Travel: How cruising became cool
Once derided as the preserve of the 'newlywed, overfed and nearly dead', cruise holidays are reinventing their image to appeal to a young upwardly mobile set. But will the new trend for floating luxury ultimately sink or swim?
The Solstice-class ships of Celebrity Cruises are the first ships to have "real" grass growing on the top deck.
Music gigs are staged in a bewildering array of venues, and now they're happening at sea. The Californian hipster festival Coachella now takes to the open waters on a cruise liner for a three-day floating event that sails to the Bahamas and Jamaica.
Elsewhere, rock groups such as Weezer, Kid Rock and Dave Matthews Band run successful music cruises around the US.
It's a wonder that the marriage of the high-end luxury of cruising and the vast disposable income of trendy youngsters didn't happen years ago.
Yet of the 30 million overseas holidays booked in the UK and Ireland every year, only 1.75 million are cruises.
According to Jo Rzymowska, MD of Celebrity Cruises (UK & Ireland), the cruise industry is finally experiencing a shift away from its age-old, polyester-blend image.
"I was asked years ago, 'Would you come work in the cruise industry?', and my initial reaction was that it wasn't for me," she admits. "I had the same misconceptions as everyone else about cruising, but now I'm an evangelist about it."
Rzymowska likens the cruise trip to skiing: a type of holiday that most people baulk at until they actually experience it first-hand.
"Before people go cruising, they're not sure they'll like it, then they get bitten by the bug," she says.
She's not joking: the rate of repeat business for Celebrity Cruises currently stands at 42pc.
Yet Rzymowska readily admits that she still has an uphill climb ahead of her while she preaches to the yet-to-be-converted. The image of cruising as the preserve of what she calls the "newlywed, overfed and nearly dead" still holds firm.
"When people say, 'A cruise isn't for me', I just say, 'Well, do you like culture? What about top restaurants and fine wines? Or top spa treatments?' And they'll say, 'Oh yeah, that's exactly what I need'.
"For a certain group of people – affluent, with disposable income, who like the finer things in life – a holiday is a real necessity. And this sort of trip ticks all the boxes."
The fringe benefits of cruising are manifold. Effectively doing away with the discomfort of the long-haul flight – not much more than a necessary evil for most people – the journey becomes part of the holiday itself.
A cruise liner really is a city on the water, complete with Apple stores, spinning classes, theatres and wine clubs. As it stands, the wellness element of the cruise is a big priority for Celebrity Cruises.
With US spa chain Canyon Ranch now on board, the plan is to devise a number of tailor-made wellness and fitness packages for clients in the near future.
The prices aren't as forbiddingly excessive as first meets the eye, either.
"For around €2,000 you can have a 13-night cruise departing from Rome in a balcony room," says Rzymowska. "You pay extra for spa treatments and your bar bill, but more often than not we have drinks promotions on. Price-wise, it goes up to about €15,000 to €20,000 for a top suite with a private butler, private dining area and bar, with everything included in that price – as long as it's legal!"
So far, so sumptuous, yet the question begs to be answered: just how did cruising become so strongly associated with an older clientele in the first place? How did the "floating luxury" holiday memo get so spectacularly lost?
Perhaps it's because cruising is best suited to those with plenty of money, and plenty of time. Rzymowksa asserts that the aviation boom of the 1960s and 70s may have played a part too.
"Once upon a time, the only way to travel was by ship," she says. "Then in the Sixties came the package holiday boom: 'Bang! Let's get to the sun'. There was that period of time when those who stayed cruising were those that didn't want to fly.
"But of the 20 million people who cruise every year, they're by no means the over-70s set."
Nowadays, Celebrity Cruises gears its voyages towards an affluent and discerning crowd. The upwardly mobile Irish – mainly from areas such as Kildare and south Co Dublin – are well represented.
"To be honest, if the most important thing you ask when you book a holiday is, 'I've got €499 to spend, what will that get me?', Celebrity Cruises is not for you," says Rzymowska.
"It's for people who pay for the finer things in life and really appreciate good spas and nice destinations. We have a lot of women who come on board to celebrate their 40th birthday with friends.
"It's not a loud, running-around kind of vibe. We call it the Four Seasons of the sea, or the Ritz-Carlton of the sea. Just this morning, a young woman came up to me and said, 'My best friend went on a cruise for her honeymoon, and that's the only way she'll travel now'."
In exploring previously untapped markets, the cruising industry has also happened upon another target audience with deep pockets: the LGBT customer.
It's been a match made in heaven thus far: the Celebrity Cruise group has been voted the "best gay-friendly cruise line" and regularly runs chartered party cruises (through a company called Atlantis) targeted at gay men and women.
It soon becomes clear why cruising and the LGBT market work in perfect harmony: cruising is, according to Rzymowska, "perfect for affluent gay couples who want to be treated the same as everyone else and enjoy the finer things in life".
This summer, Celebrity Cruises also includes an overnight stop in Ibiza on one of its Euro jaunts, allowing passengers to sample the clubs. In a bid to appeal further to that high-end clientele, itineraries take in events such as the Cannes Film Festival and the Scottish Open golf tournament.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, those who want a relaxing two weeks also get plenty of bang for their buck.
"It's nice to see five or six countries on your cruise, if indeed that's what you want to do," says Rzymowska.
"One of our most popular European itineraries takes in Rome, Pisa, Mykonos, Santorini, Athens and Rome again. But where someone might get off the ship at one of these stops, someone else will say, 'I'm just going to chill in my cabana today'."
The oft-maligned cruise ship entertainment has also had something of a makeover. Where once "cruise ship singer" had perhaps unfair negative connotations, nowadays things are much more contemporary – cutting-edge, even.
"The days of the Jane McDonald performer are sort of gone," says Rzymowska. "We've just started working with Sin City, a burlesque troupe who do fairly near-the-knuckle stuff. We say to people, 'If you get upset by religious jokes and the like, don't dip in', but we've had people queuing out the door for it."
As to whether the cruise holiday will ever fully throw overboard its dusty image any time soon, the jury is still out. But after a $4.2bn revamp, the outlook is good that Celebrity Cruises can at least give a younger demographic food for thought.
And where rock bands, wellness disciples, south Co Dublin families and fun-seeking gay couples cut a dash, others are sure to follow.
For more information on Celebrity Cruises, contact 1800 932 611 or log on to celebritycruises.ie