships in the pipeline (debuting as soon as this year), as well as a luxury icebreaker set to debut in 2021.
“The consumer is changing very rapidly,” Sawhney says. “They want travel with a sense of purpose. They want travel for meaning. They don't want travel for indulgence alone.”
Sawhney adds that Ponant is a good entry point for new cruisers. “We are seeing a huge trend in people that are first time to the category, first time ever to cruising,” he says. “And one of the reasons they're joining is because expeditions breaks the mold of the perception of cruising in their minds.”
While Windstar doesn’t have the focus on expedition like Ponant does, Delaney agrees that small ships are a great way to entice traditional, non-cruise travelers to try out a vacation on the water. “I think the small ship space fits travelers, not tourists,” Delaney says. “And if you (the advisor) articulate the value of a cruise, and the fact that a small ship can deliver the destination in a more authentic way, we become a natural fit.”
He added: “A lot of what we’ve heard [at ULTRA] is about very personalized, experiential travel. I think both Navin and I have brands where, when you have small ships, we're really able to deliver that type of experience.”
Both Delaney and Sawhney agreed that river cruisers are also a great target market for small ship ocean cruises. The same intimacy provided on a river cruise—where there are roughly 200 like-minded travelers—can be experienced on a small ship ocean cruise.
While it may appear to be competition (and, technically, it is), Sawhney is fine with the launch of The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. He feels Ponant offers a different-enough experience but welcomes the fact that it may help land travelers to try out a cruise. Delaney agrees: “Ponant is very different, more expedition, and what Windstar offers is more casual, upscale type of feeling. Ritz-Carlton's going to bring a very different, more of a formal luxury.”
To use as a guideline, Delaney and Sawhney were asked what hotel brands are most similar Windstar and Ponant, respectively?
Delaney says that Windstar most often compares itself to a smaller, boutique hotel: “a really wonderful, authentic, local destination that offers a great feeling in the city that you’re visiting.”
Sawhney, on the other hand, says Relais & Châteaux comes to mind, when thinking of Ponant.
Elyse Cori of Travelwize offered additional advice for enticing a non-cruiser to opt for a cruise. She says to make a list of all the activities you can do on the cruise and send it to them, saying, “How does this sound to you for your next family's vacation?” When they have all the activities listed and they say, “Oh! This is great. This is what we want,” then you can reveal that it’s a cruise.
Both Delaney and Sawhney made a point throughout the discussion to explain how different each of their brands are from each other and the other’s in the industry. The point is, not every cruise is for every type of traveler. By matching your client with the proper type of itinerary, in the right destination, with other like-minded travelers, you can hit a home run by booking a cruise.