Opinion: Cruise loyalty is not dead. Quite the opposite

The notion of brand loyalty is viewed by many as old fashioned, but regardless of what headlines claim, cruise loyalty is far from a relic of the past

If you listen to the rose-tinted ramblings of yesteryear, often spouted by those who proclaim the “good ol’ days” involved a three-day work week and lashings of localised polio, then brand loyalty has seemingly dissolved into the ether.

Markets are buoyant with choice. Influencers brainwash the susceptible. Societal trends lean towards an ever-fluctuant fashion of credit-funded throwaways. Within a few keystrokes, you’ve got the best price for something that capitalism has planted into your brain. We are all slaves to modern laissez-faire.

We should probably blame the internet. After all, the digital age facilitated a revolutionary change in how we spend our money. All the scary things previously acquired by begging to smug old-money types and applying to frigid bureaucracy – mortgages, loans, car finance – can now be undertaken from the comfort of home.

So, naturally, that fresh mantra quickly filtered down into the travel industry. Well - at least for those who didn’t fear the computer as a moniker of Satan. Technology was originally something to be suspicious of, especially to a generation of holidaymakers who felt comfortable only with what they knew – doing things the ‘old fashioned way.’

It was that particular age group who stuck with a marque and created the notion of offline brand loyalty. If Mrs Worthington-Carstairs flew with British Airways for her first flight to Rhodesia in 1965, then she always flew with British Airways. If they didn’t go somewhere, then it wasn’t worth visiting.

If Mr Jolly opted to purchase Fairy Liquid when scrubbing those suspicious blood-red stains out of the linoleum, then he would avoid other brands for his subsequent homicides.

It therefore comes as no surprise that brand loyalty was typically exercised when it came to booking a cruise back when the world was black and white. Whether it was the splendour of Cunard, or the excitement of a Carnival voyage, holidaymakers would descend upon their local travel agents with brand-based demands, or simply book direct.

That was then. The pre-computer generation are mostly departed. This is now, and just as travel agents continuously disappear from the high street, cruise loyalty seems to be changing, too.

Whereas cruise travellers of yesteryear had only the cruise line advert (or poster) to draw information from, today’s tourist remains inundated with feverishly-needy content from a multitude of sources.

Destinations are no longer exclusive to certain cruise lines, either. There’s never been so much choice, and it’s only human nature to try them all.

Furthermore, with fresh cruise operators entering the arena on a regular basis, the idea of people booking the same line every year sounds more outdated than a Bernard Manning routine, even with schemes designed to keep them coming back.

So, is cruise loyalty dead in water, doomed to phase out as generations give way to the next? The answer is a firm and resounding ‘no’. Here’s why.

Cruise loyalty isn't only for the older and the wealthy. Credit: Real Response Media

Cruise loyalty: Changing generations

Ok. Let’s be honest. People such as Mrs Worthington-Carstairs were ultimately conservative in their choice of travel supplier. Brand loyalty commonly resided with the creme-de-la-crème, in an anxious bid to impress during the Rotary Club’s next social event.

Don’t forget, Keeping Up Appearances’ Hyacinth Bucket was a send up of that generation. These people were real.

That sense of snobbery can still be found with those trying to transcend a self-inflicted societal ladder, whereas most of us simply want the best value for our hard-earned cash.

Also, it’s worth remembering that up until the glorious 1970s, travel really was exclusively for the well-heeled and the well-off. Most cruise goers were carbon copies of Worthington-Carstairs, and with fewer cruises to pick from, brand loyalty was the order of the day. It’s a bit different now.

While cruise companies try to build loyalty with varying discounts, exclusive perks, snazzy marketing and rewards to appease a travel-hungry market, it can take only one disappointing experience – or an amazing deal with a different brand – to cause a mass exodus into the foyer of a rival cruise line.

And then there’s the destination to consider.

A recent survey by Cruise.co.uk, released in January 2023, found that the key factor in almost 1,000 bookings was destination (44 per cent), followed by price (25 per cent). Only a fifth said the cruise brand was most important.

As reported by Cruise Trade News, the poll also found that more than half of respondents had sailed on three or more different cruise lines. Some would say that the current generation of holidaymakers therefore seem inclined to jump on whatever takes their locational fancy (or suits their budget) rather than following a brand. Right?

Well, Tony Andrews, deputy managing director of Cruise.co.uk, doesn’t believe brand loyalty is a thing of the past. He told Cruise Trade News: “In my experience, a customer will stay loyal 80 per cent of the time and stray to another brand if it has something specific they want.”

