Travel Agents and Cruise Lines Look Ahead at CLIA Cruise 360

by Daniel McCarthy
Travel Agents and Cruise Lines Look Ahead at CLIA Cruise 360

Business is strong, travel agents are thriving, and 2018 is off to an amazing start. That was the message from cruise line executives gathered in Ft. Lauderdale this week for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Cruise 360 annual conference.

“We had a couple years where Europe has been soft … Caribbean is still soft … I stay awake at night thinking about the amount of product that is coming into this marketplace, but business feels good,” said Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-owner and co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel.

In a panel moderated by Wilson Wetty — and including Holland America Line’s Orlando Ashford, Royal Caribbean’s Michael Bayley, Celebrity Cruises’ Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Cunard's Josh Leibowitz, and MSC Cruises’ Rick Sasso — all expressed optimism for the year ahead and offered agents some words of advice on how to deal with a cruise industry that is rapidly filling with new brands and products.

The ‘why’ behind the brands
One thing that could make agents better advisors for their clients and better partners for the lines is understanding what makes one line different from the rest.

“For many years, Celebrity has tried to carve out a place that we could uniquely own with a modern luxury platform,” Lutoff-Perlo said.

Celebrity has continued to pursue that goal with its newest launch, Celebrity Edge, which is set to officially debut at the end of 2018. The purpose behind the design and layout of Edge — which features more dining choices than ever and a live music area, meeting space, and an open-air dining venue on a moving platform dubbed the Magic Carpet —  was to be uniquely Celebrity.

“It’s our responsibility to ensure we continue to do things that solidify the differentiation between us … my biggest frustration is the copying that goes on in the industry,” she added.

After 145 years in service, Holland America believes its place in the industry is to continue to do the things that has made it so successful over the last century-and-a-half or so, though the line will continue to look for additions through some partnerships such as the one it has with O Magazine.

“Ultimately, we need to make sure we’re building the right product to compete against land-based vacations,” Ashford said.

Cunard, a line that existed even before Holland America, is hoping to continue its success and its legacy in the industry by innovating and adapting, while also staying in touch with “why we traveled — the meaning of travel,” said Josh Leibowitz, senior vice president, Cunard North America.

On the other end of the spectrum, MSC Cruises, which has only been making a push in North America for the last 14 years, goes by a different mantra. “You heard the phrase, 'If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.' We go by a different phrase, 'If it’s not broken, make it better,'” said Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises.

With 14 ships entering service over the last 14 years and ten more set to come, MSC is busy designing ships that will not only fit in the marketplace now, but will be relevant in the future.

“The types of ships that we’re designing are different platforms to address what we think cruising will be like for the next 20 years,” Sasso said. “We’ve said, let’s just keep making it better.”

The road ahead for agents
MSC may have the most ambitious expansion plan in the industry, but every single line is ready to grow.

According to Cunard’s Leibowitz, last year there were 25 million cruisers around the world; and in the next five years, the industry will need seven million more, most of them from the U.S.

“What we need from the travel agents … it’s because you play a role in helping people decide what they do on vacation. There are plenty of people that fill all of our ships and all of our ships are unique,” he said. “If you want to double your business over the next five years, you have the opportunity to do it.”

To do so, agents need to convince people who have not dipped a toe in the cruise world to try it.

Lutoff-Perlo, who started her career as an agent and then went on to become a district sales manager, said she remembers a time when people weren’t as “open as they needed to be to cruising.” And that she still “can’t believe, 33 years later, people still say, 'Cruising isn’t for me.'”

For cruise lines to be successful in this growth phase, they will need good agents to bring those first-time clients to ports.

“What we are trying to carve out is that we’ve done everything we believe we can, going after an affluent traveler, with hardware … to get them to look at that ship and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m wrong, cruising is for me,’” added Lutoff-Perlo.

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