Cynthia Rodriguez has seen cruise ships around Florida, watched commercials touting the option as a value, and heard stories from friends who have cruised.
But the 44-year-old North Bay Village resident has never set sail herself, unsure about what she'd do on a ship or how much the trip would actually cost. Lately, concerns about a spate of headline-grabbing incidents on cruise ships have added to her uncertainty.
"I've always considered it," said Rodriguez, who works in bookkeeping. "I don't know. I'm afraid I'd be stuck on there and kind of be bored."
With multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, brand partnerships, travel agent help and onboard innovation, cruise lines are desperately trying to woo newcomers such as Rodriguez and the more than 200 million other Americans who have never taken a cruise.
"Getting that first-timer is critically important to us," said Dwain Wall, senior vice president overseeing agency and trade relations for the Cruise Lines International Association. "We know that the future is bright for us if we can get them on their first cruise — they will come back multiple, multiple times."
According to the CLIA, the greatest potential markets for first-time cruisers include the 95 million millennials, a group between the ages of 18 to 37 that accounts for $1.3 trillion in consumer spending; multigenerational families traveling together; social groups taking cruises around a shared interest; and river and specialty cruising.
The number of vacationers who choose a cruise continues to increase both in the U.S. and globally, where the passenger count is expected to increase from 21.3 million in 2013 to 21.7 million this year. But the percentage of vacationers who have taken a cruise has remained relatively stable.
Executives and industry observers say that converting travelers who have always stuck to land can be tricky for many reasons, including unfamiliarity, decades-old stereotypes and, in the past couple of years, negative publicity surrounding cruise-related incidents.
"If you haven't been on a ship, it's very hard to imagine what it's like," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com. "With a hotel or resort, you know what that is — everybody's stayed in one. And you can go and stay in a resort, but you can leave if you want to."
Cruise lines, travel agents and experts say that some of the main points of resistance are people's concerns that they (or their kids) will be bored; that they'll be forced to stick to a strict eating and entertainment schedule; that they won't get enough time to spend at destinations; and that only retirees go on cruises. But while cruise lines have invested billions of dollars in new ships brimming with activities, restaurants and entertainment aimed at young vacationers, that message is still not universally understood.
"From the standpoint of the consumer, the concern is that there's too much risk of disappointment," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for consultancy Hudson Crossing.
For a noncruising public that was already on the fence, the past two years delivered several reasons to stay on shore. In January 2012, the deadly Costa Concordia shipwreck in Italy drew widespread coverage around the world. The following year, fires aboard the Carnival Triumph and Royal Caribbean International's Grandeur of the Seas drew new rounds of coverage. Earlier this year, norovirus sickened about 700 people on a Royal Caribbean ship, forcing the company to end a trip early.
Harteveldt said the mishaps and the attention they drummed up have discouraged travelers from taking that first cruise.
"The concern that people have is: 'If I'm going to spend a lot of money on a cruise and take a week or two of my valuable, hard-earned vacation, why would I want to do something that has even the slightest element of risk involved?' " he said.