How cruise lines create authentic destination experiences

Azamara, Pullmantur, Holland America, Carnival Australia and Genting Cruise Line tells us more

How cruise lines create authentic destination experiences
Carnival Australia's itineraries allow guests to enjoy islands like Kiriwina in Papua New Guinea

By Guest |

This article was first published in Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Modern travellers demand authentic experiences and that means a wholesale change in the way cruise lines approach their shore excursion programmes. It is no longer enough to simply offer a coach trip around a destination with a few carefully selected drop-offs in the company of hundreds of other tourists. Guests now want to see how the locals live, be offered true insights into a destination and get inimitable, personalised experiences. But, how do cruise lines offer personalisation on a massive scale?

“Azamara’s approach to curating its shore excursion programme is actually pretty simple, albeit unique and not that easy to execute,” explains Mike Pawlus, director of deployment and destinations at Azamara Club Cruises. “This is done through global research with a reputable organisation. Through learning we’ve identified four primary drivers in the luxury traveller’s purchase decision. Guests want authentic, personalised, localised and exclusive land experiences.”

Pawlus and his team take those parameters and work within them to create a programme that will appeal to Azamara’s guests. Are they history buffs or shopaholics? Do they like to sightsee? To make the challenge that little bit harder, guest tastes and destinations evolve over time, so Pawlus must stay one step ahead of the curve.

“Not to sound arrogant, but we are destination experts,” he says. “To further facilitate the planning process, we provide extensive training so our local operators fully understand Azamara’s approach to land experiences. This is key since we do things quite differently to other cruise lines.”

Simon Douwes, Holland America Line’s director of deployment and planning, agrees with many of the sentiments expressed by Pawlus. For him, however, the conduit for an excursion programme lies in Explorations Central (EXC) – a new venue that is to be rolled out across the fleet by the end of the year. “It will give indispensable insights and tips from location experts, interactive activities and cultural encounters that make a guest’s journey with Holland America Line more engaging, vivid and meaningful,” he comments. The new area will allow guests to tailor their own holiday experience – with some content (including specially curated maps) provided by AFAR Magazine – thus using specialist content to give passengers ‘insider’ access.

When it comes to offering shore excursions with authentic experiences, few can be achieved without companies creating meaningful relationships with local communities. For Carnival Australia, which comprises seven distinctive cruise brands including three – P&O Cruises Australia, Princess Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line – that regularly make calls to exotic destinations in the South Pacific, it’s absolutely crucial.

“We spend a lot of time working with local communities to develop shore tours that bring our guests into close contact with local people who are only too eager to share the secrets of their way of life including local food preparation, their village rituals and their modes of transport,” says Michael Mihajlov, director destination management and shore excursions at Carnival Australia. “Guests have a wide array of choices from attending an authentically prepared meal in a village in Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, to learning about the manufacture of unique handicrafts at Gizo in the Solomon Islands.”

For Mihajlov, the process of curating such a programme involves rigorous road-testing for authenticity and seeing how well Carnival Australia can work with a selected tour operator. Once an authentic tour has been found, it has to prove that it meets the company’s high standards. After all, the operator is its representative. Mihajlov admits however that because of the “region in which we operate, in more remote areas and in emerging tourism destinations, we take an even more hands-on role.”

Crucially, Carnival Australia also integrates local communities with tourism. “We spend time with a local population to seek out high potential candidates with ideas for a tourism experience,” explains Mihajlov. From there the company runs training sessions with selected partners – be it a tour operator or aid agency – to get them up to speed. It’s a way of squaring the circle and making tourism work for everyone.

If there was a common denominator running throughout the shore excursion conversation then that is it: cruise lines need local partners to help make their tours work.

Yolanda Pelayo, senior manager for shore excursion operations at Pullmantur Cruceros, says that the first step the firm makes when putting a shore excursion programme together is selecting the right partner. “We need a partner who perfectly knows the area and is experienced in organising and carrying out excursion programmes,” she says. “Choosing the right local partner is key to ensuring that guests get a true picture of the destinations as they become ‘our eyes’ due to their in-depth knowledge of the area. It is that, bolstered by an overall guest profile and expectation that helps form the programme.”

For leading Asian player Genting Cruise Lines there is another factor to take into consideration: the mantra of providing hospitality specifically tailored to a particular guest profile – in this case an Asian customer – and making sure that the shore excursion programme matches the onboard offering.

“Our goal is to allow our guests to experience new ports of call through hassle-free shore excursions that are conscientiously matched with our guests’ interests and planned accordingly,” explains Raymond Lim, senior vice president of planning and port management and port operations at Genting.“No matter if the destination is a popular tourist destination or off the beaten track, we want our guests to be enthralled by a location’s scenic splendor or immersed in local cultural and leisure activities.” Whether that is shopping in Naha or snorkelling off Miyakojima Island in Japan, it is all tailored to be in tune with guests’ desires – curated by local experts.

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