Destination is a top selling point for cruise operators and with business booming there has never been a better time to open new routes and attract new customers. Growth is so strong that the number of Europeans taking cruises is predicted to rise by 50% to 4.5 million by 2010, according to the European Cruise Council, a factor that is prompting companies to appeal to a wider market while ensuring they keep their existing customers.

Dubai and other parts of the Middle East are among today’s hottest holiday destinations, and European cruise lines Aida and Costa have responded promptly in setting up routes to exploit interest in the region. Initial booking statistics reveal the companies have acted wisely, with guests snapping up beds onboard their vessels.

German-based Aida has already increased its cruises to the Middle East from eight to 14 for the 2008 winter season since opening the route last year. Costa has made 18 trips since last winter and plans to double its programme.

Costa’s decision to be the first operator to travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came after the success of its new routes to Asia Pacific and China. Cruises starting from Mauritius have also boosted the company’s expansion programme.

For Italian-based Costa, Dubai has proved a particular hit with the European market. Costa now has two ships positioned in the region, and is targeting European customers. The result of this strategy is that in 2007 Costa received more than 1.1 million guests, a first for the company and a record for the European cruise industry.

CLIENT’S CHOICE

Costa president Gianni Onorato believes it is important to offer new destinations in order to keep existing customers satisfied while attracting new clients. The choice of Dubai as a destination came from customer satisfaction forms – clients named the emirate as a destination they most wanted to visit. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

"Dubai is very popular at the moment because it is a fascinating and diverse destination," says Onorato. "It has not been visited in recent years because it was associated with the Middle East danger zone, but now it is safe and the demand to go there is huge. Dubai is a forward-thinking city and is showing itself to be one of the most advanced places in the world. It has a mixture of beach and desert, the best hotels in the world, the highest skyscrapers and is at the forefront of technological advances. It has something for everyone."

Following the survey, a feasibility study was launched that included inspection trips to the UAE to see what was on offer, alongside negotiations with travel operators to establish contacts and check out competition. Back in Italy, Costa worked with embassy officials to negotiate with Dubai’s foreign affairs ministers before finally deciding to launch the new route.

"Our main competition in Dubai is flights," says Onorato. "With a cruise there is the opportunity to see lots of destinations on one trip without the jet lag. There is also constant pressure to keep up with competitors and keep our loyal customers satisfied by offering them something new while drawing in new clients."

BEHIND THE SCENES

Effective marketing is vital for attracting new customers and to stay ahead of the competition. Dubai itself is hot on marketing its tourism trade and does this by selling its image globally using the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, promoting the business benefits of being an oil-rich, tax-free economy, and touting the new international sporting centre Sports City.

“A cruise there is the opportunity to see lots of destinations on one trip without the jet lag.”

Costa realised the advantages of working with the Dubai authorities and signed a partnership deal with the tourism department to promote its new route. Costa is also opening its 29th worldwide office in Dubai in October this year.

Back in Europe, traditional marketing to existing customers takes place through newsletters, mailing brochures and email updates while new customers are sought via travel agents, brochures, television advertising campaigns and exhibitions across Europe.

Despite the surge in interest in the Middle East, companies can ill afford to forget the old favourites in the dash for new routes – each year 60% of guests opt to visit the Mediterranean.

"Over the last few years we’ve enriched and redefined the Mediterranean by introducing ports such as Trieste, Ancona and Izmir, as well as new regions such as the Canary Islands and the Black Sea," says Onorato. "We also made this a year-round cruise destination by offering regular winter Mediterranean sailings."

The company has also invested in new cruise terminals and port facilities, taking direct management of terminals in Barcelona and Savona, while another key marketing tool is price, with discounted rates available to early bookers.

BIG BOOM

New destinations need to be backed by providing a first-class service, which must start with providing the best vessels available. In response to the industry’s current growth a major shipbuilding boom is underway in Europe.

Aida has changed tactics from buying in existing ships to ordering its own new vessels in a bid to benefit from the rising demand. Aida’s fleet expansion plans started in spring 2008 with the first of four newbuilds at the cost of €1.3bn, taking the company’s total to seven ships by 2010, boasting a total of 12,000 beds.

The custom-made vessels are under construction at the shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, and the next three ships will be delivered in spring 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively. Costa has also commissioned five new ships to be built before 2012 at the cost of €450m to €500m each – taking their fleet total to 17 with an impressive 36,800 beds. The new additions will increase Costa’s investment on new ships between 2002 and 2012 to €5.5bn.

TOUCH OF LUXURY

Throughout the Carnival Corporation Group portfolio, cruise lines have equipped their newbuilds with first-class facilities. Costa’s two newest vessels, Costa Serena and Costa Concordia, both feature spas and spa cabins with accompanying wellness centres as well as huge pool decks and a Grand Prix race car simulator. Germany-based Aida has also realised the importance of customising their facilities to attract new cruise clients.

“According to operators the European market is expected to continue its healthy growth and recent boom.”

"The Aida ships are newbuilds tailor-made for the needs of the Aida customers," says Michael Thamm, CEO at Aida Cruises. "Our newbuild strategy allows us to offer modern and innovative products to our passengers. Our fleet, which has an average age of five years, is one of the youngest in the industry. In Germany, the interest in cruising is just awakening with experts speaking of a yearly increase of 10% in passengers in Germany – and more than one million German passengers are expected to holiday on ocean-going ships by 2010."

The variety in the market – from budget to luxury, and from Europe-based to round the world – means there is scope for companies to expand without fighting each other for trade. In the UK, Cunard Line launched its 90,000t Queen Victoria in December 2007.

Cunard is aiming its efforts squarely at the luxury end of the market to create its niche for growth. From the grandeur of its vessels with double-height ceiling and huge spiral staircases to waiters wearing white gloves, the company aims to give customers traditional British service while travelling the globe.

"Our research shows that what people want is an experience rather than material goods," says Carol Marlow, president and managing director of Cunard. "For many it is a once-in-a lifetime experience and so we aim to give them a voyage with first-class service in a luxury environment. People are fed up with our plastic world and what they want is a bit of heritage, to be treated with respect and be looked after properly."

The aim is to ensure all guests feel pampered. In addition to luxuries such as private boxes in its theatre, Queen Victoria offers small touches such as uniformed bell boys accompanying passengers from the restaurant to their seats.

Such attention to detail is bound to prove popular, and according to operators the European market is expected to continue its healthy growth and recent boom. "Cruising is popular because it offers a good way to travel and see places," concludes Onorato.

"The industry is growing and if we keep listening to our customers and give them good service then the future looks promising. We have to remember that, at the moment, cruisers are only one per cent of the total European population, which shows us that the Aida’s new vessels feature customised facilities to potential for growth is still very high."