The ‘overfed, newly wed and nearly dead’ description that plagued cruises of yesteryear says more about the industry’s passengers than its operators. Cruise ships have long offered well-equipped gyms with panoramic ocean views for guests to keep fit on their voyage. Lately, as moods shift to reducing wrinkles, trimming waistlines, and living with more energy and vigour, travellers have been trading in pool loungers for kayaks, and cocktails for protein shakes.

“The market has changed dramatically in the past 30 years,” says Captain Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, who has made activity-based cruises a thriving business. “It used to be entirely different. It was primarily Second-World- War folks that wanted the sea. They wanted to look at all the places but didn’t necessarily want to touch.

“Then the early boomers came along and things started to change. Even the later boomers are dramatically different from their brothers and sisters, ten or 15 years ahead of them. They not only want to see the places, but also touch and breathe them in.”

This market shift helps to explain why cruises have made efforts to supplement the traditional offerings of well-equipped gyms and running tracks with something new. Operators have realised that fitnessrelated activities can be much more than the standard fare. Royal Caribbean offers an ice-skating rink and surf simulator on board some of its cruises, while Norwegian Cruise Line has an extensive obstacle course reminiscent of something from TV game show Takeshi’s Castle.

“It’s important to make the exercise itself pleasurable,” says Christopher Rudolph, brand performance director at MSC, “and this requires thinking beyond the obvious.” He is quick to qualify that exercising in a gym is still an enjoyable experience, but that “it is about providing passengers with the opportunity to incorporate varied activities to realise their fitness goals.”

Rudolph says that MSC’s wellness experience, which launches in April 2017, will include port excursions like running clubs through cities, cycling routes or beautiful kayaking opportunities, such as a trip to the UAE’s Sir Bani Yas island – a nature reserve founded by Sheik Zayed in the 1970s.

“It’s a beautiful beach with lots of animals,” Rudolph says, “and we are offering kayaking around the island as a fitness activity.”

Blanchard says that in 1996, when UnCruise Adventures (formerly American Safari Cruises) started yachting in Alaska, he kept kayaks on board, “but they were a passive addition”. It used to be a case of making it known to guests that kayaking was available and, if they wanted to, they could join a mild-mannered excursion.

Things have changed with people Blanchard calls “hard chargers”. They seek high intensity and lots of activity, such as snorkelling in Alaska – “which no one believed would be popular” – stand-up paddle boards and all-day hikes.

“You really can’t separate adventure travel from wellness,” Blanchard says. “They are as synonymous as wine with a good dinner. You even see the large ships adding elements of adventure.”

Healthy living

The healthy activities on offer have come to incorporate adventure aspects such as kayaking and mountain biking.

“All of us have seen the climbing walls on the funnel of the ship, more tennis courts and more running tracks,” Blanchard says. “That’s more about wellness, but the large ships are doing a good job of letting adventure take place with smaller vendors in port.”

This desire for activity is indicative of a broader, healthier lifestyle shift, Blanchard says. “It’s in the way later boomers maintain their diets, for instance. I belong to that group, and I’m quite sure I will live longer than my parents and grandparents. At least, I sure hope so, because I’m treating my body a lot better than they did.”

Eating healthily plays a vital role in the on-board wellness segment, too.

“We have been working very closely with a nutritionist to come up with an offering for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Rudolph. With a background in hospitality and hotel management, his current role has him working closely with the operations team, overseeing various product developments and services on the ships, including the wellness experience.

But nutrition needs to extend beyond meal times. A comprehensive wellness package should provide healthy drinks and a minibar to match. It is essential that operators give guests the opportunity to choose healthy options, says Paul Ludlow, senior vice-president at P&O Cruises.

To ensure a successful wellness package, Rudolph says it is vital that cruises take a “holistic approach” to providing guests with a complete experience. “You want to have a great holiday, you want to discover new places, you want to relax – but at the same time, you want to get into shape. One doesn’t override the other.”

On the contrary: relaxation is an essential component of the wellness experience that should not be forgotten.

“A cruise is many kinds of holiday,” Ludlow says. “It can be a luxurious boot camp where you book in time with a personal trainer and take various classes. But, of course, wellness also links in with downtime, so guests can find a quiet haven to switch off, relax and read a book.”

