As soon as you step into Ahoy Cruises on Hillcrest Avenue, you are transported to a maritime oasis, complete with model ships in glass cases, a wall-sized map of the world, and owner Tom Pecena dressed in a blue blazer, white pants, and boat shoes.
Pecena has been offering free cruise consultations at his one-man operation since 1999. His interest in boats dates back to his childhood, when he became fascinated with passenger ships and ocean liners, such as the Titanic and Queen Mary. He began cruising in 1982 and still goes on as many as five a year.
Pecena likes to help customers find a cruise that best suits their preferences. And it doesn’t hurt that cruise lines pay him a commission for each voyage he sells.
To stay in the know, he has studied up on all 65 cruise lines, which comprise around 300 ships.
“There are some I have never sold, but I won’t get caught off guard,” he said. One such trip is a cruise on Swan Hellenic’s Minerva, which offers guest lectures on board for entertainment.
“There are no bad cruises,” he said. “They cater to different demographics and they cater to different expectations.”
Pecena is expert on this too. Summer Caribbean cruises are popular with families, while honeymooners tend to steer toward cruises that depart on Sunday. The 100-plus day cruises are typically populated by retired couples, and 10-day Mediterranean cruises tend to attract people who travel often.
The cruise industry has been expanding since the ‘90s. According to Cruise Market Watch, the number of passengers carried on cruise lines has been increasing by around 6 percent annually from 1990, reaching 23 million people in 2015. To accommodate the increasing demand, ships are “being built in batches,” Pecena said. Cruise Market Watch reports 15 new ships joining the lines in 2016 alone.
Once a vacation for only the incredibly well-off (in the words of Pecena, cruises used to be “about the cost of a Cadillac”), the cruise industry now has something to offer travelers with different budgets.
Pecena said that’s partly because Carnival Cruise Line “came along in the ‘70s and said, ‘Let’s get rid of the coats and ties. Let’s make it fun — drinking fun.’ And that’s what they did.”
Pecena, for his part (a self-proclaimed traditionalist), prefers the classic elegance of black tie dining and the whimsical luxury of crossing the Atlantic on the world’s 10th largest ship. The Queen Mary 2, which just underwent a $130 million facelift, is the world’s last serving ocean liner, since the Queen Elizabeth 2’s retirement in 2008. Every year he climbs aboard for a seven-night cruise from New York to Southampton. “I always meet fascinating people,” Pecena said.
When is the best time to book?
Early. Nine months in advance.
What is the most popular destination?
Alaska is always popular.
Do you have any tips for people interested in cruising?
Don’t book online. Use an agent, any agent, that’s the best advice I can give.
What is your favorite part of cruising?
The food. There’s a huge variety, and it’s the very finest you can get, and it’s different every night.
How do you differentiate yourself from other agencies?
My services are free, for one, and I’ve tried to make it a tangible experience. If you go into most agencies you put money down and leave with maybe a brochure. I’ve got the cruise ship models, so I can show you your cabin. I’ve got the 16-seat theater. People can watch their cruise before they go.
How has the industry changed since you first became an agent?
The ships are bigger. The internet, I don’t want to say it’s competition because it confuses people … There are way too many options. And the dress code is more relaxed.