A native Floridian, Cruiseline.com Founder and General Manager, Faraz Qureshi knew the potential of cruise. In the nearly nine years that he’s been in the cruise industry, passengers increased from just under 18M in 2009, expecting to surpass the 24M mark this year.
Despite its growth, cruise has a reputation of lagging behind the technological curve when compared to other travel verticals. Faraz and the Cruiseline.com team are breaking that stereotype by using technology to help customers more easily search and plan their cruise holidays.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Faraz at length about cruise for our latest Sojern Sit Down, including Cuiseline.com’s beginning and the industry more broadly. Here’s part one of our conversation.
What got you interested in the cruise industry in the first place?
It wasn’t a planned thing to be honest with you. I grew up in Miami so I’d always been aware of the cruise industry. In 2008 I went into consulting to help big companies apply technology solutions. I thought that cruise was a really fun industry, and they could use some help from a technology standpoint.
Around 2009 I started a company called MeetOnCruise, which was acquired and sold in 2012, and that’s when I started Cruiseline.com, in partnership with World Travel Holdings.
What hole(s) in the market did you see that led you to found Cruiseline in 2012?
We use reviews for all sorts of purchases, from restaurants to hotels. Cruises are certainly a more complicated purchase than restaurants, and arguably more than hotels, but there really wasn’t a good cruise review experience. We thought we could fill that hole. Because the cruise brands vary so much, people want to read reviews to help them pick the best one for them.
It’s interesting, reviews are still a big part of our business, but with smartphones, looking at photos from other users is a very authentic way to imagine if an experience is going to be right for you. We have 105,000 reviews and close to 170,000 photos that are all user generated.
Similar to TripAdvisor, we see our role as a curator, making sure the right content is put in front of a prospective customer to help them make the right decision
What were the early days of Cruiseline like vs what they are like now?
In some ways it was simpler, but more stressful. The early days are about product. You’re trying to create the right user experience, you’re talking to users and iterating, and it was great to be able to focus on that. Stress comes in because you’re creating something new, and you don’t know if it’s going to work out. You don’t know if it’s actually going to help consumers.
Now that we’re more of a typical company, product is just one of the many things we focus on. The team is obviously bigger so we focus on culture, sales opportunities, and business development.
How is Cruiseline using data to provide better information to users?
We have over 100,000 reviews, which is probably the most valuable data that we have. We also collect data on the reviewer themselves, like whether it’s their first cruise, whether they’re travelling with family or as a couple, and so on. The way we use this data is two-fold.
One is that we do an annual awards. We look at the actual data, that is, all the reviews that were submitted over the year, and based on that, determine which cruise lines and ships are best for families, couples, etc. What we’ve seen traditionally is more of an editorial approach, which I think is fine and works as well, but it’s really one or two experts trying to decide which cruise line is best for families or for couples. We prefer to use data. We also give out awards for the best ports. We found that Seattle was the highest rated port to depart from in North America.
The second way is more of a B2B angle, where we see how the same data can serve the industry. After we hit 100,000 reviews, we wrote a piece on learnings. For example, we learned that first-time cruisers will rank the cruise about 25% higher than an experienced cruiser. I think cruises can surpass a lot of people’s initial expectations, so we see first time cruise reviews score consistently higher.
The other thing we noticed was that no matter how many new features a cruise line dreams up, like crazy waterslides or robotic bartenders, most people focus on the food, the cabin, and the service. So the core things have to be executed really well, and are more important than the innovative aspects of the cruise experience.
There is a general wisdom that cruise companies tend to lag behind other travel verticals, like airlines or hotels, in terms of their online presence and digital interactions with customers. Do you think this is true?
I’ll say there’s definitely room for improvement. This isn’t necessarily an excuse, but hotels and airlines are much bigger markets than cruise. But yes, I’d love to see more innovation and more start ups in cruise, and there’s a lot of opportunity, specifically in mobile.
Do you think cruise companies are adapting to millennials taking a bigger and bigger share of the travel market?
They are definitely trying. One example is the focus on internet and broadband. For millennials, internet access is essential, not offering it is almost a deal breaker for them. The good news is that the big three cruise lines have started offering it. I was on a Royal Caribbean ship last year and the internet was very good relative to what it’s been in the past.
I think this is controversial, but I’d push it even further and say make it amazing and fast, and then also make it free. What that will do is, one, attract new cruisers because it removes one more excuse that millennials would have not to cruise. Two, as millennials are on the cruise, they’ll be sharing the experience on social media, which is essentially free marketing for the cruise lines.
What is the profile of the average customer who books a Cruise?
It’s hard to say, because there are so many different brands of cruise lines, and each attracts a different demographic. For example, Viking River Cruises are going after the 55+, the high household income, the folks who want longer cruises, and if you look at their average, that’s exactly what it is. If you go to Disney or Carnival, you see a lot more families. If you go to Celebrity, you’ll see more affluent couples, fewer kids. It really depends on the brand.
I can tell you from our average website visitor, we’re about 60% female, so we definitely see the biggest researchers are women, about 40 years old, with above average household income.