Cruise Vacations: Not Your Mother’s Slow Boat To China

cruise vacationsOften believed to be the travel choice of the newly wed or nearly dead, the nature of cruise vacations has evolved in recent years. At one time, a cruise vacation meant shuffleboard, never-ending buffets and a few thousand older, overweight passengers on a spin around the Bahamas. Now, the old iconic activities, dining options and even older passengers are being replaced with an active lifestyle and options for adventure travelers.

As new ships come out, cruise lines are careful to build in an ability to be flexible and cater to the traveler of today. Relevant dining options ranging from lifetime event dining, like a steakhouse dinner to celebrate a graduation at a fraction of the cost on land, to comfort food dining, like Macaroni and Cheese in the ship’s main dining room, reflect an evolving passenger’s taste.

Pinpointing that taste and satisfying it, cruise lines are more rabidly focused on capturing the attention of would-be passengers with far more than low prices and bonus offers. Branded experiences ranging from an infusion of DreamWorks characters into the Royal Caribbean fleet, a Nickelodeon influence on Norwegian ships and even Apple products in iLounges on Celebrity Cruises are proving popular. Off the ship, adventurous shore experiences often put cruise travelers on a path similar to that suggested by popular travel bloggers going it on their own.

Flickr photo via Trey Ratcliff

Along with this “give-them-what-they-want” focus comes a branding effort designed to jumpstart the infusion of trendy, relevant elements to the onboard experience on older ship as well. Royal Caribbean has a Royal Advantage program being rolled out to older ships, replacing tube sets with flat-screen TV‘s, adding new trendy dining venues found on the newest of ships and upgrading other elements of the onboard experience as well.

On Carnival Cruise Lines some travelers may lament the near extinction of the party-going frat sailings (AKA “booze cruise”) but don’t have to look far for new, different venues that are becoming the place to be at sea.

Inspired by what is popular while traveling, Carnival unleashed its FunShip 2.0 initiative in New York last October. The $500 million enhancement program includes partnerships with popular celebrities and leading brands.

Funnyman George Lopez and celebrity chef Guy Fieri along with Miami Heat‘s DJ Erie are doing more than simply lending/selling their well-known names and star statuses to the Carnival brand in an attempt to draw a new breed of cruise passenger. Each has worked with Carnival to create experiences that fit the brand and infuse their own unique style.

cruise vacationsThe Food Networks Guy Fieri is working with Carnival to offer a dining venue called Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring the Food Network star’s (really amazing) hand-crafted burgers and fresh-cut fries with special recipes created exclusively for Carnival.

Different, from previous product upgrades that have happened throughout the years, cruise lines are listening and communicating with passengers and targeted travelers, speaking their language. Also, reflecting a degree of transparency, cruise lines are letting us in behind the scenes to see what goes into bringing something new on board as never before.

At a press conference in New York, Fieri manned the outdoor grill most of the afternoon, making soon-to-be signature burgers and answering questions. When asked why he got involved with the project, straight-talking Fieri told us, “…because these people at Carnival really care about their customers. It really means a lot to them that the people who sail on their ships have a good time. I wanted to be a part of that.”

It’s funny how you can hear something like that from a cruise line a million times and think nothing of it, but let those words come out of a popular icon in the world of food and all of the sudden they have meaning.

Fieri’s influence goes beyond the burger recipe too and gets really detailed in its execution on board. Condiment stations will feature a suggested menu developed by the chef to show guests what condiments and toppings they can use to build a specialty burger. In addition to burgers, Guy’s Burger Joint will serve fresh, hand-cut French fries prepared on board. We sampled (OK make that “inhaled”) both in New York and agreed with most others that it was one of the best burgers ever.

