Festival Ships: Rockin' All The Way To The Bank

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Over the past 25 years, the theme cruise industry has boomed from a novelty for a few niche groups of wine enthusiasts, Rick Springfield fans, Scrabble players and big-band aficionados to a multi-million dollar segment of the cruise industry. Ships are bigger, fan perks are more exclusive, ticket prices are higher and production values on this new breed of “festival ships” rival those of arena shows. Even Weezer and Flaming Lips have done successful cruises.

On the Blue is one of the leaders in this business. In Spring of 2014, the company is producing three cruises, Monsters of Rock, The Moody Blues Cruise and Cruise to the Edge. Partner Mike London states that even if these and remaining cruises throughout the year don’t sell out (Monsters of Rock is sold out), the sales will be in the black for each cruise this year. “Each cruise includes performance by multiple name acts with a particular type of fan base. It is not just a concert cruise, it’s an immersive experience.”

That immersive experience may include meet-and-greets, signing events, VIP cocktail parties and other opportunities to interact with the artists. And for this, passengers are willing to pay two or three times the fare for a comparable, non-theme cruise, with interior double cabins starting at $799.00 per person, for example, on the Cruise to the Edge, and a large balcony single commanding $3,598. Taxes and gratuities are additional.

On the Blue cruises typically depart out of Miami and include four or five nights cruising Honduras and Mexico or the Bahamas. The cruises also include standard amenities such as spa services, pools and sports courts.

The three cruises combined will host more than 10,000 passengers. Each cruise includes multiple artists. Monsters of Rock features more than 30 acts including Tesla, Ratt, Cinderella, Winger, Kix, Quiet Riot and L.A. Guns. The Moody Blues Cruise features that band, plus Roger Daltry, the Zombies, Carl Palmer and others, while Cruise to the Edge stars Yes, Marillion, Queensryche, Tangerine Dream among others. The company has sailed more than 100,000 passengers over the past 20 years, which has included corporate charters and non-music theme cruises.

“Back in the ‘80s, cruise ships carried 1,000-1,500 passengers,” says London, whose background is in the cruise industry. “To do a theme cruise with music, you were limited to using the ship’s showrooms, which clearly weren’t designed for large rock acts. Now, they are not ships, they are venues. Currently, we install five semi’s full of sound and lighting, custom stages—an average of a half-dozen for each cruise—and the showrooms have sound systems that rival a U2 concert. It’s easily one to two million dollars worth of equipment.”

Because On the Blue charters the ships, which are chartered for other cruises throughout the year, the company has a large warehouse in Cincinnati, OH, with production partner Loud and Clear, Inc. “Since most of the ships are European,” he says, “we have to use special transformers for electrical power. We used to bring generators, but it became impractical.”

Once On the Blue charters a vessel, the owners step out of the picture. On the Blue staffs each cruise with 80-100 staff members to provide security, customer service and stage crew. Bands normally receive a flat fee for their performance and participation, which varies according to the activities they commit to. The company has a core year-round staff of 12 full-time employees, and typically employs the same seasonal employees for each cruise.

The company does not spend much on advertising and marketing. “Social media has revolutionized marketing for us. The Monsters of Rock audience was pretty much built on Facebook, and now 60%-70% are repeat passengers.” It also allows an easy reach to international customers—Cruise to the Edge will bring fans aboard from 25 countries.

The crucial part of marketing, however, is tapping the right fan base. “The biggest selling artist may not be a good match; the artist must have a particular kind of cult following,” London specifies. “One of our competitors put together a Bret Michaels cruise about a year and a half ago, and it didn’t sell. It was cancelled.”

Of course, the target audience must have the time and money to invest in these experiences. “We really like the older crowds; that plays into the type of cruises we create.” While the Monsters of Rock demographic is 20-60, the average age is 45, and Cruise to the Edge and The Moody Blue Cruise average 45-60 year-olds.

“I got the idea for these cruises about 20-25 years ago, toying with new ways to market cruises, with differentiating the experience instead of basing it on pricing, which was the common strategy,” says London. “I saw the generic jazz and big-band cruises that were new then, and thought, ‘What if we hire name acts?’ We’ve done more than 60 charters since the late ‘80s. (The company changed its name from Chelsey Productions two years ago.) With ships constantly evolving, there is no end in sight, and we see no limit to the interest in these cruises.” On The Blue plans to expand with a Celtic Cruise scheduled for November featuring Celtic Thunder.

“We have two or three competitors that do a good job, but we’ve really cracked the code in terms of building a profitable fan-artist experience.”

 Contact Aaron Feterl, MSO aaron@msopr.com

 

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