Bingo and bowls go overboard as cruise liners change tack

Cruise ship Norwegian Jade 
The cruise ship Norwegian Jade boasts predominantly youthful passenger list. Below, a MSC liner puts out to sea. The MSC Seaside will offer a water slide with interactive video game technology Credit: Alamy

In 1996, the then 34-year-old novelist David Foster Wallace took a one-week cruise around the Caribbean aboard the MV Zenith, which he rechristened the Nadir, and wrote about it in an essay entitled: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. Cruise holidays, it is safe to say, have traditionally had something of a perception problem with younger travellers.

That is an issue that the industry is desperate to remedy.

It has launched shorter river cruises, added new destinations to its sea cruises, kitted its ships out with the latest technology and offered a wider range of entertainment. And it’s working; the average age of cruise customers is falling.

In 2015, it dropped by a full three years to 55.2 years old, which was the biggest single annual drop for two decades, according to the Cruise Lines International Association UK & Ireland.

What’s more, analysis of the figures for 2016 by the trade body, which will be released next week, shows that the average age of those passengers has dipped further, to its lowest level for six years.

Everything from the decor, dining and cocktail service is thoughtfully curated to appeal to a young audienceEllen Bettridge,chief executive of Uniworld

Uniworld recently unveiled its U cruises, which it claims will offer a “new way for exploratory, younger travellers to experience the pulse of Europe” from 2018. The trips will be along the “Instagram and Snapchat-worthy” rivers of various European cities.

Ellen Bettridge, president and chief executive of the company, said: “We are targeting an active traveller between the ages of 18 and 40, with everything from the décor, dining and cocktail service to the land activities thoughtfully curated to appeal to, and meet the needs of, this audience.”

The company is refurbishing two of its existing ships – the River Baroness and the River Ambassador – so they will have a “contemporary” look in public areas and open space, and offer communal tables for dining as well as international DJs on board.

The world’s largest cruise company, Carnival, recently launched its latest brand Fathom, which focuses on so-called “impact travel”, where passengers get the chance to do community-based work that has a positive social impact.

Sea holidays tailored for those aged 18 to 40 see billions pumped into the industry Credit: Alamy 

The brand launched last year with round-trip voyages from Miami to two separate destinations – the Dominican Republic and Cuba. In the Dominican Republic, passengers can work side by side with local residents to help improve the lives of children and families; in Cuba, they get to work on the company’s cultural exchange programme.

These cruises, and the U by Uniworld ones, are certainly weighted towards attracting the millennial crowd, but moves by the more conventional cruise industry to attract a higher proportion of younger people are also having an impact on the wider demographics.

An important lure for younger passengers on sea cruises has been the broader range of destinations on offer as well as technological advances to make trips more interactive.

MSC Cruises is spending a whopping €9bn (£7.8bn) on 11 new ships which will be kitted out with the latest technology developed by the likes of Deloitte Digital, Hewlett Packard and Samsung. It will also be updating technology on its 12 existing craft.

It would not be unusual to go on a cycling tour at a port or a walking tour of football stadiums

It has spent €20m on technology on two ships alone. The company will debut the changes on its MSC Meraviglia in June. They will include 16,000 WiFi points alongside many other modifications including interactive screens and virtual reality previews of excursions.

Andy Harmer, director at CLIA UK & Ireland, said the industry had undergone “quite a big transformation”.

Rather than just sight-seeing at destinations, passengers are offered a range of activities. This might be a cycling trip from a port, or a tour around of local football stadiums. Some operators offer the opportunity to go shopping for local ingredients with the ship’s chef and then be shown how to cook them back onboard.

“We talk about ‘site-do’ rather than ‘sightsee’,” said Mr Harmer. “There’s a lot more that goes into these offerings than has been done traditionally.” This is particularly true of activity-based destinations, such as Borneo and Alaska.

MSC Cruises said the average age of its customers had dropped dramatically from more than 60 to around 45.

The MSC Seaside will boast one of the largest and most interactive water attractions at sea, with four different water slides including two high-speed racing slides with clear loops. It will also feature for the first time on a cruise ship slide-boarding technology which combines a waterslide with interactive video game technology.

Chief executive Gianni Onorato said that his company had a restaurant just for families, again something which is attracting a younger demographic, and even one where only children were allowed. He added that parents will soon be able to use the latest technology keep track of their children on board via the bracelets worn by passengers.

“Cruises are really for everyone,” said Mr Onorato. “In the past they were associated with older people.”

He added that increased interest in cruises from countries with younger populations – such as China and those in eastern Europe and South America – was a factor. The company currently has one ship serving China, where it is the younger generations that are able to afford cruises.

“In China, cruises are more accessible to the younger generation,” he said. “And young people are paying for holidays for the older generation, too.”

Carnival said the demographic make-up of its passengers was drifting downwards.

But the company is now drawing up much more detailed profiles of its customers that go far beyond just age. It said it was now looking closely at psychographics – essentially what makes potential passengers tick.

The company said its Princess brand is focused on exploration while its Carnival brand was more family-orientated. Such developments ensure that potential customers can not only be persuaded that cruises are fun but also that they will go on them again and again.