Travel Associates sees cruising green shoots as bookings rise, slowly

Ponant, Regent, Oceania, Uniworld and Viking popular for FCTG Premium Brands

Ponant L'Austral | credit: Philip Plisson

The battered global cruise industry will “come back stronger than ever”, with seasoned cruisers eager to board a ship and sail away, says Flight Centre Travel Group’s GM of Premium Brands, Danielle Galloway.

Three months since the travel and cruise industry felt the full brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of new bookings being made through FCTG’s Premium Brands (which includes Travel Associates, Travel Associates Cruise Boutique and Travel Partners) are for domestic holidays – a market the retail travel agency giant is very much geared towards supporting.

Danielle Galloway, General Manager Premium Brands, Flight Centre Travel Group

“Not only does our industry here need the support following the numerous challenges faced prior to COVID-19 (bushfires, floods and drought), it’s also a great opportunity for all of our advisers to refamiliarise themselves with the great experiences available in Australia,” Galloway told LATTE.

“We have certainly seen a general increase in bookings and quotes, albeit fairly slow with around 90% of bookings for domestic experiences and 10% for European travel in 2021.”

Kimberley cruising with Coral Expeditions and Ponant, along with Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ trans-Tasman voyages, have been “very popular”. Outside Australia and New Zealand, other popular cruise destinations are Antarctica, the Mississippi and South Pacific. “Uniworld Europe river cruise is also strong for loyalists.”

Galloway said FCTG Premium Brands saw an early spike for Ponant Antarctica bookings this month. Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania luxury ocean cruising remain on point and “foremost in the minds of customers.”

SS Bon Voyage, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

“Europe is seeing some movement in late April, especially for premium and small ship cruising.”

However, decisions by the CDC and Australian Border Force have caused bookings and rebookings to slow (more on this below).

“Nevertheless, clients are seriously dreaming about their return to travel and are beginning to make plans for the future, and our specialist cruise advisers are with them every step of the way to guide the decision-making process to ensure the right cruise is booked for the right client.”

Booking window

The Flight Centre senior executive told LATTE the client booking window is relatively varied.

“Our gorgeous ‘serial cruisers’ [are] booking for late 2020, the reaccommodation bookings are being moved from 2020 cruises to 2021; and we are seeing excitement for 2022 cruising for amazing new product such as Viking’s Mississippi River Cruises.”

Viking Mississippi - Autumn foliage

“Most new bookings are for close-to-home journeys in January and February and small ship cruising is coming back. A number of clients are waiting for borders to open between Australia and New Zealand – and they intend to take driving holidays and luxury lodge stays.”

Galloway said it appears as though most clients will be staying home for the Christmas period and avoiding cruising.

Roadblocks and obstacles

In the cruise space, June was plagued by more cruise lines extending their temporary operational pause until the end of September, and some lines pushing out even further.

Decisions by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention to issue a ‘no sail order’ on cruising from American ports for extended periods, coupled with the Australian Border Force’s indefinite ban on overseas travel for Australians, has caused a slowing in bookings and rebookings for FCTG.

“There’s a genuine need for reassurance among the cruising community that cruising is safe and measures are being taken to ensure guest health and safety. CLIA and the cruise lines are working very hard on this topic as you might imagine. Australian Border controls and the availability of a vaccine will also make a difference, especially for more mature clients,” she said.

Broome to Darwin in the Kimberley | credit: Ponant/Nick Rains

In addition, the negative media coverage of cruise is having an impact, especially on any ‘new’ cruising clients and this is further reinforced by the public perception that cruising is unsafe.

However, one upside to the extended cruise pauses has been a high percentage of Future Cruise Certificates being accepted by clients, offering “enormous hope for the future”, Galloway said.

Customer service

For FCTG, ensuring customers are provided with the “best advice to make informed decisions” is paramount.

While there have been some “small green shoots” with Australians choosing to book holidays at home, Flight Centre continues to deal with client refunds, in the form of rebooking and/or cancelling arrangements and experiences, however, the business intensity is beginning to lift compared to the levels of March and April, she said.

Galloway said clients continue to be frustrated with refund durations, with Flight Centre awaiting suppliers to return payments before they can be processed.

“There’s no question that clients continue to be very frustrated with the situation however our advisers are certainly working hard to keep clients updated about their refund. Our business has worked hard to remove roadblocks in the refund process and we are turning around funds received back on file in five days, however, we are still very dependent on supplier timing,” she told LATTE.

Lobby, Regent Seven Seas Splendor

The future for cruising?

Questioned as to what she is optimistic about for the cruise industry, Galloway said FCTG was very confident business would return.

“The cruise industry has certainly been ravaged by the pandemic, ongoing border closures and negative media reporting. We do believe, however, that it will come back stronger than ever with improved health screening being at the forefront.

“Seasoned cruisers can’t wait to board a ship and sail away as they are genuinely in love with this type of experience and eventually the positives will outweigh the negatives for new to cruising clients.”

“We also see great growth opportunities in the luxury and expedition space, due to the strength of our relationships with our key suppliers. In times of crisis, it is important to support each other and to ensure conversations are open and positive about how best to reassure clients for their next booking,” she remarked.

More from Gallaway in next week’s LATTE.

Lead image: Ponant L’Austral | credit: Philip Plisson

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