Buffet break: Traditionally a holiday that encourages gluttony and lethargy, cruising has taken a healthier turn with the introduction of Weight Watchers’ wellness-themed trips. Picture: SUPPLIED
Buffet break: Traditionally a holiday that encourages gluttony and lethargy, cruising has taken a healthier turn with the introduction of Weight Watchers’ wellness-themed trips. Picture: SUPPLIED

In early May, Weight Watchers International is hosting a seven-night, wellness-themed Caribbean cruise aboard the 4,300-passenger MSC Divina, sailing from Miami.

A company dedicated to weight loss is joining forces with a purveyor of expansive buffets to market cruising as a viable holiday for people aiming to shed kilograms.

As Weight Watchers transforms into a health-and-wellness company from a weight-loss enterprise, the idea of embarking on its first cruise was a logical thing to do, says its vice-president of products, licensing and e-commerce, Ryan Nathan.

The typical Weight Watchers member is female, from 40 to 60 years old, with an average household income slightly above the average. The cruise "is not a slim-down camp", Nathan says, and the company is setting no goals for members from the cruise to lose weight, maintain weight or keep any gain 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 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, says 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 says. "And you don’t have to feel like diet is deprivation."

The company, of which entertainer Oprah Winfrey owns nearly 15%, reformulated its business focus in late 2015 with a Beyond the Scale campaign that aims to help customers "shift their mind-set" from weight loss to overall fitness, encouraging everything from becoming less sedentary to eating better.

Weight Watchers says its members lost 15% more weight in the first two months following the new programme, compared to results with the programme before.

Cruising is also an effective marketing tool for a publicly traded company that has sought to reinvent itself amid the vicissitudes of the equity and weight-loss markets.

The new efforts to broaden Weight Watchers’ market appeal started in late 2015, several months after Winfrey acquired her stake and became a director, with plans to promote the company through her celebrity and her personal weight-loss efforts. Weight Watchers credits the former talk-show host with helping spur new enrolments and stronger financial results; its stock has gained 39% this year.

Prices for the MSC cruise began at $945 and all of Weight Watchers’ 500 cabins on the cruise have been sold.

MSC was stunned by how quickly half the Weight Watchers’ block sold out, Sasso says. A second MSC-Weight Watchers cruise is planned for November, with additional trips in the offing.

MSC is 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 to embrace this," Sasso says. "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 programmes, 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 says.

The May Divina itinerary will stop in Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Mexico and the Bahamas.

For Geneva-based MSC, and for peers such as Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean Cruises, shifting the public’s notion of cruising as an ocean-going gallery of gluttony to one of an upmarket holiday that embraces fine dining and active lifestyles is critical to attracting a younger, more affluent demographic.

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.

The newer ships also devote increasing real estate to their spas and most have extensive gyms stocked with equipment, Sasso says.

"When you have 20,000-square-foot [6,000m²] 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 is higher than the company would otherwise command for many of its berths for the same week.


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