The Cruise Line's director, Ian Buckeridge, explained that he has seen “tremendous brand loyalty” through the pandemic and beyond. In the ultra-luxury sector “customers expect certain standards in terms of accommodation, facilities, even little things like toiletries and soap”.

A cruise is all about making memories, so take full advantage of private excursions! Credit: Shutterstock

Attracting new customers

Whereas certain ships retain a sense of occasion for cruise aficionados, destination seems to be suggested as the primary factor in the booking process. But that’s doesn’t account for people who genuinely go looking their favourite brand – even if they haven’t encountered that brand quite yet.

As it turns out, it’s all about surprises.

Edwina Lonsdale, managing director of Mundy Cruising, claims there is still “a huge level” of brand loyalty when you tailor the experience.

She explained: “Given the whole aim of the luxury sector is to surprise and delight, it is a challenge for them to continue to do this when clients come back again and again, but this is something on which they focus closely, surprising their most loyal guests with all sorts of treats and special events.”

Lonsdale continued: “High-end clients booking lengthy cruises in higher grades of accommodation tend to book early to get exactly what they want – up to two years out and more.

“Historically, there were also those who would wait for the late deals and offers, but at present, we are not seeing that so much.”

There’s a problem there, however. The high-end clients who pay for that luxury won’t be around forever. Certainly not if the government keep pile-driving local health services (saucer of milk for Mr Brown).

So, the mission now revolves around attracting young, new-to-brand guests to keep that loyalty flowing. In fact, attracting new guests is the In-Vogue ‘holy grail’ for cruise lines.

Lonsdale claims: “The way to do it is either to steal market share from other lines or to find a new pond to fish in.

“The hotel yachts – Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Aman and more – are fishing in new ponds. Cruise lines can use different products to find new source markets, by introducing expedition cruising, for example, or river.

“Stealing from other lines can be done in partnership with agents (upgrading from premium, for example), or with one-off price incentives, sampler cruises, or unusual itineraries.”

Lonsdale also believes that “many high spenders stay loyal because they are well looked after when they come back on board."

With an influx of passengers expected during the upcoming years, making sure everyone feels ‘well looked after’ is going to be a big task.

The future of cruising rests with a new generation of cruise tourists. Credit: Unknown

Meeting future demand

Managing director of Panache Cruises, James Cole, told Dave Monk of Cruise Trade News that he often has conversations with people who’ll say “we’re very much Silversea people” or “we only cruise with Regent Seven Seas."

He added: “In the post-pandemic world, assurance and customer service are the clear factors influencing bookings.

“People have become much more crowd-conscious and many have moved away from mass-market style holidays. In the cruise sector, this is driving more interest in small-ship cruising.

“Also, because of the pandemic, people are trying to make up for lost time. They are prepared to stray away from their preferred brands to visit the destinations that they haven’t been able to get to over the last two years.

“There’s a real opportunity for cruise brands to lure people away from their favoured lines.”

And that opportunity certainly shows no sign of slim pickings. Global cruise passenger numbers are expected to breach 35 million by as early as 2027, propelling one million extra passengers into the luxury sector. Cole therefore expects the number of small ships to double.

“Even very small segments of the cruise industry, like expedition cruises, have grown by more than 400 per cent over the past 10 years,” he explained.

“To meet this demand, I predict that the cruise industry will become increasingly fragmented. Families will be attracted to increasingly more elaborate ‘attractions’ on lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Disney.”

Cruise lines know that loyalty will keep them afloat. Credit: Shutterstock

In a nutshell…

A Twitter survey conducted by Cruise Trade News found that 57 per cent of respondents use different lines, against 43 per cent who stay loyal to one.

This falls into line with sentiments from market analysts who claim brand loyalty has declined in the last 40 years for many consumer products, something which is not unique solely to the cruise industry.

“Switching to other cruise lines becomes more challenging to passengers as they lose brand attributes,” said Clare Weeden, a principal lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton business school.

“There’s also the fear they might dislike the other line, so the perceived risk might put them off. Travel agents are critical here because they can advise passengers on what else is out there.”

So – cruise loyalty. Is it really dead in the water?

Not if you ask us. It’s a more competitive market, sure, but that doesn’t mean the likes of P&O, Cunard or Fred Olsen Cruises struggle to retain a loyal following. It’s all about attracting new customers and winning them over.

The Worthington-Carstairs of modern society can sleep soundly at night, as brands try to woo them. The rest of us can look forward to an enhanced cruise experience as the 40 per cent drop in brand loyalty makes cruise lines work all the harder.

It’s a win-win for everyone, helping each cruise line establish their next generation of passengers. Perhaps the old ways are the best, after all.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.