Carnival is also teaming up with comedian and TV personality George Lopez who will become the cruise line‘s “creative director for comedy” as Carnival introduces the Punchliner Comedy Clubs Presented by George Lopez.

cruise vacationsTo become the cruise line’s curator of comedy, acting as a consultant on the vetting and hiring of comedic talent for the line’s existing fleetwide comedy clubs, Lopez will play an active role in the securing of top up-and-coming comedic talent, utilizing his vast resources within the North American comedy scene.

“Carnival’s ships offer a huge audience that truly appreciates comedic performances and the on-board clubs are fantastic,” Lopez told us. “I intend to help build and nurture an understanding among up-and-coming comedic talent that these ships represent a phenomenal environment to work and gain experience.”

Through the partnership, Carnival ships will feature a Lopez comedy routine shown on in-cabin televisions fleetwide and pre-recorded introductions by Lopez at comedy club shows, as well as a new Punchliner Comedy Brunch that will be offered on sea days. Lopez will also partner with the line on a comedy-themed consumer contest in 2012.

“Carnival’s guests absolutely love comedy which is why we are already the cruise industry leader in fleetwide comedic programming and, in fact, we host more guests in our shipboard comedy clubs than any land-based comedy chain in the U.S.,” said Gerry Cahill, Carnival’s president and CEO. “By partnering with George Lopez, an exceptionally talented, respected and popular comedian, Carnival’s comedy offerings will be taken to an entirely new level.”

Lopez is seriously into the comedy concept too, much like Fieri and his cooking. In an interview with CruiseRadio‘s Doug Parker and Matt Basford, Lopez detailed his involvement saying “I will bring people from television and movies and that will make it better. You start to see people on the ship that you have seen in movies and that makes it fun, that’s a great surprise,” adding, “I will be performing on the ships occasionally myself which I am excited about.”

cruise vacationDJ IRIE, song master to the stars and the official DJ of the Miami HEAT, will develop a first-of-its-kind DJ academy at sea that will train all Carnival DJs across the “Fun Ship” fleet. The DJ IRIE Spin’iversity promises to bring an exciting and relevant new vibe to the line’s legendary nightclubs, deck parties and beyond.

“Miami HEAT games are known for their high-energy and non-stop fun created by DJ IRIE and we want to tap into his unique skills and passion for music to create an unforgettable atmosphere on board,” Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations told us. “Music is the soundtrack of our lives and our goal is to create an emotional experience for our guests through the right mix of terrific music and a DJ with a unique personality who can energize a crowd.”

Whether spinning in clubs in Miami or Las Vegas, at a sporting event or hosting his popular South Florida radio show, the internationally known DJ IRIE has mastered the art of bringing a crowd to its feet and pumping up the energy and excitement – much like Carnival had done for 40 years.

But through his new comprehensive training program, IRIE will train Carnival’s DJs how to read a crowd and tailor song selections from every musical genre, appealing to guests of all ages. He will also instruct DJs on how to make maximum use of their own personality and energy to create their own persona and build popularity among guests to develop a fan following.

An important point to note: none of this costs extra. This is Carnival reinventing the at-sea experience, adding more options than ever, all included in the price.

The onboard experience is changing in other ways as well. Big name entertainment is lending their name to new cruise ships as Godmothers, or just to be were the entertainment action is.

Martina McBride performed on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas; Maroon 5 rocked Galveston with Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Magic as a backdrop. Other acts from Kid Rock to Dancing with the Stars contestants host themed cruises, allowing fans up-close-and-personal time like never before.

Off the ship too, cruise lines are taking a good hard look at what they have for travelers once ships reach their destinations. Taking a page from travel bloggers, cruise line “excursions” are far more than a busload of tourists complaining if the air conditioning is not cool enough.

Today we’re seeing cruise passengers getting off the bus and on to kayaks, scuba diving, surfing, hiking and climbing trails, viewing history, arts and culture up close in any given port. At the end of the day some ships may stay in port late or overnight before moving on to their next stop.

Always a solid reason for cruising, travelers get to see and sample destinations they may or may not want to return to later, for a longer land-based vacation.

