Morning Consult recently released “The State of American Travel 2018,” a nationwide survey of 2,200 adults. The title of the survey conveys a sense of comprehensiveness and breadth that the report itself does not actually display, and some of the methodology and conclusions do not hold up to close scrutiny.
However, it’s one of the many travel industry surveys that are intended to draw broad, somewhat obvious conclusions that generate media coverage:
• Americans want relaxing, affordable vacations.
• Younger people are more interested in traveling abroad.
• Americans love to drive on road trip vacations.
• Most Americans aren’t loyal to a particular hotel brand.
These are conclusions that anyone who follows the travel industry in the media could draw without pestering a couple thousand people for their opinions. However, there are a couple of data points in the results that cruise lines should find at least mildly troubling.
Buried in the first graph showing consumers’ preferences for the kinds of elements they want in their vacation are some rather stark numbers in reference to cruises. The survey question was, “How much would you enjoy going on a vacation that included elements of each of the following?”
The element “beach” scored highest, with 47 percent of respondents saying they’d enjoy a vacation with beach elements “a lot” and 30 percent saying they’d enjoy the beach “some,” for a total of 77 percent positive responses. The second-place “resort” choice had similar positive responses, with 38 percent choosing “a lot” and 38 percent saying “some,” for a total of 70 percent positive.
I selected those elements because they are most similar to a cruise vacation, in that most consumers associate cruises with fun-in-the-sun activities and tropical locales.
The cruise vacation option actually came in fourth out of 13 choices, after beach, resort and road trips, with 56 percent of respondents saying they would consider a cruise vacation either a lot (32 percent) or some (24 percent). But what caught my attention was the other end of the scale — the 36 percent who said they would enjoy a cruise vacation either “not much” (15 percent or “not at all” (21 percent).
That’s almost four in 10 Americans who don’t think they would enjoy a cruise vacation. That doesn’t tally with Cruise Lines International Association stats that assert that only 14 percent of respondents in their survey said they were unlikely to select a cruise as their next vacation. Note, however, that the CLIA figures are based on a J.D. Power survey of 1,600 North American respondents, nearly half of whom are identified as “cruisers.”
CLIA’s Consumer Outlook Survey, released in April 2017, found that 80 percent of respondents — all identified as “cruisers” — intended to take a cruise in the next 12 months. That’s not surprising, considering the high satisfaction rates among those who have experienced a cruise vacation.
But that nattering 36 percent from the Morning Consult survey is still a high bar to clear for cruise lines seeking to recruit first-time cruisers.
According to Google, it seems the complexity of the cruise product purchase is a major impediment to sales. Last year Google logged 390 million visits to cruise line websites, but according to CLIA figures, that translated to only 24.7 million cruise purchases predicted worldwide in 2018. That comes out to a conversion rate of about 6 percent, but 60 percent or more of those would be repeaters, bringing the true conversion rate of cruise sales down to about 2 percent of new-to-cruise consumers.
Google puts the percentage of people who have never cruised but plan to in the future at 29 percent — three points higher than the number who have cruised before and plan to again.
In a 2016 Travel Weekly column, veteran travel agent Charlie Funk remarked on the change in the first-timer/repeater ratio over the past decade. Funk asserted that the ratio had swung from 60/40 first-timers to repeaters to 70/30 repeaters to first-timers.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between how cruise lines are marketing their product and consumer perceptions of their product. Recently, we’ve seen the lines look hopefully to millennials to fill their ships, but that pendulum has now swung back to a renewed focus on baby boomers and multigenerational or even skip-generational (grandparents taking grandchildren and leaving the parents at home) segments.
With 100 new ships representing 230,000 new lower berths coming online in the cruise industry over the next nine years, clearly cruise lines need to figure out how to increase their rate of conversion of the four in 10 consumers who don’t consider a cruise a viable vacation option.