The rise of coastal cruising
By Tom Stieghorst for Travel Weekly
Markwell said an attractive program in the winter is a key to profits.
"It's important that the ships sail full all year round," he said. "We cannot make money in the summertime in the Great Lakes to lose it in the winter."
Haimark also plans cruises from Miami to Cuba starting in February, in cooperation with United Caribbean Lines, which already has Treasury Department approval for ferry service between Florida and Cuba.
Blount, too, has Cuba in its sights, though probably not until 2017. Nancy Blount said that as a U.S.-flagged vessel, there are additional complications to getting Commerce Department approvals.
Jacox said that Un-Cruise Adventures will continue to operate on the West Coast of North and Central America, where it sails one ship in Mexico's Sea of Cortez from November to March and another in Costa Rica and Panama.
While it shares some similarities with river cruising, U.S. coastal cruising is small even by river cruise standards. The segment in its entirety is only a couple of thousand berths.
"Because there's very limited capacity, every time we see an opportunity, we grab it," said Joann Bell, vice president of programming for Road Scholar, a tour operator with an educational focus.
Road Scholar has chartered Haimark's St. Laurent for two of its four cruises in August in the Great Lakes.
"They have similar philosophies, so they have their own educational content onboard, which just enhances what our product type is," Bell said.
Road Scholar already sends groups to Cuba on people-to-people trips, so there is synergy in that market, as well. Other operators with a similar focus, such as Smithsonian Journeys, have also placed groups on Haimark and American Cruise Lines.
Because of their small size, coastal cruise ships attract an active charter clientele. Markwell said a third of Haimark's 15 cruises on the St. Laurent for the balance of the year are charters.
Haimark, which also has river cruises in Europe and Asia, cross-sells U.S. coastal cruises to groups taking those trips.
Markwell said Japan, Australia and France are among the countries that have provided passenger groups for Haimark.
"Because we have grown so quickly and we need that volume, it is important for us to get into those other markets," he said.