No, today’s cruise vacations are not your parents’ idea of a good time, they’re yours, whatever that may mean.


Photos via Carnival Cruise Lines

Travel Smarter 2012: Your best cruise values in 2012

Looking for the best cruise values, many travelers check the Internet in a click-to-buy way, much like they might an airline ticket or hotel room. Like airfare search engines, some online cruise booking sources are better than others. Some people turn to travel agents who keep up on the latest industry trends, current pricing, and special offers not always available to consumers. In 2012 and into 2013, finding the best cruise value will take knowing what to look for first, then using a variety of sources to bring home a package that is way more than just the lowest price.

Forget the Concordia effect
January’s grounding of the Costa Concordia in Italy sent shock waves through the cruise industry and a call to take a closer look at cruise safety. What the grounding of the Concordia did not do was lower cruise prices. Consumers expected it, the press reported that bookings were down, but nothing happened. Travel agents knew this because business was generally unaffected. Instead of looking for prices to tumble, agents took advantage of existing offers and promotions for their clients, reaping huge values, but not due to a ship accident.

Ships that linger a while
Hot on the horizon are itineraries that linger a bit longer, if not overnight, at popular ports of call. Travelers are becoming increasingly weary of quick pit stops at popular destinations and want more time to explore. Cruise lines are answering the call and those sailings will be priced to fill ships. This offer is becoming especially popular on high-end cruise lines.

River Cruising grows even more
Also, look for the river cruising craze in Europe to continue, for many of the same reasons: travelers want more time at ports and want more of an up-close-and-personal experience ashore. River cruise ships with far fewer passengers on board will deliver that, and at reduced rates, in competition to mega liners. However, that pricing won’t last. Once they catch on, prices will go up.

Discounts on seven-day or longer sailings
Still, the mega liners need to sail full ships, so look for discounts on seven-night and longer sailings as a best value in 2012. A recovering global economy in many nations will entice old travelers into the booking pool and cruise lines will vie for their business.

The dollar is looking better
More outstanding values for sailing from North America may be affected by the weaker Euro, which has almost reversed the exchange situation it was in last year when the dollar was weak. Now, cruise lines who made massive deployments to Europe, in anticipation of sailing their floating assets to more profitable waters, are bringing ships back to the more reliable North American market, though it still needs some encouragement to book. Pricing, especially in the fall of 2012, will be excellent.

Refurbished ships are where the action is
Probably the best value in 2012 will be refurbished ships, priced nicely to sail full. Slowing down a bit on bringing out new ships, cruise lines are taking a step back, looking at what worked on the new ships and adding those popular features to old ships, usually during routine dry-dock maintenance work.

Adding features that might not have existed when the ship was built, cruise lines are transforming older ships into vibrant, relevant floating hotels, competitive with the newest at-sea, or land, vacation options.

A dry dock period usually means routine maintenance and we don’t hear much about it, but with improvements becoming a priority, expect new carpets, upgraded stateroom amenities, and more stuff they can’t do with the ship full of guests. Sometimes these things are part of a grand plan to roll out popular features to older ships in a big way.

Past projects with much more than normal dry dock maintenance were spearheaded by Carnival Corporation brands and their Evolutions Of Fun program on Carnival Cruise Line ships. They brought an array of improvements to older ships including a new water park and an adult serenity area. Sister-line Holland America soon followed, spreading the Signature of Excellence program around the fleet.

More recently, Royal Caribbean focused on Radiance of the Seas. By applying the updated Royal Advantage programming to the older ship, they brought about a makeover of incredible proportions that were made possible, at least in part, by importing popular features from giant sisters Oasis and Allure of the Seas.

The most significant transformation of a Princess Cruises ship occurred not long ago aboard Grand Princess. During a 24-day makeover, the first of Princess’ workhorse Grand class ships had a massive renovation to receive many of Princess’ trademark features, introduced since the ship’s 1998 debut, including the wildly popular Piazza atrium.

