Small wonders: the rise of small ships

Small wonders: the rise of small ships

As cruise ships get bigger and bigger, some people are looking in the opposite direction for more authentic experiences. Sam Ballard looks at the big appeal of small ship cruise

Whether it’s Royal Caribbean’s sixth Oasis-class ship, Carnival Cruise Line’s Mardi Gras or even P&O’s Iona – it seems like the trend for large cruise ships has never been greater. This year alone, Norwegian Cruise Line (Encore), MSC (Grandiosa) and Costa (Smeralda) are all launching their largest ships to date. However, while there’s no doubt the trend for bigger ships is growing apace, there is also a pull in the other direction.

It’s little wonder why. While the sheer variety of what’s available on a mega-ship cannot be competed with – whether it’s a Beatles tribute act in a mock Cavern Club or having the option to eat in dozens of different restaurants – they tend to suffer when it comes to what’s happening off a ship. In short, the bigger the ship, the more infrastructure a destination needs to handle it. Only the most developed ports – and therefore a minority – can handle ships with 6,000 guests plus a few thousand crew. It also means that each individual passenger’s experience will be shared with a lot of people – leading to some criticism of lines swamping a destination when multiple ships call in one day. With experiences suffering – and ships showing no sign of shrinking – lines with megaships have began either developing their current private islands (Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day) or even buying their own (MSC’s Ocean Cay). That way they can better control the experience for their guests.

However, this isn’t for everyone and has left a major part of the market open: small ships. What they lack in choice on board they make up for in itineraries. Put simply: they call at ports that the bigger ships can’t get into. That means less visited ports, with fewer people and more authentic experiences. A perfect example is Paul Gauguin Cruises, which specialises in cruises around the Pacific islands on board its one vessel – the tiny Paul Gauguin. That connection with a local area has led to a more authentic experience, according to Elaine Gillard, senior sales and marketing manager for the line in the UK.

“Cruising the islands of the South Pacific is so much about the people and the culture that these islands offer up,” she explains. “With just 332 guests, the Paul Gauguin is not only the perfect size to ensure the islands aren’t overwhelmed with visitors, it is the perfect build to cruise into the lagoons that surround these beautiful locations. Small ship cruising really ensures an authentic experience in this bucket-list destination.”

That intimacy with a destination is something that larger ships simply cannot offer – they’re not physically capable, nor is it their ambition to. There is also a sense of community on board smaller ships which is more akin to the feeling in your local – rather than the floating cities that some lines specialise in. When it comes to intimacy few lines can offer anything like that of Intrepid Travel, the small-group adventure tour operator which is targeting cruise as a major growth area for the business going forward.

Filippos Venetopoulos, Intrepid Travel’s general manager for adventure cruise, explains: “We see adventure cruise as a huge opportunity. Clients are looking for an authentic and sustainable alternative with a focus on truly exploring the destination. Our small ships carry up to 50 passengers, allowing us to access those smaller ports and islands the large ships can’t reach.

“We had 23 departures in 2018 and we’ll have 66 this year, with 100 planned for 2020. Our new Asia cruises got off to a great start this year and received fantastic feedback from customers and agents.”

Another line that is offering more unusual small ship cruises is Star Clippers. The company, which has ships modelled on classic sailing clippers, is inversely all about the ship – unusual for a small ship operator – with the theatre of its masts and sails offering a real selling point to potential travellers. The fact that the ship can enter smaller ports is an added bonus.

“Star Clippers’ guests like sailing with us because they know that our historically-styled clippers can enter ports and harbours inaccessible to large cruise ships,” says Fay McCormack, general manager at Star Clippers UK. “This gives them a greater sense of independence and adventure, because they can explore on land without thousands of other guests allowing for a more authentic environment.

“They also enjoy the more intimate spaces on board the ships, with the central Tropical Bar providing a convivial social point with friendly, familiar bar staff and like-minded guests. While Star Clippers’ ships are far from small, guests consider our ships to be more akin to vast, private yachts rather than floating hotels.”

Ian Warren, an agent with GoCruise, agrees when it comes to the sense of community on smaller ships. “Despite the recent move to building much larger ships, there is still a good demand from clients for smaller cruise ships. Often, but not always, these are the more mature cruisers, and they like smaller ships for a number of reasons, including the fact that they can get to know members of the crew and other passengers. Other benefits include the smaller ports that the ships can get into, and the much quicker embarkation and disembarkation. In my view there
will always be a demand for small ships, offering a more traditional cruise experience.”

However, without the economies of scale that the big ships offer – small ships are often the domain of the luxury lines. If you are only going to offer a few restaurants, you may as well have one of them backed by a Michelin-starred chef – or three in the case of Thomas Keller, who has a restaurant on board Seabourn. For Lynn Narraway, Seabourn’s UK boss, the chance to travel with a small community of like-minded travellers is where the company really shines.

“Seabourn’s ships are designed to offer guests an intimate, elegant ambiance, which encourages sociability – our guests love to get to know their fellow travellers,” says Narraway. “Seabourn also offers very high levels of personal service, so that staff will get to know guests, and their preferences very early in the cruise. The personalisation extends to enrichment and activities – for example our ‘Seabourn Conversations’, where experts from the worlds of arts, history, Unesco, the natural world and beyond, will not only talk to guests, but dine and socialise with them – extending the ‘conversation’ over the length of the cruise.”

Another luxury line that operates on small vessels is SeaDream Yacht Club. The company’s UK sales director, Mark Schmitt, cites the level of service, as well as the lesser-known ports of call they serve as being a prime reason why the company has connected so well with its clients.

“Our customers love sailing with SeaDream Yacht Club (small yachts) thanks to our unprecedented levels of luxury and service. Our itineraries are designed to call at the intimate ports and harbours in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Cuba that larger cruise ships cannot reach. Along with our amazing, award-winning cuisine, SeaDream Yacht Club is a once in a lifetime, every time experience.”

Whatever the end of the market that you are selling into, remember there is something out for everyone. And if your client is particularly keen on seeing a destination – and potentially a quieter, less developed part of it – chances are that it will pay to get them on a smaller ship.

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Read the March 2019 issue of Cruise Adviser.The latest issue of Cruise Adviser, the only destination for those selling cruise. In this issue, Anthony Pearce joins Uniworld on the Rhône; Sara Macefield checks out Princess Cruises’ Ocean Medallion; Sam Ballard explores the rise of small-ship cruise; plus, Jane Archer takes a closer took at St Petersburg, the jewel in any Baltics cruise


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