How to realise picture perfect cruising

Itinerary planning experts discuss what it takes to put together cruises that wow guests and tick all the boxes when it comes to cost and efficiency

How to realise picture perfect cruising
Mein Schiff 4’s voyages to Norway’s fjords and coast are popular with both TUI Cruises’ employees and guests

This article was first published in the Itinerary Planning Special Report. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

What is your favourite itinerary (real or imagined), and why?

Jess Peterson, director of Itinerary and Revenue Planning at Windstar Cruises: Every part of the world offers something special, but my favourite itinerary is our Costa Rica and Panama Canal cruise. It’s an action-packed seven days. You visit multiple ports in Costa Rica, Isla Parida – where we do a beach barbeque – Panama City, and then you finish with a transit through the Panama Canal. You get jungle, national parks, a big modern city, an amazing beach day, sheltered anchorages where you can swim off the stern marina, and you end with an amazing example of humanity’s accomplishment.

Giora Israel, senior vice president of Global Port and Destination Development at Carnival Corporation: The most fascinating itineraries are the ones where visiting a destination on a ship enables you to enjoy unique and special experiences that would likely be impossible if you travelled there by another method. Those that come to mind are the perfect Eastern Mediterranean itineraries that allow guests to experience four extraordinary cultures, ports and opportunities that are unlike any others in the world. They combine the history and beauty of Egypt, the historical features of Israel, the diverse sights and opportunities in Turkey, and Greece – the cradle of Western civilisation. Unfortunately, those itineraries are not doing too well at the moment because of geopolitical issues. But, for me, this is one of the most exciting and desirable itineraries. There is no other way to see all these cultures in one week the way we can on a cruise ship.

Marc Miller, director of Deployment and Itinerary Planning at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.: It’s hard to pick my favourite as each region has its own beauty and allure. I most recently visited Alaska – probably one of the best regions to visit by cruise ship. The opportunity to sail the awe-inspiring Hubbard Glacier is an experience like no other. On the day we visited, there was a light fog, which created an eerie feeling as the ship transited. The ports of call in Alaska have a wide range of experiences from sightseeing, to wildlife viewing, to glacier trekking, zip lining, history, culture and, of course, gastronomy, which creates a full experience.

Lennart Kirchner, manager of Itineraries at TUI Cruises: My favourite itinerary is along the Norwegian coast, no matter whether it’s an eight-day south Norwegian itinerary with fjords, an 11-day trip to the North Cape, a 14-day itinerary to the magic island of Spitsbergen or even a 17-day cruise to Spitsbergen and Iceland. In my opinion there is no better way to explore the Norwegian fjords than by cruise ship. Norwegian itineraries feature the perfect combination of days at sea for relaxation, and port of calls with nature and culture included.

Which factors combine to make the perfect itinerary?

Israel: An itinerary is successful for the cruise line if it is both workable and marketable. Full stop. By workable, I mean that the cruise must start on a certain day and last at least three to five days, so we can have one day at sea. I must have enough ports that are diverse in their features and are perfectly located like a string of pearls on a necklace from homeport to homeport, so that if we leave one port in the evening we can comfortably arrive in the morning at the next one. For the itinerary to be marketable, it must accommodate the needs of the specific market. What we offer very much depends on the market – certain nationalities prefer more beach activities, others prefer exciting excursions, historical and archaeological site visits. And we try to mix and match where we go. So, we will not have a Mediterranean itinerary that just goes to three Spanish ports, for example. We would include a French port, an island like Corsica or Sardinia, and throw in a port like Malta too. This also applies in the Caribbean, where we mix it up to include Dutch influence like Curaçao, St Maarten and Aruba, as well as French islands like Martinique and Saint Martin. 

Kirchner: Our aim is to create itineraries around the wishes of our guests. As we know that our target group likes to spend the maximum of time ashore to explore the destinations, we always try to plan our arrival times no later than 8am and our departure times no earlier than 6pm. If overnight stays make sense, we try to include them too. At least the first and last day during a cruise should be at sea, so our guests are able to familiarise themselves with our ship. Of course, safety and environmental aspects are essential considerations too. We take various measures to reduce fuel consumption. Modern exhaust technologies have helped us make big progress on this front in recent years.

Miller: Ultimately, as a cruise itinerary planner, you want to balance many things which, at times, compete with one another. First you must understand what type of guest you’re targeting so that you can match what they’re looking for. The volume and variety of shore excursions and attractions must fit their needs. It needs to be an efficient itinerary with slower speeds and lower fuel costs, while providing maximum time in port to deliver the core attractions. The destinations also have to fit with the ship as a larger vessel requires additional infrastructure and could overwhelm a small town if not managed appropriately. Working with the local stakeholders is key. Overall, it’s a balance as we optimise not just the itinerary of one ship, but also across the fleet.

Peterson: The most important thing is to give guests an in-depth understanding of the destination. When picking ports, you need variety, including large well-known ports like Stockholm and smaller ports like Mariehamn in the Åland islands. It’s also important for an itinerary to feel cohesive, like the ports go together, so that guests should feel that they have gained a comprehensive understanding of a destination. Lastly, evening and overnight stays allow guests to have dinner or drinks ashore and see a destination in a different way. At Windstar, a perfect itinerary also has a few special additions. We design itineraries so that our on-deck barbeque takes place with a beautiful backdrop such as Geirangerfjord in Norway, the glimmering skyline of Panama City, or the quiet inner harbour in St. George, Grenada. We schedule private beach days in warm-weather destinations and, sometimes, we’ll have an event ashore like a private dinner at the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. I’m also a fan of scenic cruising, whether it’s sailing past the Pitons in St. Lucia or circling Hashima island, an abandoned coal mine in Japan. 

Which metrics do you apply to judge the success of an itinerary?

Kirchner: The main criteria for judging itinerary options are the yields achieved and itinerary-related costs. Soft factors have a big impact too. This includes the attractiveness of a destination or the port itself, infrastructure, guest satisfaction, competitor itineraries and variety of the available offerings.

Peterson: The two most important metrics are profitability and guest satisfaction, which we measure in a variety of ways including net promoter scores and guest comments. We’re very attentive to guest feedback, and we quickly make adjustments to improve our itineraries. Because we are so small, we can act quickly, and we’ll adjust itineraries immediately if it improves the guest experience.

Miller: At the end of the day, we look at the financial metrics along with the guest ratings.

Israel: Marketing and pricing is part of the equation which drives the need for an itinerary in a region. But the most important metrics are beyond those marketable and workable concepts – the speed the ship will have to do between the various legs, the costs of the homeports and transit ports, availability of shore excursions, and the smooth operation and availability of air and road homeport links. 

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Rebecca Lambert
By Rebecca Lambert
Wednesday, January 23, 2019