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37% of Virtuoso clients are ready to cruise now, 2021 bookings 'strong'

CRUISE Matthew Upchurch.jpg
Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch said savvy travelers are taking advantage of relaxed policies to lock in 2021 trips, knowing capacity will be reduced
Thirty-seven percent of Virtuoso clients are ready to cruise now, while 63% are not ready, according to the luxury travel group whose sales were $30bn in 2019.

The findings were among survey results presented Monday, the opening day of Virtuoso Travel Week.

Flexible cancellation policies key

For 2021, cruise and travel bookings overall are strong. Flexible cancellation policies have been key to fueling bookings, Virtuoso travel advisors said, and CEO Matthew Upchurch stated savvy travelers are taking advantage of relaxed policies to lock in 2021 trips, knowing capacity will be reduced.

Cruise sales were up 17% for Virtuoso heading into 2020, and 84% of Virtuoso travel advisors were forecasting higher sales, a significant increase for a US election year, according to Virtuoso's Misty Belles, managing director, global public relations, during a web news conference.

After the coronavirus outbreak, April was the low point for sales. Since then, there's been some modest recovery, she said. According to the network's travel advisors, ocean cruising is 'doing well' as a part of that.

Alaska, Europe are hot with Celebrity cruisers

'We're full of optimism' for 2021, said Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and CEO, Celebrity Cruises, adding that 40% of bookings are travelers rescheduling and 60% are new.

Alaska and Europe top the list.

'2021 cruise bookings are very strong,' agreed Becky Powell, chief strategy officer, Protravel International, during the Virtuoso news conference.

Luxury means 'private'

This year, and into 2021, Powell said 'luxury means private — private villas, private jets, private you name it.'

Abercrombie & Kent customers are moving 2020 travel to 2021 and booking trips to national parks and safari camps, with lots of multigenerational family groups, according to A&K Founder and Co-Chairman Geoffrey Kent.

Kent said people are seeking adventure and experiences, and things to do as a family, such as trekking and safaris. They're not keen on major cities and want to avoid crowds.

Destinations have an opportunity to reinvent

Upchurch suggested, though, that people will want to visit places they miss, such as Florence, in a different way. The pause in travel has given destinations that were grappling with overtourism the opportunity to be more 'self-defining' and decide what they want and how they want to operate.

To that, Lutoff-Perlo said Celebrity guests are going to want to engage with communities differently, so this opens new opportunities for destinations.

Increased technology

Technology will be important, too, in helping figure out different ways to operate, such as the Royal Caribbean Group's recently announced Muster 2.0. And it will help with contact tracing.

'We need to preserve the experience'

Yet, for all the changes coming, 'We need to preserve the experience,' Lutoff-Perlo stressed. Too many protocols can make people feel like travel isn't worth the bother.

'That's why we're taking our time,' she said. 'Preserving the fundamental experience that people love so much is of critical importance to us.'

Celebrity pricing stable, not going down

The travel leaders were asked if pricing will decrease in 2021?

'At Celebrity, we're not doing that,' Lutoff-Perlo said.

'As we're setting our pricing for 2021 and as we're watching our business come in, our rates our stable. They're either at or better than what we anticipated in 2020 and what we did in 2019. We were looking at an amazing 2020 going into the year, and our pricing is holding up beautifully.'

Booking window far out — uncertainty is close in

Currently, Celebrity's biggest booking quarters are Q3 and Q4 in 2021. Lutoff-Perlo thinks that as greater clarity about therapeutics and a vaccine comes toward the end of the year, 'we might see closer-in bookings for the first half of [2021].

'In terms of far-out bookings, people are very confident,' she said. 'They may not be so confident about the next six or nine months, because none of us are,' given the 'news cycle and the spikes of this virus.'

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