Wish You Were Here
Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: December 2007/January 2008
The Cruise Industry and The African-American Traveler
By: Michael Bennett

It was the best vacation I’d ever had up to that point.  The anticipation of my first cruise was palpable.  As the date drew near I found myself day dreaming about all those beautiful destinations mentioned in the brochures provided by my travel agent.  If my boss ever found out how little I worked the week prior to my departure he would have fired me or at best docked me a weeks pay.

At long last, the trip I had planned for nearly a year was upon me.  Once our plane landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico (our point of departure) I literally jumped out of my seat and shoved those in front of me (rather rudely I might add) out of my way, so I could be the first one on the bus that delivered us to our massive 11-deck behemoth waiting to whisk us away to paradise.

That was April of 1987.  The weather in the Caribbean at that time of year is spectacular.   I remember looking at those brochures given to us by our travel agent and the cruise line.  I marveled at the emerald green waters.  I thought they were touched up way too much — that is until our Princess Cruise ship (now owned by Carnival Corporation but still marketed as Princess) started navigating those very same waters.

It was three days before I realized there were only three African-Americans on a ship that easily held 2,500 people including the crew.   The fact that I didn’t notice right away was a testament to the crew and my sheer delight at being onboard such a wonderful ship having the time of my life.  Real world troubles just didn’t seem to matter.

Once I returned home I wondered why there were only three African-Americans onboard.  It troubled me for weeks.  It certainly couldn’t have been for lack of awareness about cruising.  Anyone who had a television set starting in 1977 remembers the long running ABC television series The Love Boat that followed the exploits of guests and the crew and life on a cruise ship. The show finally went off the air in 1986 and aired in reruns for years.  I wasn’t in the travel business at the time so I dismissed my concerns and reentered my life with a promise to take another cruise as soon as I could and bring some friends along to share the experience.

Well, that second opportunity came 17 years later with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL).  I wasn’t sure what to expect as it pertains to people of color, so you can imagine my surprise and pleasure when our ship set sail and the African-American presence was, by my educated guess, at least 10 percent of the 3,000 people onboard.  That represented a huge increase over the party of three that joined me on my first cruise.  What attributed to that increase?  Was it that African-Americans had more disposable income and could undertake such pleasures?  Or, was it better marketing and promotion to the African-American consumer?

Whatever the answer, cruising has truly evolved across the board for all travelers regardless of race and ethnic background.  Today, cruising has become a big part of African-American travel plans, but how much is virtually impossible to say.  According to the Cruise Lines International Association’s (CLIA) 2006 Market Profile, it’s obvious that the industry is enjoying tremendous growth.  The number of people who take to the high seas has shown a steady year over year increase for the past couple of decades.  Globally, 12 million people took a cruise vacation last year, which represented a seven percent increase over 2005.  U.S. ports experienced a 4.5 percent increase in embarkations in 2006 to just over nine million.   But nowhere in that report did it break those figures down by race or ethnicity.   Only five percent of survey respondents were African-American.

Here are some other statistics provided by CLIA in their 2007 Sourcebook.  Eighty-three percent of Americans have never taken a cruise.  That is tremendous upside potential for the cruise industry.  And it might explain in part why only a small segment of the African-American population has taken to the high seas.

A survey conducted by Black Meetings & Tourism sheds even more light on the subject.  African-American respondents between the ages of 23 and 74 attending a number of major events (i.e. Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend, African Marketplace, Los Angeles Black Business Expo, etc.) were posed a series of questions about their interest in cruising.  Seventeen percent said they had taken a cruise before, and of these, 97 percent were eager to cruise again.  Seventy-three percent of previous cruisers reported that they had made the voyage with family members.  And finally, 87 percent of those surveyed indicated the Caribbean was among the top three destinations they would like to visit, 69 percent named South and Central America were in their top three places to visit in the future, and 46 percent identified Mexico as among their top three destinations of choice.

