Despite concerns about a slowing economy in 2019, early results from the first three weeks of cruising's Wave season suggest that consumers are still in the mood to spend on their vacation this year.
Several agents said business is outpacing or significantly topping their sales from January 2018.
"I'm at $370,000 in sales already for January," said Christina Wandell, an independent contractor in Murfreesboro, Tenn., affiliated with Distinctive Cruises and More. "The Wave came in, and it doesn't look like it's going to be crashing anytime soon. It's been a very, very busy month."
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) officials said in a conference call Jan. 30 with Wall Street analysts that bookings had set records in two of the first three weeks of January.
Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC Cruises North America, however, said Wave so far has been tempered by the strong booked position in which cruise lines have entered the season.
Wave season can account for up to a third of cruise bookings in a given year, as consumers deploy their vacation plans and cruise lines roll out some of their most attractive offers to snag business for their brand. The season generally stretches from early January to the end of March, although cruise lines have been getting a jump-start in recent years by rolling out offers in December and sometimes even before Thanksgiving. Several agents said Royal Caribbean International has been drawing client interest this year, both for its offers and on the strength of its product lineup, which this year includes the opening of its Perfect Day at CocoCay attraction in the Bahamas.
"My clients are very excited, it's been busy," said Angie Snyder, an agent at Krouse Travel in Red Lion, Pa. "And cruising has been the top thing that I've booked so far, Royal Caribbean specifically."
Snyder said clients give a variety of reasons for wanting to cruise.
"Right now, I have some first-timers who are hoping to experience it. They hear it's a lot of fun," she said. Other customers are responding to Royal's BOGO60 promotion, in which the second guest gets a 60% reduction in fare.
Snyder said her 2019 started strong out of the gate. "I've already doubled my sales from last year."
Also expressing optimism was Katina Bradley, an independent contractor at Wish You Were Here Vacations in the Central California town of Morada.
"Sales have been incredible," Bradley said. "There's been some really great promotions."
This year, the start of Wave season coincided with the partial government shutdown, which was beginning slow down air traffic and hinder progress through airport security checkpoints before it was temporarily resolved on Jan. 25.
"With the government shutdown, I thought for sure that things would slow down, but they really haven't," Snyder said.
In addition to Royal's BOGO60, promotions include Norwegian Cruise Line's Free at Sea Take 6 offer, which expands the menu of "free" amenities from five to six and extends for a limited time all six perks to guests booking balcony and minisuite accommodations in addition to those booked in a suite or the Haven.
Carnival Cruise Line's offer includes $50 deposits, and its marketing is couched in terms of dollars-per-day, as in cabins can be had for a daily rate as low as $59 per person before taxes and port fees.
Amber Costa, a Cruise Planners franchisee in Parsons, Kan., said, "It's been a very busy start to 2019.
"I feel like Alaska has been really hot, I mean booking for this summer and also already looking into 2020," Costa said. "Alaska has been really busy, not even just the cruise sector. Land vacations have been busy, as well."
Costa said the brands she's selling the most have been Royal and Norwegian, which are popular with the younger, family-oriented clients that are her core customers.
"I'm finding that families are really starting to invest in experiences as opposed to things, so those family-friendly lines that are sailing in Alaska are a great option," she said.
That's likely music to the ears of RCCL chairman Richard Fain, who has been preaching the primacy of experiences for awhile. In speaking to analysts, Fain said RCCL had two of the best booking weeks in its history in January, although with the addition of Silversea Cruises and ships like the Celebrity Edge, RCCL is bigger than ever before.
"We are starting 2019 with some very good cards," Fain said.
For example, in Alaska where RCCL has 5% of its annual capacity, it is sailing newer, larger ships than in the past, and its Azamara Club Cruises brand, having added a third ship, will be represented there for the first time this year.
Outside of the U.K., which has been impacted by Brexit uncertainties, Wave bookings are up both in rate and number, RCCL CFO Jason Liberty said.
"All three weeks have gone exceptionally well," he said. "We're still in the early days of Wave, but what we've seen so far is a good news story on both volumes and pricing."
MSC's Sasso said the industry hasn't rolled out its most dramatic, high-impact promotions this year because it hasn't had to. "I think we're all doing very well. I don't think there are any red flags out there that the Wave is not robust."
However, he said, the strength of bookings before January could mean a softer Wave for some.
"Everyone has turned the year with more booked passengers than we've ever had before," Sasso said. "So you haven't seen crazy deals out there for the start of Wave. That alone may reduce the volume of phone activity you get."
Sasso said MSC recently rolled out a promotion aimed at stimulating bookings from passengers who aren't interested in a lot of extra amenities.
"We felt it was necessary to have a cruise price without added value," he said.
Wandell, of Distinctive Cruises and More, said MSC has been a big part of her Wave season success, particularly the high-end cabins of the MSC Yacht Club, which represent two-thirds of her January bookings.