Cruise Lines Want a New Kind of Passenger: Millennials

But booking twentysomethings on floating malls won't be easy

Cruise lines have weathered some rough seas in the past few years. Well-publicized food incidents (the latest afflicting Royal Caribbean this January) together with true disasters like the Costa Concordia wreck have conspired to put a dent in the hull of a historically vigorous industry. But the cruise lines are trying to set a new course—not by changing their destinations, but their demographics.

The big boats are going after millennials.

No longer the clichéd floating destination for the newlywed or nearly dead, the industry is starting to woo younger travelers. Part of this strategy is simple common sense: The blue-haired customers won’t be around forever. But much of the strategy shift is being driven by the relentless building of ships.

The $37 billion industry has six new ocean liners rising from the slips. These oceangoing behemoths will push global cruise capacity to more than 450,000 passengers, who’ll have 69 cruise lines to choose from. So there’s a lot at stake for a business that must find a way to sell its brand to younger travelers with a message of affordability and shorter trips.

Florida-based Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line, is attracting the industry’s largest share of millennial cruisers with short, cheap trips. This weekend, for example, Carnival offered its Pack N Go plan of three- and five-day Baja and Caribbean cruises costing as little as $33 per night for an interior cabin. Carnival has also introduced a live concert series featuring acts such as Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson and Lady Antebellum.

For its part, Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity cruise line offered a Cannes Film Festival option and is reportedly achieving good results with its weeklong European itineraries. Speaking to the Miami Herald, Celebrity’s marketing vp Lisa Kaufman said that the stopovers “are very much in tune with how this segment is looking for kind of cool experiences that give them stuff to talk about.”

Leading this trend is a company called Un-Cruise Adventures (tagline: “Choose to Un-Cruise”), an operator of smaller boats that venture to places like the Galapagos Islands and Washington’s Snake River to offer activities such as kayaking and snorkeling—decidedly youthful alternatives to the floating malls and casinos that the big ships traditionally peddle.

None of this means that cruise lines are abandoning older customers, of course, who’ll continue to butter the bread for the carriers for some time to come. Still, the industry is clearly waking up to the need for a more assertive stance after years of being cowed by the financial meltdown of 2008 and a string of titanic onboard mishaps including Carnival’s infamous “poop cruise,” norovirus outbreaks and even a rise of onboard crime.

The recent bid for millennial cruisers—who make up a paltry 7 percent of passengers now—comes on the heels of a $60 million ad campaign launched earlier this year, touting cruises as memory-making experiences.