In early May, Weight Watchers International is hosting a seven-night, wellness-themed Caribbean cruise aboard the 4300-passenger MSC Divina, sailing from Miami.
Yes, a company dedicated to weight loss is joining forces with a purveyor of expansive buffets to offer cruising as a viable vacation for those aiming to shed pounds. And many, many people are battling bulges unsuccessfully, with more than a third of Americans medically obese, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As Weight Watchers transforms from a pure weight-loss enterprise into a health-and-wellness company, the idea of embarking on its first cruise was a logical thing to do, said Ryan Nathan, the company's vice president of products, licensing, and e-commerce.
"We did a lot of research, and we looked at our member base, and our member really is the cruising base," Nathan said. The typical Weight Watchers member is female, 40 to 60 years old, with an average household income slightly above the US average. The cruise "is not slim-down camp," he said, and the company is setting no goals for members in terms of whether the trip is aimed at losing weight, maintaining weight or keeping any gain from the cruise to a minimum.
Despite the abundance of food, drink, and sloth that mass-market cruise lines sell, a week in the Caribbean also offers the opportunity to take the opposite approach: Sleep well, exercise more, and peruse more menu options, with more relaxed lunches and dinners than most people face at home. The ship also offers members an exercise bicycle that faces the sunrise and a jogging track on the open deck, said Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC North America.
"It's a natural for us to go on this endeavour to show our members: Hey, you can have fun and eat great food," Nathan said. "And you don't have to feel like diet is deprivation."
The company, of which entertainer Oprah Winfrey owns nearly 15 percent, reformulated its business focus in late 2015 with a "Beyond the Scale" campaign that aims to help customers "shift their mindset" from weight loss to overall fitness, encouraging everything from becoming less sedentary to eating better. New York-based Weight Watchers said its members lost 15 per cent more weight in the first two months following the new program, compared to results with the prior program.
Cruising is also an effective marketing tool for a publicly traded company that has repeatedly sought to reinvent itself amid the vicissitudes of both the equity and weight-loss markets. The new efforts to broaden Weight Watchers' market appeal started in late 2015, several months after the former talk show host acquired her stake and became a director, with plans to promote the company via her celebrity and her personal weight-loss efforts. Weight Watchers has credited Winfrey with helping spur new enrolments and stronger financial results; its stock has gained 39 per cent this year.
Prices for the MSC cruise began at US$945 ($1363), and all of Weight Watchers' 500-cabin bloc on the cruise has been sold, a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers said. MSC was stunned by how quickly half the Weight Watchers' bloc sold out, Sasso said. A second MSC-Weight Watchers cruise is planned for November, with additional sailings likely.
MSC is also offering menu options that will list Weight Watchers' points values to help cruisers know whether their selections fit within their personal weight-control plans. "I've asked the entire organisation here to embrace this," Sasso said in a telephone interview. "Every aspect, from our master chefs down to the waiters."
On board, Weight Watchers staff will host meetings for "real-time guidance and support" and present customised fitness programs, cooking demonstrations, and seminars from wellness experts. The week-long voyage will also have four ports of calls at which passengers can hike, snorkel, dive, and pursue other physical activities, Sasso said. The May Divina itinerary has stops stop in Jamaica; Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; and the Bahamas.
"I think this is more a perfect scenario than the other type of vacation that one can take," Sasso said, calling the cruise "a controlled environment" for Weight Watchers' members. "We're making our cruise products already have this wellness aspect." The May wellness-themed cruise, he said, "is just an enhancement."
For Geneva-based MSC, and for such larger US peers as Carnival Corp., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., shifting the public's notion of cruising as an oceangoing gallery of gluttony to one of an upscale holiday that embraces fine dining and active lifestyles is critical to attracting a younger, more affluent demographic. The cruise industry of the 1980s, for example, is nothing like today's cruise lines' offerings. The industry has been working feverishly to tout that message and to increase its customer base, with an estimated 25.3 million people expected to cruise this year, up from 15.8 million a decade ago.
Cruise ships also offer no more dietary vice than the average US city, given an abundance of food and drink choices that are far from healthy, Sasso argued. "That temptation is everywhere you go," he said. "Unless you go to an isolated place in the jungle, you're going to have temptation everywhere."
The newer ships also devote increasing real estate to their spas-a revenue source, to be sure-and most have extensive gyms stocked with equipment, Sasso noted. "When you have 20,000-square-foot spas on a cruise ship, that is unparalleled in the hotel industry, unless you're in some huge resort."
For cruise lines, affinity groups of the wellness sort that Weight Watchers is heading also tend to mean higher revenues, and margins. The $945 minimum fare on MSC, for example, is higher than the company would otherwise command for many of its berths for the same week. That's one reason for the proliferation of theme cruises, from Star Trek to country western music to a Holland America Line Alaska cruise focused on O, The Oprah Magazine, Winfrey's monthly lifestyle periodical.
If a weight-control or sci-fi cruise seems extraordinarily niche-y, they get even more specialised. In November, starting at US$852 ($1229) per person, you can join TV actor David Hasselhoff in the Mediterranean for a five-day "Official World Fan Cruise."
"Not only will we be at sea, which is really sexy, we're going to be rocking and rolling," Hasselhoff says in a video pitch for the cruise.