Miland Petrozza, the front man of German thrash metal band Kreator, is used to his fans wading through mud and sleeping in tents. Rarely do they arrive at his concerts after an afternoon of shuffleboard. Yet when he shrieked the lyrics “let there be darkness, let there be blood tonight” across the decks of luxury liner Mein Schiff 1 in early May, the passengers of Europe’s biggest heavy metal cruise gladly left their deck chairs behind for the chaos of the mosh pit.
The Full Metal Cruise is one of the more unusual offerings of Europe’s $48 billion cruise industry, in which tour operators increasingly target special-interest customers—from gourmets to nudists—in an attempt to broaden their client base. Operators are seeking to rebuild trust following the grounding of the Carnival (CCL)-owned cruise ship Costa Concordia off Tuscany in January 2012, which led to 32 deaths.
Kreator was among more than 20 bands booked by TUI Cruises, a venture between Europe’s largest tour operator TUI (TUI1:GR) and Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL), to lure almost 2,000 fans onto a seven-day round-trip voyage from Hamburg to Southampton via Amsterdam. Balcony cabins cost as much as $2,300 per person. Most guests were first-time cruisers, says Godja Soennichsen, a company spokeswoman.
The cruise industry’s penetration in Europe is about one-third what it is in the U.S., says Jan Bovermann, a consultant at A.T. Kearney in Copenhagen, yet before the Costa Concordia accident it appeared to be catching up. The industry posted double-digit growth in European passenger numbers every year from 2007 to 2011, according to data compiled by the Cruise Lines International Association, with the annual total doubling to 6.1 million in 2012 from 2005. After the Costa Concordia’s grounding, passenger growth in Germany slowed to 11 percent in 2012 from an average of 15 percent annually between 2007 and 2011, forcing operators to offer discounts to fill empty cabins. Elsewhere it was even worse: Italian and Spanish passenger counts in 2012 shrunk 9 percent and 18 percent, respectively. “The Costa Concordia was a disaster beyond belief for the industry,” Bovermann says. “I cannot think of a cruise liner that sank since the Titanic. While the market in the U.S. has recovered, bookings in Europe remain poor.”
TUI this month said its cruise business, which also consists of luxury operator Hapag-Lloyd cruises, had an operating loss of €11 million ($14.2 million) in the six months ended March 31. While TUI Cruises was able to fill all its cabins, occupancy at Hapag-Lloyd fell to 70 percent, prompting cost cuts that may eventually include dropping at least one of its five ships. Carnival recently cited slackening demand as one reason its eponymous brand won’t sail ships in Europe in 2014. And Royal Caribbean cut 10 percent of its capacity in Europe for 2013 and may trim more next year.
The Full Metal Cruise was organized not only to generate income but also to drum up publicity and counter prejudice about cruises in a demographic that may have previously had reservations about them, Soennichsen says. The strategy seems to have worked: The music-themed voyage sold out, and the average passenger age on the trip was 39—younger than the 45-65 skew of a typical European cruise. The customized features also struck a chord. “After-hours heavy metal karaoke was especially popular,” Soennichsen says, “and our onboard tattoo artist was working around the clock.”
Germany, the metal cruise’s starting point, was the fastest-growing of Europe’s five largest cruising markets through 2011, Cruise Line International data show. The nation’s 30 days of statutory paid leave per year, the highest in Europe, helps. Germans, heavy metal fans or otherwise, are also desirable holiday makers because they spend more on board than other Europeans, according to Bovermann. They can also be counted on to drink: Beer consumption on the metal cruise, says Soennichsen, was about 16 liters a head—more than six times that of a typical voyage.