Cruise Incentives: A Promising Specialty for Travel Agents
by Ana Figueroa

This is the second in a series on cruise meetings and incentives.

As the cruise industry sets its sights on the meetings and incentive market with renewed vigor, there are expanded opportunities for cruise-selling travel agents to reel in business clients.

“Corporate events and incentive travel represent a promising growth area for business cruising,” said Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association.  “Two-thirds of travel agents report they are likely to book a meeting or incentive cruise in the next 12 months,”

In contrast to cruise meetings, incentive programs on cruise ships have a long-standing history. But the market has evolved considerably in recent years, as has cruise ship design.

Agencies breaking in  
While more travel agencies are breaking into the incentive business, those with long experience in the industry caution that there are challenges for smaller players.

“The obstacles to entering the business are a little higher with incentives,” said David Kliman, president of The Kliman Group, a meetings consultancy firm. “Big companies already have deeply-embedded long term buyer-supplier relationships."

Retail agents need to look at their portfolio of relationships, he advised.

“The incentives industry is very relationship-driven,” Kliman said. “Agents need to determine what services they can realistically provide to meeting professionals before they pick up the phone to ask for business.”

Moving into incentives
Among travel agents who have found success with incentives is Kathy Fitzgibbons who segued from a retail travel agency to Maritz Travel in St. Louis, the country’s largest incentive company.

She learned the business by working first with incentive “winners” who called in to register for their company’s incentive programs. Eventually she worked her way up to become Maritz’ Travel Buyer and Cruise Specialist, serving as liaison with global cruise suppliers.

Fitzgibbons’ clients come from a number of industries. They include the financial and automobile sectors, as well as the direct-sell market, such as Avon. Her average group size is 200 guests, but she recently blocked 600 cabins for an incentive event on a Mediterranean cruise.  

Once aboard the ship, incentive programs run the gamut from casual to the meetings-intense. But they all share a common feature: participants have worked hard for the trip.

“It’s exciting for someone to know that their reward is to go on a cruise,” Fitzgibbons said.  “Usually, once the spouses find out that a cruise is involved, they really apply the pressure to win.”

Promoting cruise incentives
Because cruising in general has yet to attract more than 20% of North American travelers, there is plenty of potential to grow the incentive market, Fitzgibbons noted.

“I try to incorporate cruises whenever possible when we are making a proposal for a client,” she said. “Sometimes, the company has not even considered it as a possibility.”

Value and diversity are top selling points for cruise ship venues, she added.

Popular cruise choices
The lion’s share of her incentive programs take place in the Caribbean or Alaska, Fitzgibbons said, adding that the Mediterranean has seen resurgence and the Adriatic is particularly hot.

River cruising is also attracting the incentive market, according to Fitzgibbons.

“In the 1990s we did a lot of river cruises, but the business went away,” she said. “Now, new vessels are being launched with lots of balconies, wi-fi, even alternate dining venues. And, the ships stop at all the little towns along the Danube, which is obviously something that larger ships don’t do.”

More than simply travel
Agents interested in cruise incentive sales should keep in mind that travel is only one piece of the business. Top firms offer full-service solutions that include creating and monitoring the underlying sales incentive programs.  

Successful incentive planning involves overseeing activities both on and off the ship.

“We work hard to create exclusive group experiences on shore excursions,” said Fitzgibbons. “We can do that because of our strong relationships with the top ground suppliers. We’re constantly trying to provide that ‘wow’ factor.”

(See related story: “Cruise Meetings Sail Onto Meeting Planners’ Radar, September 13, 2012”)

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