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All Aboard: How music cruises are making a splash

Stories of thousands of holidaymakers being isolated on their ships and of vessels being turned away from ports battered the cruise industry in the early days of the pandemic. But a programme of vigorous health screening and positive marketing to prospective passengers has seen the business re-float spectacularly in the past couple of years, while the concept of high-end vacations with your favourite act is one that is winning converts with bands and artists, as well as the superfans who dote on them.

With the largest cruise ships in the world being able to cater for up to 7,000 passengers at a time, entertaining those aboard has always been a preoccupation with the companies who operate cruises, and with passengers paying thousands of dollars, euros, pounds etc per head, expectations are that there will be some recognisable names among the on-board performers.

Meanwhile, other acts have taken cruising to a new level through chartered voyages in their own name to give fans unique and intimate access. And that niche business is growing fast, as more and more artist managers and agents tap into the cruise sector as a way of connecting with superfans, who appear very happy to part with significant sums of cash to holiday with their idols. For example, in Europe, the success of Full Metal Cruise will see two sailings around Scandinavia in 2024, with prices ranging from €1,199-3,499 per person for the four- or five-night voyages.

Departing from the UK, meanwhile, P&O has the likes of Sailing with the Stars, while the popular Back to the 80’s Cruise, sailing from Southampton takes guests on a Royal Caribbean vessel for a week-long voyage stopping at Bilbao, Vigo and Lisbon, with performers such as Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, ABC’s Martin Fry, Belinda Carlise, and Kim Wilde aboard to provide entertainment, from prices starting at £649 (€749) per person.

“[EDSea] sold out on its presale when packages went on sale earlier this year”

Also tapping into growing demand, Richard Branson’s Virgin Voyages now has four ships offering adventures around Europe, the Caribbean, Australia & South Pacific, as well as Transatlantic, for prices starting at under £1,000 per cabin for two-night sailings, all the way to more than £21,000 per cabin for New Year bookings.

The likes of KISS (The KISS Kruise), Bon Jovi (Runaway to Paradise), Backstreet Boys (Back at the Beach), Kid Rock (Chillin’ the Most), Megadeth (MegaCruise), and Paramore (Parahoy!), to name but a few, have learned about the advantages of the format, while genre-specific cruising has also become a big business, with EDM, metal, and MOR all enjoying multiple annual events, in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas especially.

Indeed, such is the success of live music cruise ventures that Live Nation’s destination experience division, Vibee, is preparing for its maiden cruise event: EDSea – a play on EDC, the name by which festival brand Electric Daisy Carnival is more commonly known. EDC is owned by Insomniac, in which Live Nation owns a stake, while Vibee is also partnering with market-leading cruise operator Sixthman for the four-night Caribbean cruise.

“Vibee’s mission is to curate exceptional multi-day events that cultivate unmatched fan-to-artist connections,” states Vibee president, Harvey Cohen. “People are eager to have immersive travel experiences, and cruises are a great way to see different parts of the world on one trip, so it felt like the right move for Vibee. [EDSea] sold out on its presale when packages went on sale earlier this year.”

“If there’s a passionate community that wants to have an intense, immersive vacation experience, we can build something amazing”

Using the Norwegian Joy cruise ship, EDSea, like dozens of similar cruises, departs Miami before sailing to Nassau where the event’s first land party will be held. It then travels to the private island of Great Stirrup Cay for another day of music. Sailing from 4-8 November, fans are being entertained by the likes of DJ Snake, Louis the Child, Slander, and Afrojack. “Fans can expect artist-hosted activities, go-karting, wellness sessions, and stage productions at the scale never seen before on a cruise ship, delivering a true EDC experience,” adds Cohen.

Those extra-curricular activities are a key selling point for cruise operators. Sixthman VP of events, marketing, talent & community, Jeff Cuellar, notes that curating a themed cruise programme involves a lot more than simply scheduling live performances. “It’s a strange example, as we’re not planning anything with Metallica, but I recently heard Lars Ulrich talking on the SmartLess podcast about how he wanted to be a professional tennis player, and that’s why he came to the States, where he met James Hetfield. Well, the people on our cruises are those passionate fans who are likely to know those juicy bits of knowledge, so imagine if you could offer them the chance to play tennis with Lars?!

“On previous events we’ve had fans singing Karaoke with Brandi Carlile (we called it Brandi-oke); cooking meatballs with Paul Stanley; playing trivia with Alex Trebek; and so much more over 174 festivals in the past 22 years.

“So the cruise is more than just an ‘entertain me’ scenario: they are fun, and the opportunities to experience something unique are endless. If there’s a passionate community that wants to have an intense, immersive vacation experience, then we can build something amazing.”

“We long ago thought it would age out, but we find new guests every year and new artists every year”

Catering to Different Demographics
Building something unforgettable is also the goal of StarVista LIVE, which has been riding the waves for around 15 years, having grown out of a division of Time Life infomercial empire. “We sold things like, ‘The greatest hits of the 60s’ and country music compilations and things,” explains the company’s president, Mike Jason.

