The SXSW Of Cruise Travel Starts Monday

Considered by many as the SXSW of cruise travel, Cruise Shipping Miami is an annual mega-convention that starts Monday in Miami, Florida. On hand will be cruise line executives and travel experts participating in panel discussions, workshops and more during the four-day event, on track to draw record attendance this year.

The four-day trade show highlights all the latest and greatest would-be cruise ship features that we might see in the future. Press conferences, including a “State of the Industry” panel, will surely address the ongoing issue of safety at sea as well as new, upcoming trends.

As cruise lines focus on differentiating themselves from one another, seminars on everything from expedition cruising to social media, environmental issues and refurbishing older ships. Gadling will be on hand, looking for answers to questions readers have raised since last year’s show.At the 2011 Cruise Shipping Miami conference, we investigated new things you might see on a cruise ship in the future, some of which made it – others not so much. Last year we saw a focus on new ports, top-deck features and safety issues in the wake of the Costa Concordia grounding. Gadling will be on hand this year as well, reporting back with a roundup of the conference and answers to your questions.

Have something you’re dying to know about cruise travel? Now is the time to ask with a comment below. Follow @CruiseShipping and the hashtag #CSM2013 on Twitter for live updates throughout the event.

Cruise Shipping Miami also features exhibits and demonstrations from destinations around the world. At last year’s show, Japanese Taiko Drumming was one such event as we see in this video.

[Photo credit – Flickr user Trondheim Havn]

Cruise Lines looking at new ports, carefully

Cruise lines sometimes seem to get in a rut on where they send ships. Many ports vie for their attention but long-established relationships with the governments and port authorities of existing ports set the bar high, often out of reach for new would-be ports of call. Still, many repeat passengers want to see new ports and if one cruise line does not offer them and another does, that repeat passenger may jump ship and sail with a different line. While most travelers have still never been on their first very cruise, many have been on a bunch of them and as the industry matures, ports are becoming more important all the time.

In the olden days of maybe 10 years ago, Eastern or Western Caribbean sailings were what mainstream travelers thought when they heard the word “cruise”. But those “tried and true” itineraries are becoming more “been there, done that” all the time so these days new ports are in clear focus.

Cruise lines try new ports for other reasons as well though. Carnival Victory, for example, has called on Antiqua from time to time in the past.

Antigua was dropped from the ship’s itinerary last year, after six American tourists, who’d arrived on the vessel, were arrested after a dispute with a taxi driver in 2009. The company said at the time that its decision was unrelated to the arrests and it had been contemplating moving the ship away from Antigua for some time because it had not modified its Southern Caribbean itinerary in four years. St Maarten replaced Antigua.

This is a big deal to Antiqua. They want that ship and all the passengers and all their money and their reputation as a safe place to call back. In fact, at the Cruise Shipping Miami show earlier this month, Antigua officials met with representatives of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruise lines to increase calls at the island by any ship. When Carnival Cruise Lines announced that Carnival Valor would be making monthly calls to Antigua starting in February 2012, that was big news.

Ok so chalk that loss up to security concerns, much like Mazatlan Mexico has been experiencing. Once branded as being unsafe, it is difficult for ports to regain the confidence of cruise lines who rabidly go after security issues, making sure ports are safe to visit.

Industry-wide, new ports are being considered and itineraries for existing sailings altered for other reasons as well. Recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa caused temporary changes by a number of lines causing hundreds of itineraries to change. That, no one can predict.

One thing seems certain though: Cruise vacations are still gaining in popularity and not going away any time soon. Look for new ports on the horizon as the industry matures, security issues are addressed or resolved and passengers look for new off-the-ship experiences.

