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InCruises taps unserved markets with subscription model

InCruises just reached 1 million members worldwide across 194 countries using a subscription travel club model that's drawing more than 90% first-time cruisers.

They skew a few years younger than the industry average, are comfortable with technology and book their cruises directly via a members-only closed user group site.  

'We're introducing a lot of people to the idea of going on a cruise or making it more convenient for them,' said Frank Codina, co-founder and co-CEO, inCruises. 'A lot of countries aren't on the cruising radar. They aren't being marketed to.'

17 languages

InCruises launched in 2016 with English and Spanish sites and has grown to 17 languages, with all marketing materials and support translated.

Members and events span the world, from Argentina to Spain, Mongolia to South Korea, Ukraine to Japan.

'As long as I've been in the industry, I don't think I've ever heard of a brand putting focus on generating marketing in Mongolia or Angola ... But why wouldn't there be interest in cruising there?' said Sally Andrews, a Holland America Line veteran senior executive who joined inCruises as public relations director this year.

Alternate distribution model

'It's really adding to the industry ... InCruises is an alternate distribution model that isn't competing with the agent model,' she said.

Andrews also pointed to the growth of the subscription-based economy, which is expanding into travel across airlines, hotels and companies like TripAdvisor and Travel + Leisure. 'Subscription models are exploding and estimated to continue to grow by 18% a year,' she said.

InCruises members pay $100 to join and a $100 monthly fee thereafter that awards them two points for every dollar, which can go toward the price of a cruise or hotel. Prices are the same as publicly available rates; members save by using the reward points they accrue.

So if a cruise retails for $2,000, a member may apply, for example, 1,000 reward points to the cost and pay the other $1,000 out of pocket.

'Convenience is the No. 1 thing people love,' Codina said, adding inCruises makes it easy to plan a vacation. He explained that in some places payment may be complicated due to currency issues or countries may have lower limits for credit card charges. 'We think differently in America and Europe when it comes to access to credit,' he said.

$50m in cruise revenue

InCruises projects $50m in cruise revenues this year. Currently 11 brands are offered — Azamara, Carnival Cruise Line, Costa, Cunard, Holland America Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn. Other cruise brands are expected to join soon.

The million members are people who register on an inCruises website; about half of those become paying members and more than 250,000 have cruised. Codina said that if not for the pandemic, that figure would have been double.

Pre-pandemic, active members were cruising 1.5 or two times a year. During the shutdown, members weren't able to travel but they continued paying their monthly subscription, so they've built up reward points.

Booking up

'As a result, some are booking up: suites, [Norwegian Cruise Line's] The Haven, the [MSC] Yacht Club,' said Steve Skidgel, a 30-year travel retail veteran who serves as inCruises' chief commercial officer.


Steve Skidgel, left, and Frank Codina at a Norwegian Prima shipyard visit on March 8 for NCL President's Club

Members are recruited by a network of more than 70,000 partners. These are independent contractors who market inCruises with a suite of tools including referral links, social media tools, email and live events. 'They love social media, getting the word out through technology ... That's where we shine,' Codina said, 'bringing that new distribution channel into the industy that's seen its traditional channels struggle during the pandemic.'

Partners are paid for signing up new members; they don't sell cruises. But many partners are also members who've been on several cruises so they're able to share their enthusiasm for cruising.

'We're leveraging the like, share, recommend phenomenon in the way people purchase goods and services,' Skidgel said. 'People want recommendations, some insider knowledge from somebody they trust. That's our partners.'

Skidgel leads member briefings on cruise brands, itineraries and current retail promotions from the lines. His monthly live webinars are simultaneously translated into eight languages and often feature cruise line representatives. A live event in Puerto Rico for inCruises' recent hotel launch drew 500 attendees plus about a thousand virtually. Many members make long-haul trips to their cruises, so pre-/post-cruise hotel stays are common — so far, 62% of hotel bookings made through the new inStays portal are linked to a cruise. 

InCruises also has a robust online support team; with the click of a button members can submit tickets with questions. Members are tech-savvy, DYI types who are comfortable with this format. Phone support isn't practical due to the multilingual and global nature of the company.

The co-founders

Co-founders and co-CEOs Codina and Michael 'Hutch' Hutchison came together with the desire to 'bring something of value in the technology world to the travel industry.'

Hutchison, whose expertise includes investment, performance training and business development, has led sales teams across a range of companies, hosted a web TV talk show for Dun & Bradstreet, served as VP worldwide sales and marketing for the motivational guru/performance coach Tony Robbins and got his start in business development with Ross Perot's EDS Group.

Codina spent 23 years at Citigroup and after a successful IPO spinoff of Primerica, branched into technology. He wanted to do something in travel since his passion is cruising. This is thanks to his mother, who took Frank and his brother on their first cruise in 1992.

'We walked out of there wowed,' he said. Now his mother has been on nearly 50 cruises, he's taken more than 30 and his brother is inCruises' support director, managing the largest part of the company.

Hutchison and Codina are based at inCruises' San Juan, Puerto Rico headquarters, and there are further offices around the world.

Meeting CEOs, destinations and media at Seatrrade

InCruises splashed out at Seatrade Cruise Global in April to build brand awareness and reputation. As a sponsor of the Seatrade VIP/Speakers Reception in partnership with CLIA Business on the Beach, they talked with MSC's Pierfrancesco Vago and caught Arnold Donald and Christine Duffy's attention by noting the $25m in projected bookings with Carnival Corp. brands including $8m with Carnival Cruise Line this year.


At CLIA's Business on the Beach

They engaged with media at the convention and took a video production team into the exhibition to capture destination content to share with members and discuss what destinations might do to add value for members, perhaps providing something like a shopping card.

Disruptive model

'We have a strategic aim to be a valuable brand for the industry,' Skidgel said. InCruises is 'disruptive ... It leads to innovation. We're going to open eyes to another alternative distribution. There's a lot of people who want to be part of something. [As a travel club], we offer that.'

InCruises, Andrews added, addresses challenges that have faced the industry for years: How do we generate new to cruise, a younger demographic and cruise activity in new markets in ways that are not overly costly?

'This disruptor model, this alternate distribution channel really checks all the boxes,' she said. 'Word of mouth is the most cost-effective marketing. Add to that the growth of the subscription-based model. We're a strategic partner with a long-term commitment to the cruise lines.'