Cruises are cool now. No, seriously. Need proof? Pharrell Williams – the music genius behind such hits as Get Lucky and Blurred Lines – just returned from a sailing aboard the MSC Divina. He was the special guest of Holy Ship!!!, an on-board electronic music festival that also included Skrillex.
Besides dance parties, ships are hosting everything from Broadway shows to skydiving as they focus on luring millennials seeking thrilling and immersive experiences, industry experts say.
Recent incidents such as the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia and the breakdown of the Carnival Splendor (a.ka. the "poop cruise") last year have done little to deter people from taking cruises, industry data show.
This year will see the launch of 16 new cruise ships, and passenger numbers are expected to reach 21.7 million, up 400,000 from 2013, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents companies around the globe.
Millennials, people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, are driving that growth. To keep them coming, companies are also extending port stays and adding exotic locales such as Thailand and Fiji to their itineraries. The large increase in berths – just four ships will add 15,270 in the Caribbean alone – will likely heat up competition and drive down prices, according to Bon Voyage magazine. That also increases the appeal for younger travellers.
"We are really trying to cater to that generation," said Jim Berra, chief marketing officer of Carnival Cruise Lines.
Extending excursions, he said, is one way of attracting a consumer looking for a more immersive experience.
Azamara Club Cruises launched AzAmazing Evenings, complimentary late-night excursions that allow sports lovers to watch water-jousting in France and culture-seekers to sample wine and dance in Cyprus.
Companies are also investing in thrills aboard their cruises, such as skydiving, zip lines and observation spheres that tower over the new ships.
"For the first time, passengers are looking for adventure as well as a way to see exotic places," says Christine Duffy, CLIA's president and CEO. "This is not your grandfather's Oldsmobile. It is not just an over-50s industry any more."
Perhaps most importantly, companies are helping younger cruisers stay connected to friends and families back home.
Cruise lines are investing in low-orbiting satellites that can expand broadband coverage aboard ships and are introducing apps that will help passengers organize their days. Earlier this week, Crystal Cruises announced free WiFi for repeat guests.
"Millennials are looking for a shared experience as they live so much of their life online," Berra says.
Reuters, with a report from Domini Clark