Flickr photo by CircumerroStock

Ten cool new cruise things you might see on a ship soon

Just back from Cruise Shipping Miami, the annual trade show for all things cruising, I have ten cool new things you might see on a cruise ship soon. Cruise Shipping Miami is an annual showcase for suppliers to the cruise industry. Looking for the latest in sinks for your cruise ship? This is the place to be. Want to know all there is to know about different ports of call? Most of them are represented at the show. Don’t own a cruise ship? That’s OK, most of the travel professionals who went there didn’t either.
Some of this stuff is pretty cool and gives a lot of insight to what buyers at cruise lines have to choose from.
  1. Wine in aluminum bottlesFlasq brand wines packaged like Bud Light in aluminum bottles may be around on deck in a “What took so long to think of that?” idea. Flasq wines are grown in California regions, are 100% American-made and bottled in eco-friendly, easy-to-handle, quick-chilling aluminum cans.
  2. Learn to play the bagpipes– Maybe not but Cruise Scotland had a bagpiper on hand to lend an air of authenticity to their display booth and more than one travel professional looked way less professional attempting to dance along.
  3. Glacier Ice may not be available on the cruise ships but a contingent from Anchorage, Alaska had some there and wouldn’t share it. Still, what a great way to charge even more for a drink-of-the-day by adding official “Glacier Ice” to the mix. Having been to and stood on top of a glacier in Alaska, I’m not so sure I would want some of that ice in my drink though. Maybe after a few. That could work.
  4. Optimistic attitude about cruise vacations– It’s not a product you can pick up or ask for on a ship. But the cruise line executives present at Cruise Shipping Miami universally called for 2011 to be a great year for cruises with 8 new ships coming out as travelers shake off the effects of a recession and get back to traveling
  5. Moso Natural Air Purifying Bag– The company who makes these things hopes you will find one in your cruise ship cabin soon. The idea is to place these charcoal-filled bags in cruise ship cabins to cut down on moisture, mildew and odors. This thing sucks up all that bad stuff and works for two years. I wouldn’t look to see this one any time soon.
  6. Bed Bug Dogs from Avoid-A-Bug may show up on cruise ships. Apparently ultra-sensitive dog noses can smell bed bugs and alert housekeeping staff of there presence. While the pros at Adopt-A-Bug admitted cruise ships have few problems with bed bugs, hotels and airlines are another matter altogether.
  7. Another cruise ship hotel? That is one plan for the SS United States, currently held by a non-profit organization that has a limited amount of time to do something with it. It’s a story we have been following for a while which is far from over. This latest idea, to park the ship in Miami as a hotel like the Queen Mary in California, looks to be a viable one.
  8. Loksak storage bags and carrying cases– Loksak is the inventor and manufacturer of LOKSAK and SPLASHSAK which are basically super duty ziploc bags to keep your cell phone or iPad dry at the beach…or under water. These have been around for a while and can be bought online at sporting goods stores like REI and others.
  9. More people on more ships- The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is predicting that 16 million people, three-quarters of them from North America, will vacation aboard cruise ships this year, up 6.6 percent from 2010. CLIA is pretty good at calling it too, last year’s numbers exceeded their projections.
  10. It’s all about the name– Princess Cruises announced one of two upcoming new ships, previously unnamed, will be named Royal Princess. Princess has used that name twice before but they like it a lot so once again it will ride the ocean. This time Royal Princess will come equipped with a Seawalk that shoots people out over the side of the ship at a high velocity. No, not really. But the top-deck, glass-bottomed walkway will extend more than 28 feet beyond the edge of the vessel.
Flickr photo by Trondheim Havn

South Beach hotels not for everyone but great for some

There is a big difference between “going to” South Beach and “staying on” South Beach for spring break or just about any other time. A day or night visit is fun. Staying at one of the local hotels on or close to the action is a whole other experience that’s not for everybody.

Visiting for the day or night is fun and just about anything goes while police watch spring breakers, looking for the insanely crazy/dangerous ones. Those they will tend to. The rest are left to have a good time,

I was in town for the Cruise Shipping Miami convention, one of the premiere events each year in the travel business which just happened to fall during spring break. I chose a South Beach hotel, the Chesterfield Hotel, for three reasons; it is within walking distance of the Miami Convention Center, it is on South Beach a block away from the beach and because it was available.

Between conventions and spring break, hotel rooms were scarce.

This one I probably would not have picked as a first choice based on mixed reviews from like this one:

“Worst experience ever!!!!!!!!! Run… away from any deal….you might be offered. Worst managed property in the free world.”

or this one

“The rooms were all horribly dimly lit, had questionable cleanliness and many were entered directly from the street and did not have dead bolts or chain locks. Most of us ended up propping chairs up against the doors and laying “booby traps” in case of intruders.”

But like reading directions prior to assembly of some device, I don’t pay much attention to hotel reviews either. Often, I find some unique properties that way and this is certainly one of them.

If someone were looking for a chain hotel with chain hotel amenities, this would not be the hotel for them. This is a small boutique hotel with a character of it’s own that is undeniably South Beach-flavored.

