Thought by many to be an old fashioned, ‘senior’ holiday option, it might be easy to assume that the cruise market is stuck in the doldrums.

However, recent figures from the Cruise Lines International Association show that global passenger numbers are experiencing growth across the board, expected to reach 24 million passengers this year, well above the 15 million passengers of a decade ago.  And more interesting still, cruises are increasingly appealing to younger consumer groups, bringing down the average age for a North American cruiser to 49.

While growth in the market relies on new ships and routes to add capacity (particularly in Asia), this needs significant investment in both time and money. So a priority for operators is growing on board and on shore spend which currently accounts for c.30% of a passenger’s total cruise holiday spend (see our case study on Louis Cruises).

The increasingly younger audience has raised the bar for the quality and innovation of on-board amenities and activities. Some operators are now using partnerships to enhance the passenger experience and bring authenticity and discovery to cruises.  This offers an opportunity for retailers, F&B concepts and entertainment brands to partner with cruise operators and reach a distinctly affluent audience.

For example, in December last year, Princess Cruises announced a partnership with Discovery Communications for Discovery at Sea, which sees flagship shows from Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, such as “MythBusters” “Deadliest Catch” and “Shark Week”, used to inspire both on board programmes and on shore excursions. Princess is also trying hard to emphasise the science and enrichment of its programmes, by including a star-gazing activity endorsed by Discovery at Sea’s Science Channel Ambassador astrophysicist, Dr. Hakeem Olusey.

Interestingly, Holland America Line, another major player, have followed suit, partnering with BBC Earth to create unique and innovative activities on board its vessels, providing educational content, concerts, and children’s activities.

Celebrity chefs are also getting in on the action. Seabourn has a partnership with American chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, who is behind three Michelin-starred restaurants. P&O Cruises has partnered with Marco Pierre White and James Martin and there is a Jamie’s Italian on board Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas.

With increasing passengers and on board spending (plus lower fuel costs) cruise operators are enjoying higher profits: market leader Carnival posted double-digit net profit margins in 2015, the first time since 2011.

So, while the market seems to be sailing full steam ahead, one thing is certain; serving the needs of this increasingly demanding audience will require operators to stay closely in tune with customer preferences, to ensure that they are able to stay relevant with a distinct and authentic offer.

H Hall