Why is the cruise industry bringing out a dozen new ships and riverboats this year? Because they are ready to float. New ships take years to finance and build. Who knew that 2009 was going to be a year of economic turmoil?
One result of all these new ships in bad times is that prices for a cruise have never been better, especially among the mass-marketed ships such as Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Holland America. You can cruise for about $80 a day per person for two. And who knows what you might find on the Internet a few days before the ship sails.
The goal for cruise lines is to leave the dock with every cabin full on every cruise, and some lines keep lowering the rates until all the cabins are sold.
"We fill our ships," said Holland American president Stein Kruse at the recent Cruise Shipping Miami convention in Miami Beach. "Not filling our ships doesn't make sense."
"We find that when we bring the price down, we sell out our cruises," said Gerry Cahill, president of Carnival Cruises.
How does the product suffer?
Does the product suffer when cruise rates go lower? Cheaper cuts of meat in the dining rooms? Fewer choices of fruit on the buffet. Less entertainment? My experience with off-season resort stays, at a discount, is that resorts diminish the product, such as closing restaurants and cheapening the food service.
I asked cruise line executives that question in Miami Beach and got a resounding "no." This will be the year to find out. Passengers will be watching.
"The key is not to fall back, but to drive the quality level and big bang for the buck, to keep value high," said Kevin Sheehan, president of Norwegian. "Taking a cruise is one way to save money on a vacation."
"The product is as robust as it's ever been," said Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean International.
"It's a real opportunity to draw in consumers who have never cruised before," said Cahill of Carnival. "We sell fun, we sell value. We are not cutting the product."
"People want the product this year that they had last year," said Gregg Michel of Crystal Cruises.
"The mindset among vacationers is caution," said Pam Conover, president of Seabourn Cruise Line, which is bringing out three new ships in the next three years, all with a passenger load of less than 500. "The luxury passenger is looking for value. We are offering prices that never have been seen for the luxury product, and we are selling cabins on all our ships."