With frigid weather across the U.S., cruise sales are hot

With frigid weather across the U.S., cruise sales are hot
Photo Credit: Nym3ria/Shutterstock

The first measurable snowfall in New York City in nearly two years. Voters braving wind chills of minus-35 degrees at the Iowa caucuses. Texas, the Deep South and parts of the Southeast plunging into uncharacteristic below-freezing temperatures.

As more than 200 million people in the Lower 48 faced colder and snowier-than-normal conditions this month, travel advisors said their cruise business was heating up.

"While winter storms may not bring joy to many, those in the travel industry rejoice, as they often spark a surge in new cruise bookings from people who dream of escaping the cold to find solace in warm and tropical destinations," said Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners (No. 20 on Travel Weekly's 2023 Power List). 

Several travel advisors and leaders of large agencies said they have seen an increase in phone calls and emails asking about cruises as snow accumulated and temperatures plummeted. 

"People here complain about the snow, but I love it because my phone starts to ring," said Ellen Overcast, a Dream Vacations franchise owner in Kutztown, Pa. "My phone has been ringing all day." 

Overcast's business is up 10% from the same time last year, she said. This surge comes during Wave season, traditionally the top cruise booking time of year and awash in industry promotions. But she suspects the winter storms spur people to book for psychological reasons. 

"It just makes you feel better to know that even though you're not leaving and you're still stuck in the cold weather … there's a warm time in your future," Overcast said. 

Another Dream Vacations franchise owner, Edward Cicinato in Collingswood, N.J., said the mid-January storms have brought his business a 40% increase in cruise bookings and requests for quotes.

"The overriding request is 'send me any place that's warm,'" he said. 

The correlation between cold winters and cruise bookings has some agents stepping up their social media presence during bad weather, including Carol Nunnery, owner of Nunnery Travels in Cape Girardeau, Mo. 

"When people are stuck indoors, they have more time to dream about their next vacation," she said. Being more active on social media "inevitably leads to more interactions for clients and friends looking to escape the winter blues."

Alex Sharpe, CEO of Signature Travel Network, said the relationship between winter storms and higher travel bookings has increased as more travel advisors work from home. Previously, bad weather could prevent advisors from going to their offices. 

"But now with everyone so comfy working from home full-time or as needed, the bookings have been great," Sharpe said.

Ads for adverse conditions

Sharpe said that weather has enough of an influence on cruise bookings that Signature is developing an email platform that will use AI to update messaging to clients depending on local conditions. 

The SalesForce Marketing Cloud platform will use the client's IP address to correlate its message to the location where the email is opened, said Christine Conklin, Signature's vice president of marketing.

For example, a message aimed at this author located in Nashville, which saw more snowfall in two days, Jan. 14 and 15, than it typically does in a year, would read, "Dreaming about escaping all this snow? Check out these sun and sand deals we found just for you, Andrea!"

Less inventory, higher prices

Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International's senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, said the line is having a "strong Wave season," but she wasn't quite ready to give bad weather all the credit.

"I'm not sure that cold weather is what is driving demand right now," she said. "I suspect it is, but truly our brand is super strong with consumers and travel advisors, plus put Icon of the Seas on top of both the demand with consumers and trade, and you have a winning formula."

The storms could help spur additional bookings during a unique Wave season. 

Although expectations for this year's Wave were high after the Big Three cruise companies all recently reported having record booked positions on a 12-month forward basis, some analysts suspected the lines had become victims of their own success. 

Cleveland Research Co. found the volume of cruises booked in early January -- before the storms -- was running flat to down compared with early 2023 levels, due to cruise lines having less inventory to sell, including close-in cruises. Last year had both strong close-in demand and availability while the booking curve stretched out, the research group found.

But prices are running higher than last year, according to the report, which queried travel advisors and cruise operators.

"On a weighted average basis, it looks like respondents are seeing '24 prices run 7% higher than '23 as of today," Cleveland Research reported on Jan. 11.


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