Travel agents were at the heart of the action during CLIA’s Cruise 360 Conference in Fort Lauderdale this week.
“Being a travel agent has always been so much more than booking a trip and delivering tickets to your clients…you are the connecting to the consumers on which our business and collective success depends,” CLIA president and CEO Cindy D’Aoust said to attendees during the conference’s first keynote session on Thursday.
Last year alone, CLIA member lines sailed more than 24.6 million ocean passengers, with 10 million leaving from a U.S. port. In the next 10 years, the industry is expected to produce more than 200,000 new passenger births with 26 new ships slated to be delivered in 2017 alone.
And with a growing industry comes an increasing need for travel agents.
“Whether you specialize in a specific cruise line, ship, region, or demographic you are only as knowledgeable as the information you consume…that’s why we’re here,” D’Aoust said.
Agents are “the key to making the relationship between the cruise experience and the guest work. We think it has to start before the guest ever steps onboard the ship,” Carnival Corp. CEO and president Arnold Donald said.
The challenge that agents have in this climate is to stay informed on an expanding range of new products. And they can do that by not only showcasing new cruise line innovations but also leveraging new technology to their benefit.
Technology takes center stage
In the keynote session, led by World Travel Holding’s Drew Daly, ocean cruise executives from across the industry talked about how technology is driving the travel agent role forward.
“It’s not about technology for technology’s sake,” Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy said. For Carnival and Duffy, technology is most relevant to travel agents in that it “allows us to connect to people.”
“For travel agents, technology is now a tool for you to find people who have maybe never considered a cruise, to promote the things that you’re doing,” she said.
Norwegian Cruise Line president Andy Stuart said one of the most frustrating things cruise lines see is travel agents not taking advantage of the “huge amount of money” that cruise lines are investing in technology for agents.
“Digital ads, Facebook posts, you name it we have it. And it’s really a fantastic tool for you to take our story out to your customers,” he said. “Take advantage of it.”
Azamara Club Cruises president and CEO Larry Pimentel added that agents are best served using technology to better understand a product.
“I think those things help them understand because your primary role is a value interpreter – it’s hard to articulate value if you can’t interpret it,” he said. One thing agents can do is experience a product in virtual reality, something that Azamara began offering four years ago.
President of MSC North America Roberto Fusaro said that MSC’s use of technology will eliminate many tasks that soaked up time better spent enjoying a vacation, giving a guest and their agent a head start on vacation planning
“Technology will allow guests to plan their activities, decide what they want to do, give them more freedom and know where their children are,” he said.
MSC’s new MSC for Me program will also offer facial recognition “so our crew will serve them better.”
In terms of agents using social media, none of the four executives on the panel advised agents to sell on Facebook or Twitter. Rather, they said to use it to make connections.
“Engaging is the most important thing. You have to engage your audience, understand what they need and give that to them. Give them content that’s relevant,” Fusaro said.
Showing that you’re an aggregator of that kind of valuable content will only raise your profile in your client’s eyes.
“Travel agents are trusted advisors – the more you can generate tidbits of that information, you’ll build a relationship over time,” Duffy said.