He continues, “We could see that TV was fracturing and people were not moving away from buying physical goods. So we developed the idea of taking the music that people love and rather than selling physical goods, hosting live music and events. And through our experience in infomercials, we really had a feel for what people react to, and that influenced our decision to pick certain genres.”

StarVista’s maiden voyage was Malt Shop Memories, taking acts and their music from the late 50s and early 60s to play to an audience that not only connected with that period, but which also has the disposable income to afford cruise ship prices. “In October, we sailed our 14th Malt Shop Memories cruise,” reports Jason. “We long ago thought it would age out, but we find new guests every year and new artists every year and we’re able to cobble together a pretty interesting lineup for a really committed set of fans.”

That inaugural cruise concept has led StarVista to other genre-based sailings, including Soul Train, Country Music, Flower Power, 70s Rock & Romance, Southern Rock, Ultimate Disco, and a number of others. “We, kind of, roll out a new one every year,” comments Jason.

“There have been a record-breaking number of bookings on music cruises since the pandemic ended… we don’t see that changing”

Health Benefits
Addressing concerns about the negative press that cruise operators received during Covid, Cuellar contends that the way in which the industry bounced back has turned the health assumptions on their head. “The cruise line industry leaned into health and safety pretty hard, but our partners, Norwegian, really took the reins and recognised that this was an opportunity to create an environment that is the safest you can possibly put together,” reports Cuellar.

“I look at someone who’s putting something on for two hours, or even, you know, a three-day event, and their ability to control things can be difficult. If people are coming in and out and leaving multiple times, you have no idea what they’re doing or where they are. But on a cruise, we are in a unique position where we can create this bubble effect that increases hygiene and safety. I’m biased, but I don’t think those conversations were happening regarding aeroplanes or stadiums or any of the other places that were having the same issues.”

That observation certainly rings true for StarVista’s Jason. “There was maybe a moment where people were hesitant,” he recalls. “But when we came back in the fall of 2021, we had mandated 100% vaccination, and we did double testing, so you tested at home, and you have a negative result that you brought, and then we tested you at the port and allowed you aboard if you returned another negative. And so, it was probably one of the safest places you could be.”

Cohen agrees, noting, “There is no longer a risk advisory for cruises, and safety is always of the utmost priority to Vibee. There have been a record-breaking number of bookings on music cruises since the pandemic ended, and we don’t see that changing in the near future.”

“We’re a promoter. We essentially buy shows, or buy the talent, and then put together the experience, from a top line perspective”

Charter for Success
While the concept typically involves high ticket prices, and a luxury vessel that takes its passenger fans and talent to different countries, fundamentally the niche industry is not too far removed from the land-based live music world.

“We’re a promoter,” states Sixthman’s Cuellar. “We essentially buy shows, or buy the talent, and then put together the experience, from a top line perspective. We’re not talking about a brand that we’ve created, although we do have festivals, like The Rock Boat and Cayamo, where there’s a brand and communities that we’ve built. But we also have our host models, where KISS or Paramore or Chris Jericho or whoever the artists are, become our partners.

“Our deals are structured in a way [that it] is their event, while we provide the expertise to achieve and successfully execute [it]. We use our creativity and knowledge to be able to work the spaces. But I think what makes us different is our dedication to hospitality and how we break down some of those barriers between guests and artists to offer that kind of physical connection that you just can’t have at a standard concert or land-based festival. Essentially, you live together for a three-, four- or five-day period.”

StarVista has a similar business model. “We are turnkey,” says Jason. “We finance the lease of the ship from the charter company, so in effect we own the ship for the week, and essentially, we strip out their entertainment, which they don’t do well, and we leave the food and beverage, the spas, everything else that the ship does really well, to them.

“I can say that with some of the events we’ve had that have been unsuccessful, a lot of that will stem back to a lack of partner engagement”

“So, we do the marketing, we secure the artists, we bring all the backline equipment, audio, staging, etc on board, and we populate everything that needs to support the entertainment.”

Indeed, marketing is key. “When it comes to buying advertising, some of the traditional stuff is off the table just because it’s too expensive for such a small event, so we need to be creative to ensure that we are getting the information in front of the right people,” Cuellar tells IQ.

“Tapping into the artists’ databases is mission critical. It is not just from a messaging standpoint of actually informing their fans. But when they show the personality and the excitement behind it, the fan sees it and also gets excited about it.

“I can say that with some of the events we’ve had that have been unsuccessful, a lot of that will stem back to a lack of partner engagement.”

As newcomers to the market, Vibee has sensibly partnered with Sixthman for its maiden voyage, but Cohen’s business model also centres around the intimate opportunities they can create. “Vibee works alongside artists to create more personal experiences for their fans,” says Cohen. “We’ve learned that artists are really looking to build deeper connections with their fans, and we’re here to help them do just that. Artists know what their most dedicated fans want and have a strong vision for what will excite them most.”

