Cruiselines have claimed online direct bookings will not be a major sales focus for at least the next two years.
Most cruiselines are now investing in their websites but say the focus remains largely on enhancing content rather than online bookability.
Norwegian Cruise Line head of marketing Claire Riches said: “There will be a shift at some point but it’s a very small percentage of people who book online. At the moment we need to bring our product to life online.”
With the majority of UK cruise bookings currently made through agents, operators argue a booking shift away from third-party distribution in the short to medium term is unlikely, in part because the best deals are only currently available through the trade.
Large cruise specialists can afford to offer more competitive prices than cruiselines by slashing commission earnings to just a few percent, while cruiselines also only offer certain deals through agent partners.
Mark Pilkington, head of sales for Complete Cruise Solution, the sales arm for P&O Cruises, Cunard, Ocean Village and Princess Cruises, said: “If customers get better prices from the agent than direct, we do not see people moving away from the agent.”
But he admitted: “I would imagine over time the proportion of direct business booking online will increase. But that will be at the expense of direct business that books over the phone rather than of other channels.”
P&O Cruises has already rebuilt its website using digital agency Yucca and increased consumer booking conversions by 14% from a small base since the relaunch in May 2008. Yucca creative technology director Jones said: “The biggest spender online is a silver surfer.”
The agency has also improved online search traffic for Ocean Village. “There are people converting to £50,000 cruises online on Ocean Village’s site,” added Jones.
But Robert Chamberlain, director of the cruise, ferry and insurance business unit of agent cruise booking engine Amadeus Cruise, said agents’ ability to upsell cruises and the current recession would slow any move away from the traditional agent distribution channel.
He said: “Cruiselines have realised yields [through the trade] are usually higher than direct bookings because agents have incentives to upsell the product. There is also more reliance on agents in difficult economic times.”
In the US, the number of cruises booked directly by passengers had stabilised at around 20%-25% oft the market, he said.