The hotel is located a block from the beach and a short block at that. Every hotel in the area is old and shows what one might call wear. To me, each one has a story that goes back a long time. If I get a chance to stay on South Beach again I’ll do some research beforehand or make time for one of the art deco tours that are available.

The room I had was a standard king room and it was small, very small, but just fine for one person. I had read reviews complaining about various things but had no problems. The room had a great, huge shower and the people who worked there were just as friendly and helpful as they could be.

This hotel is part of the South Beach Group Hotels which are reciprocal with each other in several ways. You might book the Chesterfield Hotel and end up a building down the street in what appears to be a different hotel. A free happy-hour from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. is offered at any one of the five hotels in the group. Lightning-fast T1 wireless Internet access is free pretty much anywhere in the area and they provide beach towels too.

When it’s time to shop or eat, there are world-class restaurants and it seems every designer label made has a flagship store in the area. Add it all up and South Beach makes a great place to stay for just about any reason.

South Beach Spring Break 2011 is on fire- part one

This year in Florida, South Beach Spring Break is on fire as thousands of students take time off from school and descend on one of America’s most popular beaches. I was there this week and lived to tell about it. Follow along on this first part of the tale.

Flickr photo by Mumbojumbo22

Actually I was in town for a grown-up convention, Cruise Shipping Miami, one of the premiere events each year in the travel business which just happened to fall during spring break. More on that later.

The first two weeks of March traditionally bring the most action to Miami Beach in Florida, host to one of the biggest spring break celebrations in the world. This year was no exception and while crowds will dwindle as the month moves on, party people of all sizes, shapes and colors own the the streets, hotels, beaches and even parking garages.

I say spring-breakers “own the streets” but actually they own the sidewalks. The police own the streets and there are plenty of them on duty after a crazy spring break last year brought undercover cops this year.

“Tourists don’t come back after they see us taken over by brats from the mainland,” Frank Del Vecchio, an activist from the South Beach area told the Miami Herald. Locals who will be there long after spring-breakers have gone. They want the beach protected, trash controlled and behavior, specifically extreme cases of spring-break fever, addressed.

While an increased law enforcement presence seemed to eliminate most activities that would have resulted in a crime scene, pretty much everything else was allowed. Had I wished to buy any number of drugs, that would have been no problem. Drug-dealers on the streets of South Beach were operating at Jamaica-quality pestering level hawking everything from marijuana to Screaming Yellow Zombies, whatever those are.

Police searched coolers, some many times, coming up empty as beach party people learned to bury booze in the sand under a beach blanket or put it in their backpacks. Yes, just like on a cruise ship, there’s always a way to smuggle booze. I was proud of those kids, brought a little tear to my eye I must say.

Locals want it all under control but they also want money. In a struggle between “let’s keep the streets clean” and “we want money”, guess who came out on top?

Miami is set up to handle large crowds of people, this week was no exception and it was good to see a vibrant system operate at it’s peak of efficiency. Miami for spring break is near or at the top of everyone’s top-10 spring break list including where Miami Beach comes in at #2. Miami offers a lot of attractions including a world-class zoo, seaport, museum, convention center and more. Number one on most To-do-in-Miami lists is South Beach which is not far from that convention center and Lincoln Road mall, a dining and entertainment complex frequented by tourists and spring-breakers.

Flickr photo by prakash_UT

Over at the grown-up convention, suited travel professionals (well, except for this one guy from Gadling in cargo shorts being all quirky and irreverent as those Gadling people are) from all over the world also descended on Miami’s convention center for a week of what is promoted as “the world’s most important and largest annual meeting for the cruise industry”.

This was an entirely different group of people.

Top executives from major cruise lines told of a unified cruise industry promoting a safe vacation experience on one of their safe ships in safe waters that lead to safe destinations. About halfway through the first day the theme was clear: Our ships do not believe in and stay clear of pirates, earthquakes, tsunamis and the Frito Bandito.

But far from all about business, attendees seemed to make time for fun too as seen in this video of the typically-Miami party hosted by Porthole Cruise Magazine and held in a converted parking garage.

Tourism here is down too like the rest of the world. Local people I talked to were glad to have the business and happy to put up with the mess it brings. Emilio Rodriguez, a Miami cab driver, told me “In a couple weeks it will be like somebody turned off the faucet and it will be slow again…but right now? Life is good.”

Indeed, hotel rooms can be as hard to find as parking spaces. But for those that stayed at a South Beach hotel, walking was the order of the day anyway leaving stumbling to be the order of the night.