Luxury cruises are coming back. Cruises have always been extremely popular with older affluent demographics and wealthy families alike. The business model of luxury cruise companies too has been always very lucrative for various reasons, especially in the high-end or ultra-luxury segment. Still, a variety of brands were extremely affected by the pandemic and nearly wiped out by imposed operational freezes, the most famous fatal victim of these lockdowns being Crystal Cruises (we hope that all the people that lost their jobs due to this have found new roles in the meantime).
Most luxury cruise brands luckily are now back in full steam though. With new cruise ships being built and new routes being launched all around the world, luxury cruises are in a good place overall. With travel restrictions now mostly gone, demand has started to pick up too, but herein lies the age-old problem of complacency.
The pandemic has changed consumer behaviors and target markets in a lot of different ways, but a lot of cruise brands have not adapted to these changes and are continuing with a “business as usual” attitude. Let’s take a look at why this might be problematic in the long-term, and how a digital marketing approach for luxury cruise companies might look like if they decide to evolve with the times.
Demand for luxury cruises has changed
The pandemic has taught older high-net-worth demographics that in case of an outbreak or potential health risk cruise ships can become swimming coffins due to strict quarantine policies. While vaccines have partially removed that fear to a certain degree, the willingness to risk getting stuck, even on an ultra luxury cruise, is now permanently lower than before. In addition to that, older demographics (baby boomers in particular) are phasing slowly out of the market due to age-related effects in general. They travel less, shorter distances, and are not willing to take unnecessary health risks. Hence why even a low-stress vacation like a cruise is increasingly becoming less attractive to them.
What remains is for luxury cruise companies to pivot their offerings and adapt their brand and performance marketing to make the luxury cruise experience more appealing to affluent families while opening up new customer segments within the millennial demographic by emphasizing cruise aspects like exploring the oceans, sustainability (which is arguably difficult with cruises) and lots of partying of course. Last but not least, these younger demographics will react less favorably toward classical analogue marketing. A strong digital-first strategy has already become a must-have. So now that we have established in which ways the luxury cruise industry might need to change over time, let’s look at some digital tactics that they can employ to do so today.
What makes luxury cruises unique?
Luxury cruises have several unique USPs that you can leverage if you do it right. The biggest one of course would be the fact that it is a boating experience on the wide ocean. Capturing all the beauty and fun of being on the open sea (in a very comfortable and luxurious way of course) is one of the key aspects you can emphasize, especially through your brand marketing creatives.
Another one would be the actual scenic route that the cruise will take, making it somewhat of an adventure with different marinas, ports and activities along the way that contribute to a sense of discovery, wonder, fun and culture. The rich opportunities to relax and switch off aboard a modern luxury cruise ship in the form of on-board entertainment, pools, dancing, music, yoga, wellness, and the high quality of food and drink paired with 5-star, white-glove service is what draws affluent travelers towards this unique type of experience in the first place.
Do luxury travel & hospitality best practices apply?
Of course, several luxury hospitality and travel marketing best practices apply, in fact, herein lies one of the strengths of marketing for luxury cruises. A savvy marketer can, for example, use best practice from luxury hospitality marketing when it comes to talking about the heritage of the cruise company or showcasing the quality of the food and beverage offerings. Using smart brand marketing to showcase the boat itself and all its amities in an emotionally engaging and creative way similar to how one would showcase rooms, bars, fine dining and other 5-star hotel or resort facilities is a great way to start getting your target affluent traveler involved with the idea of spending time on your boat.
When communicating about traversing the ocean, the ports, and cruising route itself utilizing some luxury travel marketing best practice to highlight the destinations, cuisines, cultural experiences and general sense of exploration that is part of cruising is another great tactic a sophisticated luxury marketer can employ to drive awareness and consideration. Overall a nice mix of luxury hospitality and travel marketing tactics is what works best for cruises if you ask us.
Why is digital becoming crucial for cruises
The demographical shift that is happening combined with increased sensitivity towards health and safety should motivate cruise companies to invest heavily into digital and should motivate them to shift their marketing budget to digital channels rather sooner than later. That INCLUDES a lot of the marketing that is currently still aimed at older, wealthy demographics. These age groups also have smartphones, check their inboxes, use the internet and social media – maybe to a lesser degree than younger affluent demographics, but they still do and a lot of the digital advertising spend is passing them by at the moment for no reason whatsoever.
Going digital and not falling into the ageism trap is a great short and mid-term tactic while the long-term tactic should be to make luxury cruises, in general, more attractive to younger affluent demographics on the one side by adapting the offerings and routes to include experiences that are appealing to younger people but also give your brand on the other side a creative refresh to make sure that your campaigns across the whole funnel are up-to-date and relevant in the modern world when it comes to aesthetics, sensibilities and modern luxury values (sustainability, anyone?).
Challenges of luxury cruise marketing
Due to a lack of differentiation between luxury and mass-market cruises companies sometimes have to deal with a specific set of challenges when exploring new market segments and personas. Mass-market cruises, especially among younger demographics are often associated with being cheap, crowded, dirty, factory floor like, with small cabins, nothing but cheap buffets, and extremely touristic and superficial experiences on land. A turn off for modern affluent travelers that are used to immersion and inclusion. To combat that image, your brand and performance marketing must communicate the luxurious opposites of these dislikes.
You should position your luxury cruise as expensive, with limited passenger numbers (compared to mass market cruises), bespoke service and personalization, lavish cabins, fine dining experiences and a lot of culturally immersive, exciting food and drink experiences. The marina and go ashore experiences should be well planned, with exclusive access, away from the mass market tourist crowds and guided by skilled tour guides or local partners. If you can communicate this effectively through video, audio, copy and images at the top of the funnel, leveraging that engagement and retargeting data at the bottom with your performance campaigns should become easy and seamless.
A basic approach for marketing cruises online
To sum it up and put it in sequence, we would (as usual) start with sophisticated luxury marketing personas that cover your bread and butter segments as well as new market expansion-focused (younger) ones. Once you have that ready to go an audit of all your brand assets (digital and analogue – website, email, ad creatives, copywriting, branding, events, downloads, etc.) and refresh is in order based on what you need to appear relevant to your new personas. After that is done, separate your existing assets in top of the funnel, middle, and bottom of the funnel categories and design and produce new ones (with different formats) where necessary with focus on your most relevant ships and cruises.
After you’ve done that, it is time to go to market with your campaigns and lock in the relevant media buys and targeting sets internally or with the help of agency partners. Starting with brand marketing and top of the funnel assets, sequentially work your way through the year with middle and bottom of the funnel campaigns as well, based on the seasonality and schedules of your most lucrative and profitable luxury cruise departures.
Once you have a full-funnel approach running it is time to adjust and iterate all your adjacent marketing tactics like events, email, sales outreach, partnerships, trade marketing, etc. to complement the messaging you already have going on in digital. With enough consistency and realistic media budgets, you should start seeing some surprisingly positive results pretty soon. Last but not least, make sure to set up enough analytics technology and measurement along the way so that each conversion point and KPI that you can track along your target personas buyer journeys are accounted for.
While this approach obviously requires a lot of effort and resources in terms of planning, setup, and execution if implemented at scale for different ships and cruise routes, it is ultimately what is required to stay relevant and thrive in the cruise business of tomorrow. If you need help with coming up with a framework to make all this work in union or even some extra creativity and executional support to make it happen, make sure to reach out to us.