As passengers call for more time to explore destinations, cruise lines are including more overnights at ports that fit the bill. While passengers benefit from new opportunities to expand their horizons – be that with a tour of the local town or a night at the ballet – operators are attracting more customers, while also earning flexibility in itinerary planning, and reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

But with new modes of operation come inevitable challenges, from unimaginative on-the-ground operators to increased port charges. So, how are cruise lines making sure that following a less-than-traditional model simultaneously improves guest experience and makes sense for their operations?

A success on all fronts

Overnights have been popping up on cruise itineraries increasingly in the past few years, and they look to be here to stay. Holland America Line’s 2015 world cruise stops in 45 ports and offers 11 overnight stays, for example, while Silversea Cruises has increased docking time in its 2014-15 itineraries to include two full days in cities such as Sorrento, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Hong Kong and Singapore.

"Guests are asking for more in-depth experiences that include sampling what a port has to offer in the evening," says Darius Mehta, Silversea’s vice-president of air and land programmes. "Overnight stays give us the opportunity to offer multiple choices over a two day period."

These sorts of tours are particularly appealing to the less traditional cruise passenger, but they also offer advantages to cruise lines, according to Kay-Uwe Maross, director of itinerary planning and port operations at AIDA Cruises. AIDA has been offering overnight stops since it launched, and currently allows passengers to spend the night in cities all over the world, from Lisbon to Oslo, and Hong Kong to Yokohama.

"Journeys that include longer periods onshore as well as days at sea appeal to a different cruise clientele," he notes. "Those looking for recuperation, culture fans and global explorers really get what they are looking for on these journeys.

"Meanwhile, overnight stops allow us to offer more time on tourist highlights, and this, in turn, gives our guests some real added value, increasing the overall attractiveness of the cruise."

Extended stays in ports can even attract passengers who aren’t looking for adventure. "The situation appeals to many guests, even those that return to the ship for dinner, as they feel they don’t have to rush back for sailing time," Mehta remarks.

"Overnight stops allow us to offer more time on tourist highlights, and this, in turn, gives our guests some real added value, increasing the overall attractiveness of the cruises."

Of course, the decision to include overnight stays in an itinerary may involve logistical reasons, Maross stresses. It can be a good option at passenger turnaround ports on long-distance routes, for example (at AIDA, this would be ports like Cochin, Miami and Bangkok); at turnaround ports that are also tourist destinations (Maross cites New York, Montreal and Bangkok); and at ports where long clearance times can be expected due to the authorities.

"Without the opportunity of overnight stays, guests would have limited time to participate in excursions and sightseeing tours at such destinations," he notes.

Where to stay, and how to make it work

All this said, a cruise line’s choice to stay overnight in a port is most often purely for the benefit of the passenger.

"We obviously only choose ports that have sufficient interest to tourists, and a nightlife that is safe and vibrant; not every destination is suitable for an overnight call," Mehta explains. "We make the choice only when we are sure there are plenty of attractions to fill a two-day plus call. Ports and destinations might try to manufacture programmes to fill two days, but unless the destination offers the opportunity organically, we are not interested."

A few ports that have been deemed to fit the bill include Sorrento, an overnight stop on one of Silversea’s routes, where passengers can see Pompeii and the Amalfi Drive, and even visit Capri; Lisbon, where AIDA passengers are encouraged to enjoy the nightlife; and St Petersburg, another AIDA overnight, famed for its ballet.

"If you look at the ports where we overnight – Barcelona, Venice, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro, for example – these are vibrant, lively cities by day and night," adds Linda Springmann, vice-president of worldwide deployment and tour marketing at Holland America Line. Springmann cites availability, cost, safety and a sufficient range of evening activities as the key factors she takes into account when choosing a port at which to stay overnight.

However, getting an overnight stay right isn’t always easy. In order to offer enough diversity in excursions and appeal to as wide an audience as possible, it’s essential for operators to work incredibly closely with ports and destinations – something that can often be challenging.

