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Signature cruise sales way up but Delta variant's a damper

Signature Travel Network's cruise sales are up by a whopping 54.4% compared to 2019, but lately the Delta variant has been dragging momentum.

Alex Sharpe, president and CEO, expects Signature will be back to the 'the golden year 2019' in 2022 because of the work members have put in, the investments they've made and because the network is growing — it gained 33 new members in 2021. That compares to seven primary agencies closing in the last 12 months and two members leaving.

Sharpe called Signature 'small and mighty,' with 210 US members in 435 locations and 71 international affiliates in 181 locations.

'Individually, I don't think members will have a 2022 as good as 2019,' he said, though some may be more profitable because they have 'better businesses today, better setups. But, as a whole, I believe Signature can get there and set our sights even higher for better years to come.'

There's potential to achieve far beyond what the network produced in 2019 and Sharpe thinks that's possible in 2023 and moving into 2024.

Virtual briefing replaces Hawaii meeting

He would have been delivering his president's report at a Hawaii resort this week if not for the Delta-fueled COVID spike that canceled the Owners' Meeting there. Instead, he had to settle for wearing a Hawaiian shirt for his virtual briefing Friday.

Sharpe listed Signature's strengths and advantages as including its dynamic membership, with diverse agency models and a huge range of specialists that he called 'pound for pound champs' who cover myriad types of travel.

Sales growth is another strength.

How cruise sales measure by category

Breaking down the 54.4% cruise spike over 2019, sales with river cruise partners are up 24.4%, with luxury lines 10.4%, in the deluxe segment (Oceania, Viking, Azamara, Cunard, Windstar) 34.8%, premium 61.4%, contemporary 131.8% and niche (Lindblad Expeditions, Paul Gauguin, UnCruise Adventures) 9.5%.

'There's huge opportunity,' Sharpe said, adding he'd like to see even more luxury cruise sales.

Land sales growth has not been as high.

Delta variant erodes 2021 bookings

Sharpe addressed the Delta variant's impact on bookings over the last several weeks.

'2021 bookings have really fallen off and are going the wrong direction. 2022 [bookings] are growing but at a little bit slower rate, and 2023 continues to grow,' he said.

Concerning 2021 cruises, in May cancellations were high with lines changing deployment as they figured out their restart dates. Bookings fell 16% versus the prior month. In June bookings fell 2% and another 2% in July and continue to 'move backwards,' Sharpe said.

For 2022, cruise bookings were growing at 15% in May, just over 13% in June and then 10% in July — 'not bad,' but slower.

For the peak third quarter 2022 cruise season, bookings were up at 26.5% in May, 16%-17% in June and 13% in July.

For 2023 cruises, bookings were up 17% in June from the prior month and edged 18% higher in July. 

River and luxury cruises

Sharpe cited river and luxury cruises as cause for optimism. As of July 31, Signature's 2022 river cruise sales were at 79% of the network's 2019 revenue, while luxury cruises were at 83%.

Luxury emphasis and the new affluent consumer

Luxury travel is an emphasis for Signature, with EVP luxury business development Ignacio Maza describing the new affluent consumer.

These people did well during the pandemic, their household income and investments rising, with some retiring young. They're rethinking life's purpose, yearning to get away, looking to be pampered, avoid hassles and require next-level personalization — not just a private guide or driver but perhaps their own photographer or chef.

A new luxury trend is taking over entire resorts, private islands, barges or yachts.

Wellness and authenticity

Wellness is key. Authenticity, too. Younger people, especially, want socially responsible travel. They're seeking culture, meaning and belonging.

The new affluent are buying 'less but better,' as Maza put it.

These are clients who have multiple travel plans, both for right now but also into the future such as a 2023 world cruise. They're making multiple plans but may only go on one trip.

'Everything is elevated, upgraded, tailored,' Maza said. 'This puts tremendous pressure not just on us but our supplier partners.'