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Published July 26th 2016

Lost at Sea: Millennials and the Cruise Industry

How social media is helping cruise lines attract millennials.

A decade ago, the cruise industry found itself in some choppy waters.

Younger travelers were opting for more adventurous and customizable vacations, which left cruise lines fighting over a rapidly shrinking (and aging) pool of customers. As recently as 2011, the average age of a cruise passenger topped 50, and only 7 percent were between 25 and 29, according to a Cruise Lines International Association industry report.

To put it plainly, the cruise industry had a millennial problem.

Cruise lines knew they needed to act fast to lure younger travelers. Without increasing their share of millennials, these companies would run out of passengers and, eventually, run aground. Almost instantly, every major cruise line decided to take action and make attracting millennials a huge part of their marketing efforts.

They invested millions into targeting younger travelers, expanding the variety of packages they offered, and retooling their ships to better match the desires of the highly coveted demographic.

There was just one problem: No one really knew for sure what would entice millennials onto cruise ships.

See what sticks

The destination — more millennial cruisers — was set, but the path to get there wasn’t so clear. What attracted millennials to cruises? What kinds of experiences were they looking for? Without clear answers to these questions, many of the major cruise lines employed a “try everything, see what works” approach.

Some cruise lines opted for shorter, less expensive cruises that emphasized adventure over decadence, according to Adweek. Others went the other way, leaning into millennials’ penchant for micro brews and farm-to-table cuisine, the Miami Herald reports. And still others brought the party, building their cruises around popular bands and live DJ sets.

In their quest to attract millennials, cruise lines were choosing to play darts with a shotgun: firing as large a spray as possible, hoping that at least something would hit the target.

The amazing part is that, even without a coherent plan of attack, many cruise lines experienced quite a bit of success in their quest to attract millennials. The share of under-25s considering a cruise more than tripled by 2014, and the average age of a cruiser dropped from 56 in 2012 to 46 in 2015. Things started looking brighter (and younger) for the cruise industry.

It didn’t take long for cruise lines to come to reach the conclusion that, yes, millennials would take cruises, as long as cruises were tailored to their desires and interests.

But all of this really just raised another question: what do millennials look for in a cruise?

The major cruise lines proved that millennials do indeed have an appetite for cruising, but they haven’t yet clearly articulated the most effective enticements.

Luckily there is a way to determine exactly what millennials want — and, just as importantly don’t want — in terms of cruise features: social media. Travelers, especially younger ones, are religious about discussing vacations on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and some cruise lines have started tapping into these venues to better understand the proclivities and desires of millennials.

By analyzing all of this unstructured social data, cruise lines can see where and how millennials talk about cruises online, what they discuss, and what matters to them most when choosing to cruise. We decided to analyze this data ourselves to determine if the conventional wisdom about millennials and cruises held water.

Here’s what we learned about how millennials really think about cruises.

Mind the (generation) gap

The first key takeaway from our social analysis confirmed exactly what the cruise industry had long believed: There is a bright line separating the cruise expectations of younger (18-34) and older (35+) travelers.

Boiled down, the analysis shows us that older travelers choose cruises to experience low-key, exclusive, family-oriented relaxation while millennials looks for an entertainment-heavy, cost-effective way to meet new people.

These insights don’t contradict what the major cruise lines believed about millennial travelers, but they do help us bring the picture into focus.

Let’s look at them one by one.

What millennial cruisers want

Entertainment, weakly

All travelers want high-quality entertainment when they cruise, but the type of entertainment varies strongly by age. Older (and family-oriented) guests look for broadly palatable, kid-friendly entertainment options like musicals and movies. Millennials, on the other hand, are looking for more unique options like contemporary bands and “club-like” sets.

Indeed, when millennials react negatively to cruises on social media, it is often because the entertainment options are not varied or current enough. Conversely, when millennials take to social to express positive emotions about cruising, it is often centered around the entertainment offered on the cruise, not the cruise itself.

The price is right

One of the first things the major cruise lines did in their quest to attract millennials was offer shorter, more economical packages. It turns out their gut was exactly right: our social media analysis revealed that the vast majority of millennials want more cost-effective cruise options.

According to our analysis, millennials frequently cited shorter, cheaper cruises as one of their top three reasons for choosing to cruise.
As the sharing economy helps bring down the price of traveling, more traditional vacation options like cruising need to follow suit by offering more flexible, less extravagant options for more budget-conscious (typically younger) travelers.

Combined with limitless accessibility to food and entertainment, a low-priced cruise can be a major enticement for thrift-minded millennial travelers.

The social element

One extremely common trend among millennials that was a bit of a surprise was a strong desire to use cruises as a way to meet new people. Many younger travelers said they would be more likely to book a cruise if they knew it would offer them the opportunity to mingle with other millennials and make a long-lasting “cruise family” that they could stay in touch with and meet up with for future cruises.

While baby boomers and gen Xers often treat cruises as a way to spend time relaxing alone or with their family, a large share of millennials choose to cruise because they want an opportunity to meet other young travelers.

What millennial cruisers like

We’ve discussed what millennials look for in a cruise, and what leaves them unsatisfied — but that’s only part of the equation. If cruise lines want to most effectively target millennials, they must not only know what millennials look for in a vacation, but also what they look for in other aspects of their life. What unique interests do they have? How are cruise-interested millennials different than the general population on social networks?

For this, we turned to an affinity analysis.

Using affinity analysis we were able to compare the hobbies and passions of cruise-interested with the interests of cruise-interested baby boomers and gen Xers.

This information is essential for cruise lines that want to pick programming, destinations and amenities to specifically entice millennials. For example, the chart above shows that cruise-interested millennials are much more likely to also be interested in musical acts like Beyonce, Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande than baby boomers.

This information can help cruise lines do everything from book buzz-worthy musical acts, partner with the right influencers, and leverage the most effective advertising channels.

All engines go

So where does this leave us? Understanding what distinguishes cruise-interested millennials from older generations and decoding exactly what millennials want from a cruise can help (and has already helped) cruise lines penetrate a new market.

“The Millennial Problem” is by no means specific to the cruise industry, but it is especially pronounced there. If cruise lines continued their status quo approach, the industry would slowly peter out. But by using the abundant data contained on social networks about millennials and cruising, it is possible to reverse this trend and secure a new audience segment for years to come.

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