            Another statistic that bodes well for the cruise line industry is a recent Travel Monitor survey that says 71 percent of respondents want to travel with their children all the time.  And 44 percent of respondents liked the idea of cruising as a way to connect or reconnect with their families.  Experts have labeled this trend “Togethering.”  Virtually all of the major cruise lines have amenities for all the families, yet Mom and Dad can still spend some quality time enjoying adult themed activities as well.  Over one million children under the age of 18 sailed with their families in 2006.

            That is good news for travel agents adept at exploiting the cruise market potential.  And here is another fact that should provide a little incentive for travel agents to increase their cruise business; 90 percent of all cruise vacations are booked through travel agents, and cruise sales account for more than half of vacation sales among travel agents.

            The cruise industry has experienced unprecedented growth since the turn of the century in terms of capacity with 88 new ships coming online since 2000.  Between 2007 and 2010, CLIA members invested over $15 billion in 29 state-of-the-art new ships. As you will see from reading this article, that growth hasn’t stopped yet as many lines are adding even more capacity.

            From an American point of view, access to cruising couldn’t be easier.  There are 32 embarkation ports within driving distance of 75 percent of North American vacationers saving the consumers money on airfare.

            According to Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, Cruise Industry Overview -2007, the 10 most appealing destinations to cruise, in order are the Caribbean/Eastern Mexico, Alaska, Bahamas, Bermuda, Hawaii, Mediterranean, Europe, Mexico (west coast), Trans Canal, Canada/New England and South America.

            So what does all this mean to the African-American traveler and travel agents?  It’s a widely held opinion by people of color, especially those in the travel industry, that collectively, the cruise lines do a poor job of marketing to African-Americans.   However, several lines were quick to defend their efforts saying they reach out more to travel agents who book the cruises as opposed to the general public.

            Patricia Yarbrough, president of San Francisco based Blue World Travel has been in the cruise business for nearly three decades.  She remembers the times when the industry was cool to African-Americans, but times have changed and her business has reaped the benefits.  “The major cruise lines reach out to us on a consistent basis,” looking to reach the African-American market.

Another approach that has paid great dividends is the direct to consumer appeal employed by Royal Caribbean.  They go after the African-American market with a vengeance with a multi-layered multi-faceted approach.

            Royal Caribbean has a number of chartered cruises targeting African-Americans. Radio personality Tom Joyner charters one of RCCL’s ships for the “The Fantastic Voyage” cruise that has raised millions for the Tom Joyner Foundation and his continued support of historically Black colleges and getting children to stay in school.   Joyner and the gang will set sail in 2008 on May 18th for seven days on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, and its 3,600 plus passenger capacity. 

The National Professionals Network (NPN) has used RCCL on numerous occasions and has two more scheduled for 2008 and another in 2009.  The first 2008 cruise will take passengers to the Western Caribbean on Enchantment of the Seas and the second one that year is a Greek Isle adventure slated for mid-August on Splendour of the Seas.  As if the wasn’t enough, NPN launches their 2009 cruise season with a journey to Brazil and Carnival.  Both the NPN and Tom Joyner cruises use significant meeting space aboard ship for seminars, workshops, presentations and trade shows.

The Black Singles Love Cruise will set sail to Europe in 2008 on RCCL’s Navigator of the Seas.  So why does Royal Caribbean outperform many its competitors in the African-American market?

For starters, RCCL is one of the only cruise lines we found that had someone in charge of African-American markets.  Dianne Williams, director of Multicultural Markets for Royal Caribbean attributes a great deal of RCCL’s success to “targeting directly with our dollars.”  RCCL has a comprehensive approach that includes gathering research such as learning how the consumer feels about cruising and any barriers to cruising.  In some cases RCCL actually helps their potential customers address those barriers.

RCCL has the only fully integrated ad campaign in the cruise industry targeting African-Americans according to Williams.  Their national print campaign targets Black lifestyle and travel by advertising in such publications as Essence and Ebony.  Their national brand also extends to partnerships with television outlets TV-One, BET-J and WGN the Chicago based superstation with a nationwide audience.  Additionally, RCCL also target the meetings market through an advertising program in Black Meetings & Tourism.


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