Jason notes that finding ways to connect with the target audience can be challenging, but once that line of communication is established, the rewards can be fruitful. “For us, we’re looking mostly at an older demographic, but it’s a demographic that can spend $6,000 for a week for a couple,” he says.

“It’s almost like summer camp for adults”

“There are cabins that are cheaper and [those that are] more expensive, but it’s a substantial vacation. On the flip side, guests have access to upwards of 100 performances. So, if you’re music driven, and you really want to be with other folks that are passionate about the same music – generally, the music you grew up with – then, it’s a fantastic vacation experience, enjoying the camaraderie of people that love the same thing.”

Jason continues, “The first couple of years of a new cruise concept are the toughest because no one knows what they’re going to get. But if they come on board and have a great time, lots of them come back the second year. And by the third year, you can get up to 50% that are returning guests.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about pricing and communicate that the lowest price they’ll ever see is the price on board – we try to launch the following year’s event before we set sail this year. So the 2023 people can go and re-book for 2024 when they are on board.

“The other trick to is to secure the artists that far in advance. That’s been a little bit of a learning experience for the artists and booking agents. But it’s a good payday, usually in the winter when they’re not touring as much. So a lot of them will book gigs around it: they’ll put the band together to do the cruise, and they’ll do something on the front end and something on the back end, so they can create a month’s worth of shows where they might not otherwise be touring in January or February.”

Cuellar reveals, “The way that we have our agreements with talent is it’s not just a 60-minute set: the expectation is maybe a 60-minute set and a Q&A. Or we play some silly game together, [US game show] Family Feud style, or a corn-hole tournament, or something else along those lines to give that peek behind the curtain on the artist’s personal life. It’s just the ability to really dig in and create nooks and crannies throughout the ship – we can do whisky tastings, food demonstrations – there are so many different pieces, it’s almost like summer camp for adults.

“Forget political ideologies and religion or whatever it may be, there is a common bond amongst everybody on board, and they’re there for one thing: to have a great time with the thing they all love.”

“2025 is already ramping up to the point where I look at where there aren’t too many open slots remaining”

Growing Armada
Looking toward the future development of the sector, Cohen states, “As the appetite for travel shows no signs of slowing down, we see the cruise industry continuing to rise as well. Vibee wants to continue serving fans with curated, one-of-a-kind experiences on land and sea. When marketing traditional tours, the norm is to promote locally for shows in a large number of regions, [whereas] destination events employ convergent marketing to bring fans from far and wide to a single destination for a one-of-a-kind experience.”

Owned by cruise line Norwegian, Sixthman operated 19 cruises this year, and the diary is already full for 2024, leading Cuellar to also predict growth. “2025 is already ramping up to the point where I look at where there aren’t too many open slots remaining. In fact, I’m even looking ahead to 2026,” he says.

And it’s not only the Caribbean that Sixthman operate in. “We just concluded our third sailing in the Mediterranean with Joe Bonamassa,” says Cuellar. “And we’ve done other events, too, in the Mediterranean – Jon Bon Jovi, for instance. I definitely think there’s more opportunity there to develop concepts and programmes and work with artists to cater to an audience that’s primarily coming out of Germany or Italy or France or wherever.”

And while Jason also predicts growth, he believes the highly specialised nature of cruising makes it a tricky market to crack. “It’s a boutique business,” he says. “Live Nation can do stadiums with 100,000 people, and there’s merch, parking, and the scale is huge. On a cruise, there’s a limit to how many people you can have, so there’s a limit to revenue.

Artists can expect lucrative paydays, while strengthening bonds with their most passionate superfans

“It’s also very specialised, so you need to get, you know, eight or nine trucks’ worth of stuff onto a ship, which has to be cleared by customs, for instance. So it’s a big barrier to entry for small companies because it’s millions of dollars to lease a ship for a week – it’s a significant investment. And while a big company can afford that, it’s probably not going to get enough revenue to justify the risk.”

And Jason rules out the effective use of bigger vessels, for StarVista at least. “Our ships are about 1,000 cabins, which gets you around 2,000 guests. And the reason that we take that size ship is that the main theatre on those ships holds half the guests. So, the big headliners do two shows – an early show and a late show on the main theatre, and then the guests go to early dinner, late dinner, and we flip-flop so everyone gets to see the headliners. That’s not achievable on bigger ships.”

Concluding that artists can expect lucrative paydays, while strengthening bonds with their most passionate superfans, Cuellar says he cannot over-emphasise what impact a memorable cruise experience, and all the fun elements that his team, working with the artists, can achieve.

“Merchandise is definitely a part of it, and we work with the artists to keep the merch unique and only for those people on board,” he says.

“I’ve heard all of the ship puns, and we’ve incorporated them in so many ways. The name of the Impractical Jokers event, for example, is Get Ship Faced, which is perfect for their branding. But it’s fun, so why not lean into it – there’s no reason to reject the cheese, it’s just gonna make that burger taste better!”


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