Sometimes the best partnerships happen by accident. It was like that for Michael Consoli, who in 2010 won a Viking river cruise, and after nine years as a travel agent sailed with the company for the first time. Just five years later, he sold more than a million dollars’ worth of Viking cruises and became their top salesperson of the year.
Consoli’s entry into travel started with—what else?—a cruise vacation in 2001. He came home so enthralled with the experience that he started working as a travel agent part-time; in 2004 he quit his job and dove in full-time, working from a home office.
But he didn’t really know Viking until a serendipitous event brought them together in 2010. At the Cruise Planners national convention, his table at dinner won a free cruise on Viking. “So we all went together and I fell in love with the concept of river cruising,” he says.
Determined to expose his existing high-end client base to the river cruise product—but with little experience in selling river cruises himself—he was happy to allow Viking to teach him the ropes.
“Viking was the most receptive of the river cruise lines to helping me build that business,” he says. First came an event for his existing client base, to which he invited all his customers. “Seventy people came, and we sold some cruises that very first night.”
Since then he is “constantly” doing events in partnership with Viking—and with local businesses as well. “We partner with local wine stores or restaurants to invite their database of customers, and I share my contacts. We hold the event at their restaurant or at their wine store. That’s where we build our business, by pulling new customers to the events.”
Consoli declined to comment on exactly how much he has sold this year, but said the number is running 30% higher than last year, thanks to “our events and just promoting river cruising in general.”
In the end, of course, it’s up to the clients to choose the cruise line on which they wish to sail, and different clients have different needs that make the choice unique.
“I am selling river cruising, and I fit my clients to the right product,” Consoli says. “But I do like to sell Viking because its product is so consistent and my clients come back happy. The river and the ocean product are both a great value, and clients get a lot for their money.”
Asked if Viking’s commission rate is higher than the other lines, he laughed. “I don't even know the actual percentage on most ships. Commissions are not that important to me; I don't decide based on commissions. I sell based on client need, on what fits the client’s needs the best. But Viking knows its niche, and it's to take people out to new places every year.”
Indeed, that’s a goal that fits well with Consoli’s personality: “I'm never satisfied with my numbers, so I am always open to ideas vendors have to grow my business.”
To keep his own numbers growing, he plans to continue doing events—“the event thing has really worked well for me”—as well as vendor-specific direct-mail pieces, which also have been “very successful.” In slow periods he’ll pick up the phone and make some cold calls.
“People are a little afraid of river cruising but everyone wants to go, so it's part of our job to have an understanding and tell them how it's going to go and what they are going to see,” he says. “It's a very fast-growing segment. So the easy way is to look at your existing database and see whom you can pull who has done the Mediterranean and Northern Europe and might want to go somewhere new.”
For next year, he said, he is seeing strong interest in Alaska, and the Viking Asia itinerary “is fantastic.”
As for his own business, he will continue to work alone, from home. “I never had a storefront, I'd rather put the money into advertising,” Consoli says. “Early on I was very apprehensive to tell people I work from home but no one sees it as a negative. For them the benefit is that they can always reach me.”