MIAMI — Cynthia Rodriguez has seen cruise ships around Florida, watched commercials touting the option as a value, and heard stories from friends who have cruised.
But the 44-year-old North Bay Village, Fla., resident has never set sail, unsure about what she’d do on a ship or how much the trip would actually cost. Lately, concerns about a spate of headline-grabbing incidents on cruise ships have added to her uncertainty.
“I’ve always considered it,” said Rodriguez, who works in bookkeeping. “I don’t know. I’m afraid I’d be stuck on there and kind of be bored.”
With multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, brand partnerships, travel-agent help and onboard innovation, cruise lines are desperately trying to woo newcomers such as Rodriguez and the more than 200 million other Americans who have never taken a cruise.
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“Getting that first-timer is critically important to us,” said Dwain Wall, senior vice president overseeing agency and trade relations for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). “We know that the future is bright for us if we can get them on their first cruise — they will come back.”
According to CLIA, the greatest potential markets for first-time cruisers include the 95 million millennials, a group between the ages of 18 to 37 that accounts for $1.3 trillion in consumer spending; multigenerational families traveling together; social groups taking cruises around a shared interest; and river and specialty cruising.
There’s a huge pool to draw from. According to a report by CLIA in 2011, the most recent numbers available, only about 73 million people in America — by far the largest cruise market — had ever gone on a cruise, or 24 percent of the population. That was an increase from 2008, when 59 million (or 20 percent) had cruised.
The number of vacationers who choose a cruise continues to increase both in the U.S. and globally, where the passenger count is expected to rise from 21.3 million in 2013 to 21.7 million this year. But the percent of vacationers who have taken a cruise has remained relatively stable.
Aside from worries about being bored, people are concerned about strict eating or entertainment schedules, lack of time to spend at destinations and that only retirees go on cruises, say travel agents and cruise-line officials.
But while cruise lines have invested billions of dollars in new ships brimming with activities, restaurants and entertainment aimed at young vacationers, that message is still not universally understood.
For a noncruising public that was already on the fence, the past two years delivered several reasons to stay on shore.
In January 2012, the deadly Costa Concordia shipwreck in Italy; the following year, fires aboard the Carnival Triumph and Royal Caribbean International’s Grandeur of the Seas; and earlier this year, norovirus sickened about 700 people on a Royal Caribbean ship, forcing the company to end a trip early.
The industry has addressed safety concerns and, in the case of Carnival, devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to fleetwide fixes on safety, reliability and fire-suppression systems. But cruise lines and travel agents are also taking new approaches to lure the uninitiated.
Carnival Cruise Lines introduced the “Great Vacation Guarantee,” meant to encourage newcomers. The guarantee offers a 110 percent refund and free transportation home if guests want to leave within the first 24 hours of a cruise.
Since the guarantee was introduced in September, about 40 people — out of about 2 million guests — have taken the line up on it, mostly because passengers needed to get home for a medical issue or emergency or forgot documents that they needed for the trip.
“It allows us to cover a lot of potential barriers,” said Jim Berra, Carnival’s chief marketing officer.
CLIA, the trade association, will launch a training program called “Turn Their Heads — Grow your Business through First-Time Cruisers” in June to educate travel agents on bringing new clients into the fold.
Wall, of the association, said the seminar revolves around “teaching agents how to make the client feel that magic moment when they convince them to make that decision to cruise” and focuses on making sure newcomers understand what modern cruise ships look like and offer.
Cruise lines are working to get that message out through major advertising campaigns.
Princess Cruises, part of Doral, Fla.-based Carnival Corp., recently launched a $20 million campaign across television, radio, print and digital after more than a decade without advertising on TV.
Royal Caribbean International, headquartered in Miami, also took advantage of the Olympics, with television commercials in major markets and a digital push featuring former summer Olympic athletes Gabby Douglas, Ian Thorpe and Tom Daley competing in onboard activities.
And Norwegian Cruise Line capitalized on a Super Bowl charter agreement with Bud Light that turned new ship Norwegian Getaway into the Bud Light Hotel. The days of events resulted in 1 billion digital, print and broadcast impressions, said Norwegian President and CEO Kevin Sheehan, key to attracting attention from potentially new customers.
“That’s how you resonate and get people,” he said. “As a smaller player in a big industry, we have to do those kinds of things to get people to notice us.”