“This is the largest makeover we’ve ever undertaken for any of our ships,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises‘ executive vice president. “When Grand Princess was launched she was the most innovative ship at sea, and now we’re adding some of the later innovations we introduced on subsequent ships.”

The king daddy of all remodeling programs, though, has to be Carnival Cruise Line‘s Fun Ship 2.0 initiative, an intense array of onboard programming, brand infusion, and signature “fun” that is consistent with their industry-leading position. They have defined cruise vacations for decades and will lead the way to a future generation of cruise passengers.

The $500 million remodeling program is much more than just a new coat of paint and new carpets. Branded elements of the initiative include: Guy’s Burger Joint developed in tandem with Food Network personality Guy Fieri; the Punchliner Comedy Club presented by George Lopez; and “Hasbro, the Game Show.” On Carnival Liberty right now is the Blue Iguana Cantina and Tequila Bar, and the Red Frog Rum Bar, both receiving rave reviews from passengers on the ship.

“Carnival Liberty is the first ship in the fleet to feature many of our Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements and guest response has been tremendous, exceeding our expectations,” said Lania Rittenhouse, Carnival’s vice president of product development. “From the EA SPORTS Bar to the RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar to Guy’s Burger Joint developed in tandem with Food Network personality Guy Fieri, guests are really enjoying the wide array of innovations. We are looking forward to rolling out additional elements of Fun Ship 2.0 such as the Punchliner Comedy Club Presented by George Lopez and ‘Hasbro, The Game Show,’ later this year as the implementation of this exciting project continues.”

Look for remodeled ships, which are way less expensive than building new ones, to be a best value in 2012 and beyond. Start searching via cruise line websites, check Internet cruise brokers to get an idea of where pricing is, and then call or email a travel agent that specializes in cruise vacations. A good travel agent’s expertise in booking should yield great value, if not immediately then down the road if new discounts, promotions, and offers come into play.

It’s something travel agents do that will not happen when booking directly with a cruise line. (Seriously, they are not going to call you up and let you know they just lowered your fare, trust us.) Click-to-buy methods can’t touch the perks that will keep us sailing smoothly into the future with the best possible value.




[flickr image via joiseyshowaa]

Celebrities go to sea, some stay

celebrities go to seaCelebrities go to sea all the time it seems. Martina McBride performed a short concert on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas in New Orleans Saturday. Last weekend, Maroon 5 rocked Galveston with Carnival Cruise Line’s new Carnival Magic as a backdrop. Other acts from Kid Rock to Dancing with the Stars contestants host themed cruises, allowing fans up-close-and-personal time like never before. Now, celebrities are lending their names to onboard venues that will stay with cruise ships long after the stars have gone home. It’s all part of a branding effort by cruise lines to gain favor with the public as never before and travelers are clearly gaining as a result.

Saturday’s Martina McBride concert to welcome Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas was not the first time the cruise line has used star power to welcome a new ship. Stars from Reba McEntire to Rhianna have been on board to bring in new potential travelers, reward those already booked and help define the Royal Caribbean brand as current and relevant.

“We are particularly delighted to have Martina McBride help us celebrate our return to New Orleans with an exclusive concert aboard Voyager of the Seas.”Royal Caribbean International senior vice president of marketing Betsy O’Rourke said.

The concert was free to Royal Caribbean’s past and invited guests, adding a whole lot of value for those booked to sail after the concert. Such was also the case in Galveston, Texas last week as GRAMMY award-winning band Maroon 5 played a standing room only crowd dockside to welcome Carnival Magic to the port. This one catered to a more engaged crowd as thousands of fans took advantage of free tickets being distributed by Carnival via their Facebook page, senior cruise director John Heald‘s blog and selected Texas radio stations.
“We wanted to do something big and memorable to mark Carnival Magic’s U.S debut and what better way to celebrate than to bring together fans of music and fans of Carnival, along with our partners in Galveston, for an exceptional afternoon of fun and entertainment,” Carnival Cruise Lines‘ president and CEO Gerry Cahill said.

