When former Starwood Hotels executive Chris Austin left his 30-year career in hospitality last year to accept the senior sales post at Seabourn Cruise Line, some travel agents told him it was a shame he was leaving the hotel industry. His reply? “I’m not, because what we have is basically a floating ultra-luxury hotel. It is all hospitality, travel and tourism.”
Austin, who is Seabourn’s senior vice president of global marketing and sales, says the move to cruise is also a continuation of his longtime work with travel agents. “Travel professionals have been at the heart of what I’ve focused on for years. For Seabourn, travel professionals are critically important –– they’re driving significant business,” Austin told Travel Market Report.
Now, Austin is looking to travel agents to help Seabourn drive business from luxury travelers who are non-cruisers, and he’s recommending a sales approach that he thinks will prove persuasive.
Chris Austin, senior vice president of global marketing and sales for Seabourn
Luxury cruise growth
In a time of rapid expansion, growing the market for luxury cruises is critical. “By 2022, there will be a 29 percent increase in luxury cruise, so we’ve got to attract new-to-cruise [travelers],” Austin said.
Seabourn is among those expanding. In January, the company christened the newest member of its fleet, the 600-guest Seabourn Encore; and next spring, a sister ship, the 600-guest Seabourn Ovation, will make her debut.
The two new ships bring the cruise line’s fleet to five ships, nearly doubling Seabourn’s capacity in less than 18 months. “It will be the newest, most modern fleet in the luxury cruise market,” Austin said.
Selling luxury cruise to first-timers
Austin sees it as Seabourn’s job to train travel professionals in how to sell luxury cruises to first-timers –– not just for the cruise line’s benefit, but for agents’ as well.
“If we’re going to be great partners to travel professionals, we have to help them grow their business. Trading their clients from one brand to our brand doesn’t really help them. We need to help them grow, which means finding new-to-cruise.”
Austin recommends that agents “crack the door open” with non-cruising luxury clients by stimulating their interest before mentioning cruise. “When you pique curiosity, then the opportunity to close the sale becomes a lot easier.”
The pitch: what to say to non-cruisers
He outlined an agent-client conversation that might go like this:
Travel agent to luxury land client: “I’d like to introduce you to an experience that you’re going to love. You’ll have the opportunity for a guaranteed reservation at a Thomas Keller restaurant. You’re going to enjoy a beautiful spa experience by Dr. Andrew Weil. I know you love yoga, and there’ll be morning yoga class and meditation. I know you love to visit World Heritage Sites, and you’ll get to do that in partnership with UNESCO.”
Client: “Well where is this?”
Agent: “It’s on the Seabourn Ovation [or the Seabourn Encore or the Seabourn Odyssey], and it will take you to some of the world’s most amazing locations.”
Alternatively, the agent could follow up by saying, “Where would you like to go next?”
If the client answers that they’d love to visit, say, Alaska, the agent might reply, “Well it happens that the Seabourn Sojourn will be in Alaska next year, and you’ll get all those things I’ve just talked about, and the itinerary will take you to places you could never go on land.”
At that point, the client might be interested but still raise objections, Austin noted. “They may say, ‘Well, I’ve never cruised, and I don’t want to stand in buffet lines, and I may get seasick.’” Agents can overcome such objections by countering with the facts.
"What we have is basically a floating ultra-luxury hotel."
Seabourn’s expanded sales team
Austin’s got a newly expanded sales team to help him reach retail travel professionals with his message. Earlier this year, Seabourn added a dedicated key accounts team to service its highest-performing agent partners. Previously those accounts were serviced by a sales team that Seabourn shared with sister company, Holland America Line.
While a shared team will continue to service Seabourn’s smaller agent accounts, Austin said that “most travel professionals in North America have a point of contact within our company.”
Personal relationships between Seabourn’s sales team and agents are essential in Austin’s view. “I want travel professionals to be able to reach out to us, to trust us, to know that we’re agile and responsive.”
Austin also wants travel agents to know what differentiates Seabourn, and that includes its two newest ships.
Both Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Ovation feature the same layout as their smaller predecessors. “We wanted to make sure it was an evolution, not a revolution,” said Austin. Designed by Adam Tihany, who is well-known for his hotel designs, the new vessels are meant to evoke the feeling of private, ultra-luxury yachts.
While larger than their 458-guest counterparts, the Encore and Ovation will still have access to smaller harbors and ports than most cruise ships, an important differentiator for Seabourn. Both vessels also feature Seabourn’s marine platform, which allows passengers to participate in watersports such as kayaking and windsurfing while in port.
Another distinction that Austin emphasized is the cruise line’s level of service. Seabourn’s onboard crew members are trained to look for opportunities to wow guests by creating what the line calls “Seabourn moments.” Such moments might be as simple as catering to an individual’s tastes in beverages or as involved as orchestrating a surprise vow renewal ceremony via Skype for a couple forced by illness to be apart on what was to have been an anniversary cruise.
“To me, coming out of the luxury hotel industry, this is the true definition of what I describe as ‘intuitive personalized service,’” Austin said.
Delivering that level of service is key to Seabourn’s partnership with agents as well, he suggested. “When a travel professional has entrusted their valued client with us, our part of the package is not just compensating them but exceeding their guests’ expectations so they come back again.”
Should an agent’s client choose to book their next cruise while onboard, Seabourn will respect the agent-client relationship in perpetuity, Austin said. “Guests can book onboard and the travel professional is always compensated, for infinite. We don’t have two goes and you’re out.”