Though more capacity is hardly needed at a time when virtually no cruises are sailing, it's not going to be this way forever. And small ships seem to be well-suited for the months ahead.
Major retail groups report strong bookings for more intimate vessels and a consumer site dedicated to them is seeing strong traffic.
Away from the crowds
'In light of the new normal of COVID-era travel, as traveling resumes, many people will feel more comfortable traveling in a small-scale way far from the crowds — that means cruising with fewer people on flexible itineraries in remote places,' said Heidi Sarna, co-founder of consumer site QuirkyCruise.com, which has just been relaunched and expanded.
During the pandemic, 'We’ve definitely seen an uptick in subscribers and social media followers,' Sarna added.
Phil Cappelli, SVP preferred partnerships for Signature Travel Network, used the same word — uptick — adding 'considerable' in front of it — when referring to small ship/river cruise bookings for the second half of 2021 and 2022.
'As a strong luxury-focused group of agencies, we had started to see this shift prior to COVID and it expanded as we look back on the last six months of bookings in the network,' Cappelli said.
Out-marketing the big guys
He added that small ship suppliers 'for the most part, have out-marketed their larger cruise ship brethren. We’ve seen a direct correlation between cruise suppliers' consistent marketing message and bookings in '21 and beyond.'
According to Cappelli, Signature agencies have 'always outperformed in the luxury space and that focus will continue as we begin to rebuild and resume travel.' To that end, 'We are always looking at our portfolio of supplier partners to make sure we have the best possible solution for our agencies and their valued guests.'
And at the giant home-based travel advisor network, Cruise Planners, Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder, said: 'Demand for small ships, river cruises and luxury cruises has been steadily increasing over the last few years.'
Training and focus
'Part of our secret sauce is that we have trained and focused on luxury, small ships, expedition and river cruises for the past few years — in fact, Cruise Planners has hosted multiple training and networking events dedicated just to smaller ships,' Fee said, 'Clearly, it is paying off since many high-end travelers are willing and eager to travel again.'
As well, Cruise Planners' Where2Next series had a luxury and small-ship focus, inviting consumers to tour the world’s rivers with AmaWaterways, American Cruise Lines and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
As for QuirkyCruise, Sarna said the site has just been relaunched with a 'fresh new look and enhanced search' and the addition of a few new small-ship lines, including Tradewind Voyages and Running on Waves.
Think there can't be many cruise ships carrying no more than 300 passengers, the QuirkyCruise limit? Think again.
According to Sarna, the site reports on the small vessels of more than 90 cruise lines 'and counting,' from 12-passenger restored fishing boats cruising Scotland's western isles and mini expedition vessels plying Alaska's Inside Passage to luxury canal barges in France, yachts along the coast of Croatia and 20-passenger traditional-style riverboats in Myanmar and Laos.
With its relaunch, QuirkyCruise is debuting a 'Charter This' section about full boat charters for friends and family groups — another trend as people look to resume travel in the COVID era.
As well, the site will curate special offers for select small-ship experiences that Sarna, co-founder Ted Scull and a small group of travel experts recommend. Examples of curated offers include Pandaw, the Grand Victoria canal barge and the new tall ship Golden Horizon.
Disclosure: Seatrade Cruise News Editor Anne Kalosh contributes to QuirkyCruise