Perks, status matches, family ties: How cruise brand loyalty is evolving


It’s difficult to persuade Kelly Brewer’s clients to try another cruise line once they’ve racked up loyalty status points with a particular brand.

The Arkansas-based owner of a Cruise Planners franchise and a top producer for Carnival Cruise Line said her clients have little interest in trying out another contemporary line or upgrading to a premium one once they achieve Carnival Gold status after 25 days of cruising.

When she suggests moving those clients to Royal Caribbean International or Princess Cruises, “most of the time they won’t, even if the rate is similar, because of the loyalty status with Carnival,” Brewer said. “So many passengers on Carnival will proudly display their gold, platinum and diamond status. They act like it’s some type of royalty to reach diamond.”

Whether driven by bragging rights or unlocking special perks, loyalty programs have long enticed consumers to maintain brand loyalty.

And some cruise lines have recently gotten more creative, offering status-matching programs that recognize travelers for their dedication, even if it’s to other brands.

The moves come as loyalty programs undergo an evolution, said Jeff Zotara, chief marketing officer of Arrivia (No. 18 on Travel Weekly’s Power List), a travel tech company that provides travel loyalty, booking and marketing solutions to companies like American Express and Marriott Vacation Club.

Loyalty program development is currently at an all-time high, he said, as businesses focus on increasing customer lifetime value.

“Back in 2021, brands were all about customer acquisition. How do we get more and more and more and more clients? Now that has shifted to, how do we keep these clients for a longer period of time and create longer lifetime value?” Zotara said.

At the same time, ongoing concerns about inflation have travelers hunting for value, he added.

Within the cruise industry, loyalty program perks vary but often include free WiFi, a drink on the house, discounted spa treatments and priority boarding, with sweeter perks coming at higher status levels. Some include exclusive experiences like receptions for guests who have reached specific tiers.

Each line awards loyalty status to their guests differently. Some are tallied by the number of cruises they have taken or the number of days they have sailed with the line. Others are based on a system that awards points for certain purchases, such as larger cabin categories.

Royal Caribbean Group this year leaned into that renewed consumer interest in loyalty programs to try to keep its cruisers in the family.

Starting in May, it launched a loyalty status match program that transfers a guest’s highest status tier on either Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises or Silversea Cruises to each of those sister brands.

This is meaningful when a cruiser wants to try another product, such as grandparents who may normally sail on a luxury or premium line but want to take their kids and grandkids on a contemporary cruise, said Jason Liberty, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group. Those guests with loyalty status with Silversea, for instance, would have the same status on a Royal Caribbean sailing.

“We want to make sure that if you’re going to go on a vacation experience, that it stays within our family of brands and that you don’t need to go outside of our family,” he said.

Few cruise lines offer programs that match status within their sister brands. Neither Carnival Corp., with nine lines, nor Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, with three, match loyalty status among brands.

However, some lines recognize status or loyalty points earned with other companies that are partners.

For example, Regent Seven Seas Cruises collaborates with GHA Discovery, a loyalty program that includes hundreds of hotels. Sister brand Norwegian Cruise Line partners with the WorldPoints Rewards credit card.

Among cruise brands directly affiliated with larger hospitality companies, loyalty brand matching varies.

Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection participates in the Marriott Bonvoy Program, which enables members to earn and redeem points on cruises, hotels and use of a Marriott Bonvoy credit card.

Conversely, Disney Cruise Line, which has its own loyalty program, does not recognize visits to Disney parks and resorts to achieve a higher status tier. Neither does Virgin Voyages with sister brands that include Virgin Hotels. But the cruise line will match other cruise lines’ loyalty levels.

“We will gladly status match any of Royal’s three brands,” for example, said Michael Marino, head of loyalty for Virgin Voyages.

As a newcomer to the cruise industry, launching during the pandemic, Virgin Voyages is focused on raising brand awareness. While the line status matches other cruise lines, it ran a short promotion this spring to match the status guests had with companies in other travel sectors, like airlines and hotels, which was successful and is something Virgin says it may repeat.

“We saw there’s plenty of interest amongst cruisers who go on other lines, but they’re also very loyal to those lines, right?” Marino said.

“Our thought was, we introduce our product to people who like to travel, or at least their work makes them travel, and so therefore they are heavily statused somewhere else.”

MSC Cruises also matches the status guests have on other cruise lines to unlock perks like extra onboard credit, priority embarkation and complimentary onboard services, depending on the membership level.

MSC’s sister luxury line, Explora Journeys, which launched last year, is finalizing its guest loyalty program and “taking note” of members of MSC’s loyalty program at the time of booking. Like MSC, it also offers a “Welcome Match” to members of other cruise lines and hotel loyalty programs.

Courtesy of Travel Weekly

2 cruise ships on the water