A similar level of engagement at Carnival has resulted in what they call their Funship 2.0 initiative, a $500 million transformation of the line’s onboard experience. Introduced in New York last month, this is way more than a makeover and way more than a dry-dock remodeling project. Carnival is bringing in heavy hitters and time-tested concepts in an attempt blow away the competition, at no additional charge to their passengers.

It’s all about the burgers

celebrities go to seaFirst up, Food Network star Guy Fieri, has developed a burger venue called Guy’s Burger Joint featuring gourmet, made-to-order burgers with a variety of toppings. There will be not hockey puck-like burgers here.

Fieri’s influence goes beyond the burger recipe too. Condiment stations will feature a suggested menu developed by the chef to show guests what condiments and toppings they can use to build a specialty burger. In addition to burgers, Guy’s Burger Joint will serve fresh, hand-cut French fries prepared on board.

A variety of innovative condiments from chipotle mayonnaise and a special barbecue sauce to garlic aioli and three hot sauces, will be available at self-serve condiment stations. For guests who like a little more spice, seasonings like garlic and herb, sea salt and hot chili also will be offered, along with a selection of toppings such as sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, blue cheese crumbles and vine-ripened tomatoes.

Comedy is king

celebrities go to seaCarnival is also teaming up with comedian and TV personality George Lopez who will become the cruise line‘s creative director for comedy as Carnival introduces the Punchliner Comedy Clubs Presented by George Lopez.

“Carnival’s ships offer a huge audience that truly appreciates comedic performances and the on-board clubs are fantastic,” said Lopez. “I intend to help build and nurture an understanding among up-and-coming comedic talent that these ships represent a phenomenal environment to work and gain experience.”

Through the partnership, Carnival ships will feature a Lopez comedy routine shown on in-cabin televisions fleetwide and pre-recorded introductions by Lopez at comedy club shows, as well as a new Punchliner Comedy Brunch that will be offered on sea days. Lopez will also partner with the line on a comedy-themed consumer contest in 2012.

Lopez is seriously into the concept too. In an interview on Cruise Radio, Lopez detailed his involvement saying “I will bring people from television and movies and that will make it better. You start to see people on the ship that you have seen in movies and that makes it fun, that’s a great surprise,” adding “I will be performing on the ships occasionally myself which I am excited about”.

Celebrity DJ to the rescue

celebrities go to seaDJ IRIE, song master to the stars and the official DJ of the Miami HEAT, will develop a first-of-its-kind DJ academy at sea that will train all Carnival DJs across the “Fun Ship” fleet. The DJ IRIE Spin’iversity will bring an exciting new vibe to the line’s legendary nightclubs, deck parties and beyond.

“Miami HEAT games are known for their high-energy and non-stop fun created by DJ IRIE and we want to tap into his unique skills and passion for music to create an unforgettable atmosphere on board,” said Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations. “Music is the soundtrack of our lives and our goal is to create an emotional experience for our guests through the right mix of terrific music and a DJ with a unique personality who can energize a crowd.”

Whether spinning in clubs in Miami or Las Vegas, at a sporting event or hosting his popular South Florida radio show, the internationally known DJ IRIE has mastered the art of bringing a crowd to its feet and pumping up the energy and excitement.

Through his new DJ IRIE Spin’iversity, a comprehensive training program, IRIE will train Carnival’s DJs how to read a crowd and tailor song selections from every musical genre, appealing to guests of all ages. He will also instruct DJs on how to make maximum use of their own personality and energy to create their own persona and build popularity among guests to develop a fan following.

And it’s free

An important point to note: None of this costs extra. Other lines have piled on upscale dining venues, entertainment options and other pay-as-you-go choices with mixed results. Carnival is adding all this and more at no additional cost to their guests.