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New Cruise Options Are Making A Big Splash

"Growth is spectacular," boasted Rick Sasso, President of Celebrity Cruises and Chairman of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Sasso's remarks were made during the "State of the Industry" panel of top industry executives at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention in Miami on March 6.

He went onto say, "Last year, cruise lines added 992,000 more guests than in the previous year for a total of seven million passengers. It's amazing considering in 1972 the entire industry only carried 500,000 guests." Spectacular growth aside, cruise lines only account for two percent of the travel market. And considering places like Branson, Missouri, garner eight million visitors a year, and Las Vegas 22 million, cruising has some catching up to do.

"No Longer for the Overfed, Newlywed, and Nearly Dead"

Indeed, cruise lines are catching up. This year, the industry will have an 8.5 percent increase in berths, along with similar figures for passenger growth. Executives say that in the next 10 years, cruising will truly become a global industry.

According to CLIA statistics, cruising clientele is changing dramatically. 15 years ago the average cruiser was 56 years old; today, the median age is 46, and current cruise projections are showing the age will soon lower to 43.

"Cruising is no longer for just the overfed, newlywed, and nearly dead," Sasso stated. Cruise lines are heating up the competition among themselves to get the first-time cruiser. New ships and changes to the old way of cruising are attracting more cruisers than ever. Innovation—in new ships, dining options, and policies (and even itineraries)—is the industry's new mantra.

If You Build It, They Will Come

This year, major cruise lines will christen nearly 15 vessels. In the popular "build it and they will come" tradition, cruise lines are building vast ships with more facilities to welcome new cruisers. Today's cruise ships range in capacity from 10-passenger yachts to 3,000-passenger megaships. The trend is on the bigger ships with unique offerings such as ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, and virtual reality centers. Nonetheless, not all ships (large and small) have or need trendy accessories. They are just as modern, offering new features and technologies designed to make the passenger experience even better. All ships, along with the entire cruise industry, seem to be undergoing a noticeable metamorphosis.

Food Fight

One of the most interesting, and certainly most tasty, changes is in the dining experience. When people think of cruising, they immediately think of the fabulous food along with the structured formality of it all. Formality in any form is not popular with today's traveler. Indeed, CLIA studies cite a perceived "lack of freedom" as one of the reasons why about 12 percent of potential cruise vacationers have not yet sailed.

Dining was the hot topic at the Seatrade convention, and it has literally become a food fight among several cruise lines. The most widely touted program is Norwegian Cruise Line's (NCL) new onboard dining feature, dubbed Freestyle Cruising™, which was initiated last June and is based on Star Cruises' product in Asia.

Traditionally, cruise-ship dining rooms have offered two daily seatings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with passengers assigned to specific tables at specified seatings. Freestyle Cruising changes all that. Passengers no longer have to eat at certain times and sit at particular tables for the duration of their cruise with people they may or may not like. NCL's main dining rooms will feature open seating and serve dinner from 5:30 p.m. until midnight.

Freestyle Cruising will also add more à la carte restaurants, creating more dining choices. "We have more restaurants than nights of the week," boasted NCL's President Colin Veitch. Indeed, NCL's new ships will offer nine or more restaurants serving a variety of fare, including French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, and Japanese.

In January, Princess Cruises began a program called Personal Choice DiningTM, which (like NCL's) breaks down the regimentation of cruise dining so passengers can opt for unassigned, restaurant-style seating in two of the ship's three main dining rooms. Furthermore, Princess is expanding dining options on four of its ships with the opening of new outdoor steakhouses. The facilities, called Sterling Steakhouses, will be onboard the Sun Princess, Dawn Princess, Sea Princess, and Ocean Princess. They'll be located in a sheltered deck area overlooking the pool on each vessel, and they will be open from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Passengers will be able to pick their own cuts of meat from a selection of rib-eye, New York strip, porterhouse, and filet mignon steaks. Barbecued chicken, side dishes, and desserts will also be available.

Carnival Cruise Line has also joined in the food fight by announcing their program called Total Choice DiningT. The program is already in place aboard its 14 "Fun Ships." Carnival will offer four dinner seatings starting at 6 p.m.; 6:45 p.m.; 8 p.m., and 8:45 p.m., as opposed to the current two seatings. In addition, future ships in the Carnival fleet will include reservations-only restaurants. The first of those, Carnival Spirit, entering service in April 2001, will feature an elegant two-level Supper Club, offering prime steaks and other upscale cuisine. The restaurant will carry a nightly reservations fee of $15 per person.

"All of the lines are evolving. Opening up the main dining room to open seating—removing a core element of cruise structure—I think is fairly revolutionary," says NCL's Veitch. Revolutionary for some, but for Renaissance, could it be that imitation is the best form of flattery? "Since the inception of Renaissance Cruises in 1991, we have had open seating dining," states Renaissance spokesperson, Brad Ball. He goes on to say, "Renaissance Cruises was one of the true innovators of open seating dining with a variety of dining venues. The R-Class ships were specifically designed to accommodate a variety of dining options. While other megaships (i.e., Princess, NCL, and Carnival) are jumping on the band-wagon and trying to convert their vessels to open dining, the R-Class ships were built from the ground up to accommodate our dining vision."

Another Big Change for Renaissance

While Renaissance may have been one of the innovators in open dining options, they are changing certain policies to reflect those of their competitors. The company has grown 28 fold in the past three years, and now finds itself the fifth largest cruise line in the world. With the massive growth have come major changes, which reflect the ever-changing needs of today's traveler. Once touted as the adults-only, smoke-free cruise line, Renaissance is now doing a 360 degree change and will allow children and smokers to sail aboard their vessels starting December 1.

Renaissance insists it will remain an adult-oriented, destination-focused cruise line although it will accept younger travelers and permit smoking in limited, designated areas. Renaissance will allow children two years and older to join their parents, grandparents, or guardians aboard its ships. In addition, they will offer a seasonal supervised children's program. The cruise line will also make limited, designated areas of its "R-Class" and "Renaissance-Class" vessels available for cigarette smoking only (no cigars or pipes). They emphasize that 98 percent of the ships' passenger areas will remain smoke free.

Change is Good

It's interesting to note that a cruise vacation has always allowed for constant change of scenery and culture. The new, customized onboard amenities mimic the whole cruise vacation experience—with so many options available, cruising has truly evolved to offer something for everyone.


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