"We work with several local vendors well in advance, developing shore tours and finding new options year to year," says Paul Goodwin, executive vice-president for onboard revenue and port and shore operations at Holland America Line. "Of course, local visitor offices help make connections, and the port authorities are always willing to make introductions and offer new ideas. We also conduct guest reviews of ports on all cruises, so we can make adjustments based on this feedback. One of the keys to melding all of the above into a successful overnight is finding a vibrant, active, cultural port with plenty of diversity for all guests."

No limits for luxury tourists

Sometimes, however, on-the-ground operators – even in some of the world’s most vibrant and diverse destinations – are surprisingly unimaginative, particularly when it comes to meeting the expectations of higher-end travellers. At least, that’s what Mehta has found.

"Part of my job is helping ports understand the needs of the luxury cruise client," he says. "Many ports focus on mass market and high volume, but my job is to point out that by providing quality and innovation, you are rewarded with a high-net-worth client who becomes an ambassador of the destination for life."

The Caribbean has proven particularly challenging in this regard, although things are slowly improving. "We are now getting operators to customise tours and think outside the box," Mehta confirms. She adds that the line’s Good Neighbour programme, which organises visits to charitable organisations and local attractions that are focused on protecting the environment, has met great enthusiasm on the ground.

Silversea’s tour to an orphanage in Port Lemon, Costa Rica, is a good example of this, while other successful tours across the line’s portfolio include a high-speed train journey from St Petersburg to Moscow, and excursions to see the pandas of Chengdu Research Base, where guests can spend time in the rehabilitation centre and witness panda conservation in action.

Each of these tours appeals to a market increasingly focused on educational, engaging and experiential shore excursions, and has been chosen for its uniqueness, how well it fits into the local culture and its "wow" factor.

But what about guests who want to explore independently? How can operators ensure that these passengers are as happy as those who have opted to take excursions, without sacrificing revenue?

Mehta says, "You obviously encourage guests to take shore excursions, but at the same time, we offer ample information for guests to explore independently. We also offer a Shore Concierge Programme, where we tailor tours specifically for guests, which is extremely popular."

"We obviously only choose ports that have sufficient interest to tourists, and a nightlife that is safe and vibrant; not every destination is suitable for an overnight call."

Meanwhile, at Holland America Line, passenger security is a key factor; but it all comes back to ensuring there is enough diversity for passengers. "If you are on a tour with Holland America Line, we take you safely from the gangway and back; for many on our cruise ships, that’s important," Goodwin notes. "But ultimately, we provide an array of tour options for guests, and that keeps us on target for all aspects of the cruise operation."

Challenges and potential

Offering overnights isn’t without its challenges in cost: port infrastructure often isn’t up to scratch, while sailing overnight is unquestionably cheaper than parking up in a port. Yet, neither of these are insurmountable barriers for cruise lines, particularly when balanced against the benefits of overnight stays.

"You can certainly argue that it will cost more to stay in a port overnight, and it does a bit," Springmann admits, "but at the same time, with a more attractive itinerary, you can fill berths much easier. We are also able to operate some evening shore tours and have our restaurants and lounges open. All aspects are taken into account when approving these itineraries."

"[When it comes to infrastructure] we have no control, so all we can do is make sure that we set the guest’s expectation at the right level," Mehta adds, while Maross is keen to add that there are also logistical benefits to docking at a port.

"Overnight stops provide us with more flexibility when it comes to planning routes, and they can help to reduce fuel consumption and emissions," he explains.

So, are overnights here to stay? As long as operators continue to evolve with the times and passenger needs, the consensus is a definite yes.

"It seems to be a popular trend, and our programmme is always evolving," Mehta remarks. "For example, we now require our ground operators to regularly update their restaurant recommendation lists, and we make sure we are current with local hotspots and venues."

At Holland America Line, too, overnights will remain an important part of the line’s itinerary mix. "We will continue to offer them, but we will also always evaluate whether an overnight is the right choice," Springmann concludes. "We [will continue to] collaborate with all our partners and vendors to ensure we deliver the best experience possible and, within the Carnival Corp family of lines, we will share best practices as we move forward."