A multifaceted approach to health and wellness would be lacking without the use of technology. Mobile apps and smart watches have already developed into a big aspect of the onshore fitness experience by tracking steps, miles, burnt calories and heart rate.

Rudolph says it was important to bring this technological component aboard the wellness package. In partnership with Technogym, the cruise line has created an app to track guests’ fitness performance and map their exercise goals. “This isn’t just limited to the cruise,” Rudolph says, as guests are encouraged to continue with the progress they’ve made when back on shore.

Choosing the right partners can add value to the wellness experience. P&O Cruises has teamed up with Olympian Mark Foster for swimming and fitness sessions this year. Ludlow says it is important to work with “inspirational professionals who are experts in their field, and are held in high esteem by the UK public”.

Beginners welcome

Blanchard has been at the helm of UnCruise Adventures for just over 20 years, but he has spent his life on the water. One of his more rigorous pursuits has been racing yachts without engine power from Port Townsend, Washington to Alaska, a route besieged by squalls, killer whales and tidal currents.

While Blanchard enjoys the physical and mental challenge, there are gentler options available to his guests. He has always included a wellness component in his trips, such as yoga and stretching with massages thrown in too, but it is only this year that the experience has been branded. The more focused approach includes personal trainers and nutritional guides.

An important consideration when offering wellness activities is being sure guests will be able to participate in them at the appropriate levels of difficulty. It’s about being fit and active, but it needs to be achievable and, as Rudolph mentioned, pleasurable.

“The reality is that, at 57, I probably think I can still do everything I did when I was younger,” Blanchard says, “And I’m no different from any human being on Earth.”

Striking the right balance between ability and challenge has taken Blanchard and his team some time to perfect. It used to be a case of offering levels one through five, with one being the most sedate and five the most intense. Nowadays, Blanchard says that his team chats to guests during happy hour and asks them about the types of activities they want to do, how capable they believe themselves to be, what they have done in the past and what they hope to achieve. “It’s worked out,” he says. “To put a number on it, I’d say it’s 92% accurate.”

Blanchard can still get it wrong though: “Sometimes we misread a guest because maybe they’re a little bit quieter and don’t seem like a hard charger, but in reality they are. So that’s where we have to adjust sometimes. Overall, though, it has worked out pretty well for us.”

Exclusive excursions

This method means it is important that Blanchard keeps his groups small – usually about 85 passengers – but even the bigger cruises understand the importance of exclusivity. Rudolph says that the ideal number is no more than 20 people on a particular wellness excursion.

“We’ve got two groups to select for excursions,” Rudolph says. “We’ve got the easier and the more challenging ones, and people will be able to sign up to whichever one they want.”

Millennial market

How long the wellness trend will last is hard to predict, but MSC CEO Gianni Onorato said in March 2016 that it is projected to grow by nearly 10% annually over the next five years.

“As with most things, not everybody is going to buy into this,” Rudolph says. For many people, cruising will continue to be about lounging on a chair, sipping cocktails while reading a book but, for now, the wellness experience is in demand.

“How big is that need?” Rudolph asks. “That’s what we will discover, but our partner Technogym has noticed that wellness has become important.”

The millennial market is particularly health conscious, although Blanchard says he has not given the segment much thought as trips with UnCruise Adventures are beyond most millennials’ budgets.

“As you know, that generation is very focused on what they specifically want,” Blanchard says. “They want adventure during the day and a comfortable bed at night. A lot of the information from the Adventure Travel Trade Association is that millennials are seeking opportunities to unplug.”

Blanchard adds that trends change: “I wouldn’t be surprised if my children’s children are back to doing what I did. You know, ten bucks a day through Europe and doing crazy things when they’re in their 20s.”

No matter the unpredictability of industry trends, it behoves cruise lines to keep up with them. Providing a well equipped gym is the essential basic of a wellness experience, but it is fast becoming necessary to think beyond the obvious. Combining fun, fitness and adventure challenges guests to do something different while taking in their beautiful surroundings, and working up a sweat in the process.