New ships are christened every year, and older ships are being overhauled and reintroduced to appeal to new target markets. Dining options and itineraries change regularly and seasonally. It’s a lot to keep up with, and consumers need travel agents intimately educated in the details as they consider booking a cruise.
To become knowledgeable, thousands of agents rely every year on cruise fams, where they can experience firsthand the ships, staterooms and ports their clients might want to book.
“Cruise lines do change. You may be selling an outdated concept if you haven’t gone on board in a while,” said Craig Satterfield, a cruise expert and author of “Confessions from the Cruise Scholar,” a book about his 35 years selling cruise travel. “You may be missing benefits, or selling benefits that don’t exist anymore.” Satterfield is a CLIA elite cruise counselor with Sure Cruise and Cruise Travel Outlet, Las Vegas.
“It’s hard to learn all of the differences,” agreed Vicki Tomasino, regional vice president for Carnival’s Western U.S. sales, who heads up CCL’s travel agent fam program. “All the cruise lines do things differently, from waterslides and sports parks, to the theaters, alternative restaurants. We encourage agents to immerse themselves in the product.”
But attending cruise fams can be extremely expensive. Agents have to pick up the cost of airfare, and they have to be away from their offices for three to eight days, which means not taking customer calls and booking revenue-producing client trips.
“Cruise fams are not a freebie anymore. They’re a business trip,” Satterfield said.
As a result, the cruise fam landscape has changed, and both agents and cruise lines are adapting to ways to continue educating agents, while still allowing agents to manage their customers.
Cruise lines provide multiple streams for educating agents
Carnival Cruise Lines is a perfect example of how the industry has evolved to accommodate the changing landscape. Primarily because airlines no longer have liberal free or discounted agent ticket policies, most agents educate themselves on Carnival via ship inspections. “The days of free or discounted agent fares are long gone, unfortunately,” Tomasino said.
Ship inspections typically include lunch and a tour, for which agents register at the events page on the GoCCL.com agent website. Some agents are invited directly by a Carnival business development manager.
As a result, “now, the agents who tend to have the most intimate knowledge of a particular cruise line are those within a five- or six-hour drive of a port city,” Tomasino said. Carnival hosts ship inspection events every month in Florida, Galveston, New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. The downside for Carnival is that “because we don’t charge for ship inspections, and it’s a drive market” the rate of no-shows runs as high as 40% to 50%.
The company also recently relaunched short weekend ship inspections tied to training. “We just did our first one in New Orleans this year in March,” said Tomasino, hosting 125 agents. The cruise line negotiated a group rate at a New Orleans hotel for Friday arrival, and Saturday and Sunday ship tours.
The event was such a success, Tomasino said, that Carnival is looking to begin scheduling similar events for 2017, in either Orlando, Miami, Galveston or Los Angeles.