As one can gather from the name, a themed cruise appeals to like-minded passengers looking for an event that reaches beyond the normal cruising experience. This can range from music or entertainment-themed offerings, through to more daring options, such as the clothing-optional excursions run by the likes of Texas-based company Bare Necessities. For those of a more cautious disposition, there are also plenty of options to meet up with fellow travellers that share an interest in hobbies or the same aspects of culture.

In the case of Bare Necessities, nude cruises on big ships carrying up to 3,000 guests invariably sell out quickly. Its Big Nude Boat 2023 cruise on the Carnival Pride, due to set sail in February 2023, is similarly expected to be in strong demand.

In the meantime, Atlanta-based Sixthman (owned by Norwegian Cruise Line) has emerged as a major player in the themed cruise space in recent years, having served over 300,000 guests on more than 150 cruises (on sand and at sea). It has provided customers with a chance to see their favourite artists, athletes, actors, comedians and brands since its inception in 2001.

Themed for fans

Sixthman has a wide remit in terms of the themed events it hosts, having previously delighted fans of artists such as Bon Jovi and KISS, as well as enthusiasts of the popular TV show The Walking Dead, alongside providing cruising experiences with themes such as blues, hip hop, country and wellness. Legendary rock band KISS is due to stage its final ever festival at sea from 29 October to 3 November 2022.

Sixthman’s commitment to providing moments that make life rock is one that has earned it a position as a dominant global leader in festivals at sea, according to its CEO Anthony Diaz.

This, in part, is based on the company having expanded its remit over the years to also include non-music fans, with dynamic festivals centred around broadway, wrestling, comedy, TV and film. As Diaz explains: “What started out as an idea for concerts on cruise ships has proven to be much more.”

Creating memories that last a lifetime

“We have learned that Sixthman’s deeper value is in setting the stage for moments that create memories lasting a lifetime through a heightened sense of hospitality, going above and beyond in everything we do, and an intense focus on building and strengthening passionate fan communities,” says Diaz.

It is a winning combination, given these communities return year-on-year; the company holds a 60% guest retention rate across its event portfolio, according to Diaz. Unsurprisingly, though, Covid-19 continues to be an obstacle to operators – though its impact on the cruise industry has been disappearing – and Sixthman is no exception.

Yet, as Diaz is quick to point out: “Sixthman is particularly fortunate as health and safety have always been core principle[s] for all the events we produce and, more recently during the Covid-19 environment, due to our parent company: Norwegian Cruise Line.

“Norwegian Cruise Line has been a pioneer in the cruise industry in deploying science-based health and safety protocols, including being the first and only cruise line to roll out [a] full vaccination requirement for all guests and crew,” he says.

TUI, meanwhile, has been offering customers entertainment-centric sailing for a number of years, as Chris Hackney, managing director of Cruise TUI UK & I, notes.

“Our Marella-themed cruise, Electric Sunsets, launched in 2018 as an ‘80s spectacular,” he says. “This was followed by Electric Sunsets – Cruise Back to the ‘90s in 2019 and Electric Sunsets ‘90s versus ‘00s in May 2022.

“These short sailings are a lot like a festival at sea, filled with big-name acts and headline DJs, retro film screenings and fancy dress nights. Electric Sunsets is popular with the new-to-cruise audience as a party-filled mini cruise, [and] is a great way to try sailing for the first time.”

Safety and a show

Regarding health protocols, Hackney notes that apart from all crew being fully vaccinated and both crew and customers following robust testing procedures – including regular testing on board and daily temperature checks – Marella Cruises has been awarded the Lloyds stay safe verification certificate, which certifies that the company’s Covid-19 management plans and procedures have been externally verified to meet the standards in the UK framework for cruise documents.

“We understand some customers may feel a little uncertain about cruising, that is why we created the Marella promise,” says Hackney. “It offers customers some key commitments to keep them safe on board while reassuring them we are still providing the memorable, enjoyable Marella cruise that we’re known for.

“Such commitments include safety measures, flexible policies, package refund guarantees, Marella Cruises standards secured, and ABTA and ATOL protection.”

In the meantime, the implementation of strong health and safety protocols have delivered safe, worry-free sailing since ships returned to sea in the summer of 2021. “This past October and November, Sixthman safely took 10,000 fans on vacation at sea on six back-to-back festivals,” says Diaz. “Both artists and fans highly prioritise these special vacations,” adding “the experiences created aren’t deliverable on land ‘in the real world’”.

It is a point he reinforces when he discusses the shift that happened pre-pandemic, as individuals focused on enjoying experiences over the purchase of material objects. “I only see more and more of that in the future,” says Diaz.

“This past October and November, Sixthman safely took 10,000 fans on vacation at sea on six back-to-back festivals. Both artists and fans highly prioritise these special vacations.”

Anthony Diaz

A sense of excitement

The one big challenge for Diaz is how to find the perfect formula for an experience that offers unforgettable passion. Indeed, by his own admission, passion is one of the more difficult factors to quantify when it comes to gauging the likely success of a new festival at sea. As he puts it: “When assessing criteria for a new festival at sea it’s [also] a mix of art and science; gut and data.”

“Passion drives our events and I don’t see that fading at all looking forward. If anything, the realisation of how important it is to connect with others sharing the same values as you and prioritising how people’s precious spare time is spent coming out of the pandemic will likely only accelerate the growth for what we do.

“Cruising has proven to be among the safest means of experiencing live music due to testing, vaccinations, and a full suite of health and safety protocols,” he adds.

Such a combination has allowed Sixthman to already confirm 14 high-profile music festivals at sea for 2023 – including the launch of a new music festival for November 2022 setting off from Los Angeles, which sold out in less than three days. And there is the promise of further events to come.

Sail now, pay later

In 2021, Sixthman sealed a partnership deal with Uplift – the buy now pay later payments provider – allowing for Sixthman guests to pay via monthly instalments that could theoretically extend beyond their cruise dates. Though the concept of monthly instalments is not new, the reasoning behind it remains simple enough.

As Diaz explains: “Our standard approach is to have an event on sale to the public at least ten months prior to sailing. We’ve always had a programme that allows for monthly instalments for our guest’s vacations.

“The value we feel the Uplift product brings is if fans find out about the event a few months prior to it sailing, the [system] allows guests to spread payments out beyond the sailing date to allow for lower out-of-pocket investment.”

The best for a reason

At TUI, meanwhile, the road to a successful formula for its Marella Cruise offerings, for example, has been paved by providing “exceptional value, guaranteed good service and customers being able to rest safe in the knowledge that as part of the world’s number one travel company, everything will be taken care of”, according to Chris Hackney.

“We were the first large cruise line to offer all-inclusive board basis as standard, as well as including all tips and service charges in our prices,” he says, adding, “We know our customers love to explore new destinations, and that’s why our itineraries work to spend fewer days at sea.

“By setting sail at night, cruisers will arrive in a new destination in the morning and be able to experience the local culture for longer periods. We’re constantly developing our cruise and stay programme to exciting destinations and will continue to offer fantastic itineraries, great service and entertainment.”

As the old saying goes ‘variety is the spice of life’, and for those desiring that special experience, the choices available are plentiful. Let the show begin.