Cruise Lines May Be Courting Agents Again

by Maria Lenhart
Cruise Lines May Be Courting Agents Again

The highly publicized cruise ship disasters of the past two years have strengthened cruise lines’ reliance on travel agents, while slowing the growth of online channels for cruise distribution.

That’s one of the findings in PhoCusWright’s (PCW) recently released U.S. Travel Online Review 13th Edition, an annual study of the U.S. online leisure and unmanaged business travel marketplace.

“The tough couple of years for the cruise industry has created an interesting dynamic causing cruise lines to lean more on intermediaries than they otherwise would,” PCW analyst Maggie Rauch told Travel Market Report.

“They are looking at offline channels for support because they feel that consumers need the confidence of talking to a person.”

Relying on agents
Cruise growth stagnated in 2012 and 2013 largely because of ship disasters, according to  the study. (See sidebar.)

It suggested that cruise lines are counting on agents to not only reassure their clients about cruise safety and promote the value of cruising, but to yield the most from transactions that do go forward.

“Since traffic is down, there’s the desire to extract maximum value from each customer,” Rauch said. “The idea is that it helps to get the client on the phone – whether it’s directly with the cruise line or with an agent – and do some upselling.”

Slower drop in share
Traditional agents have steadily lost their share of the cruise distribution market, plummeting from nearly 80% in 2006 to a projected 60% in 2013. The rate of decrease, however, has slowed sharply in the last two years.

Agents’ share dropped by just one percentage point from 61% in 2012 to the anticipated 60% in 2013.

The PCW study predicts that traditional agents will lose share at a somewhat faster rate in 2014, with their overall share slipping to 57%.

OTAs inch ahead
Online travel agencies (OTAs) have benefitted from a weak cruise market that has cruise suppliers relying more on intermediaries, the study found.

While cruise line websites and OTAs evenly split online cruise revenue in 2011, the ratio shifted to 51 to 49 in favor of OTAs in 2012 and is expected to favor OTAs by 52 to 48 in 2013.

Cool reception from agents
Stung by the fact that cruise lines have steadily turned more to direct and online sales, not all agents are responding to cruise lines’ growing need for their support.

As a result, cruise suppliers in 2013, “found it more difficult to lean on agents,” the study noted.

“Some cruise lines have reported that many agents that sell both land and cruise vacations began focusing more on land, and that some agencies which once sold cruises almost exclusively have begun to diversify,” the study said.

However, the study also said that some cruise lines reported stronger relations with “their best agent partners” and that “cruise lines are working more closely with established partners.”

“They are also turning to agents for more help in upselling, giving them more access to onboard services.”

Cruise web strategies
While growth of online bookings on cruise websites has slowed, cruise lines are certain to keep pursuing this channel in earnest, the PCW study concluded. The benefits are too good to resist, it added.

“They [cruise lines] avoid paying commissions and have better opportunities to generate pre-trip sales of shore excursions and onboard packages,” the study said.

When considering future growth, cruise lines are likely to mirror what airlines have already done to drive more bookings to their sites, according to the study.

“Cruise lines will adjust their web strategies to focus on drawing traffic, simplifying the shopping process and selling more than just a berth on a ship,” the study predicted.

Selling ancillaries
“Improving merchandising of ancillaries like shore excursions will be crucial, and cruise suppliers will invest more toward giving shoppers access to the best published airfares.”

Rauch noted that online penetration of cruise bookings is still low – about 17% of the overall market – but said the long-term outlook for growth is positive.

“Prior to the bad cruise ship incidents, there was an online shift going on,” Rauch said. “And that momentum could come back.”

Strategy for tablets
Rauch expects cruise lines to develop strategies for tablets in particular, because tablets may soon overtake PCs for travel bookings.

“People are using their tablets at home, they’re easy to use on the couch or in the kitchen, so this is an important channel that the cruise lines need to look at,” she said.

Yet mobile technology, especially smartphones with their small interface, presents some obstacles for the cruise industry, Rauch added.

“The big challenge for booking cruises on mobile is the complexity of it,” she said. “People want to take their time, do their research and get all the information they need.”

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