A new cruise-focused OTA that will use predictive technology to deliver a personalized, content-rich shopping experience, while relying in part on independent travel agents for customer support, is drawing mixed reactions from the travel trade.
Set for a soft launch in January, CruisingStore.com is an initiative of the Miami technology firm Milepost Group Inc. under the leadership of industry veterans, among them Vincent Cirel, former CIO for Norwegian Cruise Line and CruisingStore.com’s founder, CEO and vice chairman. Former Norwegian executive Kevin Sheehan serves as non-executive chairman.
CruisingStore.com is betting that its “intuitive, easy-to-use” website will differentiate it by removing the complexities of online search that often deter potential first-time cruisers, said co-founder and chief development officer Dwain Wall. An improved online experience will allow cruise lines to make significant inroads into the huge, but difficult to reach, market of non-cruisers, said Wall, a former senior VP with CLIA.
CruisingStore.com is CLIA-certified and IATAN-accredited and has been licensed as a travel agency in states that require licensing, according to Wall. But unlike most retail travel sellers, it is built on a “shared-customer distribution model” in which its cruise partners will be given access to customer data as well as direct and immediate access to customers for post-sale follow-up.
Some travel agents said they welcom the new venture, while others predicted the complexity of the cruise product would impede the success of any online cruise seller.
“There are so many nuances to each particular ship. Knowing what I know, and all the questions I need to [be able to answer] about each ship, I have a hard time understanding how an automated system could answer those things,” said Robert Romano, a partner at Fugazi Travel in San Francisco.
How it will work
Wall said that CruisingStore.com brings much-needed technological sophistication to cruise distribution and will give users a very different type of online experience than they’ve had in the past.
“Most sites today rely on the customer choosing a date, destination, and type of ship or price point. We will have those types of search options, but mostly we’re going to let the customer tell us, based on where they’re navigating to, what they’re interested in. It’s really being able to recognize the emotions the customer is having online and using that to help drive them to the choices best suited to them.”
“Deep data and smart technology” will feed users relevant content, including videos, photos and past-customer comments. Content about cruises and destinations will be provided both by cruise lines and a still-to-be-announced third party content provider.
Users will also be connected via online chat to past cruisers as well as to individuals trained in cruise line products who will push content to users while helping them navigate the sales process.
A third level of customer support will be provided via chat, and in some cases by phone, by commissioned independent travel agents who have completed CLIA and cruise line training and have been vetted by CruisingStore.com.
High-end customers with complex or high-touch travel needs will be steered to the full-service Fort Lauderdale agency Galaxy Travel & Cruises, which is being acquired by CruisingStore.com. Wall is a former partner in the agency.
CruisingStore.com will use proprietary technology provided by Deloitte Consulting. The platform will deliver what CruisingStore.com calls “the ultimate in personalization and intelligent, digitally-driven engagement.” Revelex will provide back-end booking technology.
Good for the industry
Jason Sarracini, COO of Tully Luxury Travel in Toronto, was among those who were upbeat about CruisingStore.com. “It’s challenging the norm. I think that’s good for our industry,” he said. Whether CruisingStore.com succeeds will depend on the quality of the user experience, “and whether users trust what they’re seeing and getting.”
Even so, Sarracini said, “I don’t think an online travel agency for cruises will ever replace travel professionals, especially in the premium and luxury market. Like any good service-oriented profession, it’s all about the experience and the relationships and the web cannot replace that.”
Toby Nash, owner and manager of Cruise & Travel Masters in Salt Lake City, said she welcomes the competition, especially if CruisingStore.com invests sufficient marketing dollars to attract new customers to cruise. “I hope it will grow the industry and fill the ships and I’ll get my piece of that market. I’m all for better technology [because] we’ll have access to that better technology down the road.”
The human touch
It also takes a professional travel consultant to explain to consumers the small differences between otherwise similar cruise products, said Shari Marsh of Shari Marsh Travel, a Cruise Holidays agency in Raleigh, NC. “I’ve been on 55 cruises, seven river cruises, four river cruise lines. I know the differences. That’s the difference; that’s the human touch.”
Overwhelming and often confusing choices in cruise cabins is another factor favoring the services of traditional travel professionals, agents said. “One of the questions I get asked is why there are eight categories of balconies on Oasis of the Seas. People are very confused by that,” Marsh said. “And sometimes the cruise lines and I disagree on what’s a good [cabin] location.”
Wall agreed that cruise shoppers often need personal guidance through confusing choices. He said that’s why CruisingStore.com isn’t relying solely on technology. “It could be technology only [for customers], but most likely it’s going to be a combination of chat and/or voice to help explain the differences.
“I believe agents are necessary in the shopping path––when the customer wants it,” Wall said. “I think we have the best of both worlds. We are not trying to disintermediate agents from the selling of cruises. We think we’re going to grow the cruise space and that’s good for agencies. I don’t think they have anything to fear."