This article is from TMR's second Ocean Cruise Report Card for Travel Agents. The report, which was released this week, is the third in a series of supplier policy report cards designed as a useful resource for travel professionals. It gives agents the most up-to-date trade policies of ocean lines and is available here.
Develop close relationships with selected cruise lines, stay current with product and promotions, and talk up the value of using an agent. Those are among steps travel agents can take to succeed in selling ocean cruises in the face of persistent obstacles like rebating, aggressive consumer-direct sales and challenging global conditions, according to executives of leading travel agency groups.
To be fair, the conditions for selling ocean cruises are arguably better for travel agents today than in recent memory.
For one thing, ocean cruise lines more consistently support the travel agency channel, and they do a better job of minimizing cross-channel conflict, agency group executives told Travel Market Report.
“They used to forget to add the tagline ‘Or call your travel agent,’” said Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners. “The cruise lines have come a long way over the last few years in better understanding that we all have to work together.”
But that doesn’t mean some ocean cruise lines aren’t overly aggressive about selling direct to consumers. Because intimate knowledge of their own promotions allows in-house sales staff to be particularly tactical in their approach, agents need to work hard to stay current with cruise line product and promotions.
Focus your efforts
“An agent needs to educate themselves almost daily,” said Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer of TRAVELSAVERS, The Affluent Traveler and NEST.
Given the flood of often short-term promotions, it’s nearly impossible to stay current on all cruise lines, so Mazza advises agents to focus on a small handful of cruise line partners and to build close relationships with them. “Choose one or two cruise lines and ensure you know their promotions every morning. Be a really good partner to them so you can build their volume and work on special incentives.”
Knowledge is power
Matthew Eichhorst, president of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, considers the global geopolitical climate and the constantly evolving nature of the cruise industry as the two biggest issues facing agents selling ocean cruises. In both cases, he said, “the remedy is for agents to educate themselves.”
“If agents are aware of the global geopolitical issues, they will be in a better position to provide their customers with vacation options. For example, Europe is a popular vacation destination, but there is a vast difference between Turkey and Norway from a tourism perspective these days,” he said.
“In another example, there were many islands in the Caribbean that were spared from the hurricanes. Agents who were aware of this would be able to offer their customers alternative Caribbean holiday plans.
“Likewise, if agents keep up-to-speed with new ship innovations, cruise line offerings and promotions, they will be knowledgeable enough to offer their customers a high-value vacation suited to their needs,” Eichhorst said.
Regarding geopolitical issues, particularly the threat of terrorism, Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance for CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc., noted that agents are always faced with customer concerns about safety and security. He urges agents to remind customers that “a cruise vacation is the safest vacation.”
Promote the value of cruising
For Daly, the most pressing challenge for agents selling ocean cruises is spreading the word about the value of a cruise vacation to members of their communities who have never cruised. “It’s almost as if an agent today has to go back to the basics of how agents 30 years ago built their businesses on cruising by doing cruise nights,” Daly said.
Remember to be active on social media during your own travels, Daly advised agents. “Remind customers socially when you’re traveling. Share that on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That’s going to help people visualize themselves consuming.”
Talk up the benefits of using an agent
Agents also need to be vocal about the value of using a travel agent. “When the consumer goes direct, it’s largely because the agent hasn’t made an extraordinary experience for them. They need to be professing that travel agents save you time, energy and money, and that a cruise vacation offers a great value alternative over a land vacation,” Daly said.
Make the right match
At the end of the day, the agent who does their job well delivers value to the client and to the cruise line, and that goes a long way to ensuring the agent’s continued relevance to consumers and their cruise partners.
“The travel agent’s job is to make sure that the client who wants to take a deep water cruise is getting on the right product at the right time and finding the best possible price and amenities out there. That’s where the agent serves a great need for consumers, cutting through and finding what brand is right for a particular family. That’s where the travel agent really does provide great value,” said John Lovell, CTC, president of Travel Leaders Network & Leisure Group.
Cruise lines recognize this value as well, said Fee of Cruise Planners. “I think the cruise lines agree that if you put the customers on the right product, they’re going to have a better experience, and they’ll have more repeat cruisers. It’s about a total experience, and I think we can provide that better than going direct or online.”