It's not often that a new cruise line enters the industry.
And it's not often that a new cruise line, at a time when companies are bending over backwards to cater to millennials, isn't thinking about 20- and 30-somethings at all, but baby boomers.
Retirees, this one's for you.
Miami-based Victory Cruise Lines, led by industry veteran Bruce Nierenberg, is designed specifically for travelers 65 years and older, who historically have been a major segment of the cruising population.
According to MMGY Global's upcoming 2018 Portrait of an American Traveler annual survey, the baby boomer and senior market (72+) were the most active cruise travelers. About 10 percent of baby boomers and 19 percent of seniors took a cruise in the last 12 months, compared to 7 percent of millennials and 7 percent of Gen X-ers.
With Victory, Nierenberg's bet is that those travelers may now be looking for a new way to cruise.
"There were millions of people that had never taken a cruise that now have, and what's happening is they are 10, 15, 20 years older. So they are looking for new types of destinations but they still like being on a ship," said Nierenberg, chairman of Victory Cruise Lines. "They are all coming into their max earning years, getting ready to retire or start traveling. ... So you've got this enormous vat of people looking to do things and they like this kind of product."
Victory, which has one ship but plans to debut a second in late July, sails with no more than 202 passengers per ship. The small-ship, intimate experience is something travelers of all ages have been gravitating toward in recent years. Through 2022, 28 new ships that carry fewer than 300 passengers are on order for several cruise lines, according to Seatrade Cruise News. They represent nearly 35 percent of all new ships, most of them ocean-going, coming online in the next four years.
Small ships are seeing a boom because they can take passengers to ports that are unreachable for larger ships that carry thousands of people. For Victory, which plans to sail to Cuba and Mexico and already makes trips in the Great Lakes, taking travelers to new ports is at the center of its philosophy.
On the line's ships, don't expect all the bells and whistles of ships from mass market lines like Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line. Victory Cruise Lines' Victory I is a modest vessel with a sun deck, a dining room, a casual restaurant, a bar and a lounge. The ship has two 335-square foot suites, but most cabins are between 146 and 190 square feet.
Its focus instead is on its port and its excursions, taking passengers to new ports in its three regions and offering tours that give travelers a chance to experience local cultures in a more intimate way. All cruises include guest lectures and entertainment from locals.
"When it comes to shore excursions, we go all out and make sure we do whatever the most outstanding activities there are in the towns," Nierenberg said. "We don't give them a city tour and say, 'We're done.'"
In Havana, for instance, travelers get a private performance by members of the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of Cuban musicians who play music from pre-revolutionary Cuba. In Mexico, voyages include a hotel stay in the Mayaland Hotel inside the archeological site of Chichen Itza. During the stay, guests get a sunrise breakfast at the Mayan site — before it opens to the public. And in the Great Lakes, travelers have an included lunch in the ballroom at Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel.
Victory, which launched in 2016, had its first sailing out of PortMiami last month for its first and only trip to Cuba this year. Trips to the island will resume from January to May 2019. The 13- and 14-night circumnavigations leave from Miami and include two days in each port: Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad/Casilda, Cienfuegos and Havana.
The Mexican voyages will also sail from Miami from January to May next year, but on the line's new ship, Victory II. The 11-night packages include the stay in the Mayaland hotel and another three-night stay in the walled city of Campeche.
To date, the line has only offered its Great Lakes itinerary, which typically runs eight to 10 days and leaves from various ports, including Toronto, Chicago, Montreal and Detroit.
"It seems a very personal way to experience Cuba, a very personal way to experience Mexico," said Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week. "It's different. It's creative. ... [But] I certainly wouldn't call it luxury."
Prices for the cruises are steep, beginning at about $6,000 per person for Cuba, about $7,000 for the Great Lakes and about $3,500 for Mexico. All trips are all-inclusive, with airfare to the ports, the cruise itself, meals, drinks, tours and hotel stays included in the price.
At that price point, veteran travel agent Cheryl Scavron says it's likely the cruises will only attract the more well-off segment of retired travelers.
"I have a good percentage of people that are 55+ who cruise," said Scavron, who owns a Dream Vacations A CruiseOne Company franchise in Pompano Beach, "and that doesn't mean they necessarily cruise luxury," or on lines where the prices are comparable to luxury products.
Scavron said she does have customers in the senior age range who like adventurous travel to new ports, "but those types of people don't want to spend a lot of money."
"What they're looking for is really quality in being able to get a good value for their money, good food and a good experience on board," Scavron said.
So far, Driscoll said the reviews for food and service on Victory's ship have been positive. Reviews on cruise review website Cruise Critic have been mixed.
One traveler lauded the line's food and tours, but banged it for onboard entertainment.
"Onboard entertainment was very dull," user CD_NCL wrote. " 'I Love Lucy' reruns insulting to everyone’s intelligence as was too much trivial trivia and a terrible wedding game."
In general, most passengers seem to agree that its tour offerings are Victory's forte.
"The included excursions were, for the most part, outstanding," wrote another reviewer. "A couple days, the time seemed to run a bit long, and everyone was exhausted by the time we got back to the ship, but the excursions were very rewarding."
Victory is also trying to tap into the market of travelers who are looking to stay closer to home, partially due to instability in other regions of the world. According to MMGY Global's 2017 Portrait of American Travelers survey, 85 percent of U.S. travel vacations last year were domestic, up from 78 percent in 2016. And the senior market, Nierenberg said, is even more concerned about safety, which the line counts as a paramount consideration.
Terrorism and travel warnings "are making a lot of the markets consider staying closer to home where they can have something semi-exotic but not necessarily requiring a transoceanic trip," he said.
It's still too early to tell whether Victory's model will resonate with cruisers, particularly in South Florida, where travelers are more familiar with larger mass-market ships.
But Driscoll has a hunch that it will. Nierenberg is known in the cruise industry as an innovator. He was the brain behind Norwegian Cruise Line's first private island and helped turn Houston and Port Canaveral near Orlando into homeports. And in cruising, there's no denying that seniors are fans, he said.
"It's this market that doesn’t care about the frills and they want a comfortable way to see really interesting places that they’ve heard about their entire lives and they haven’t really had a way to experience it," Driscoll said. "I think [Victory's] right for the market it's aiming for."
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