It was her firsthand experience of the Galapagos that showed veteran travel agent Damian McCabe, CTC, the sales potential of expedition cruises.
Today, McCabe, CEO of McCabe World Travel, Inc., a Virtuoso agency in McLean, Va., sells 250 to 300 expedition cruises annually, in addition to African safaris and other adventure products.
The price tags are healthy – a minimum of $10,000 for two – yielding healthy commissions, and so is the repeat potential.
McCabe, who founded the agency in 1988 and now has a staff of 28 travel advisors, spoke with Travel Market Report about her secrets of success.
"I was lucky enough 12 years ago to lead a small group on Lindblad Expeditions to the Galapagos and I got hooked," McCabe said. "One of my clients booked the trip; I helped him put the group together and was lucky enough to travel with them."
She also took one of her daughters on the trip and, as a result, learned a lesson that has served her well.
"I realized at that time how fabulous an expedition trip was for all ages, from my 7-year-old daughter to one repeat Lindblad guest on the cruise who was 92,” she said.
Fast forward to 2012, when one of McCabe World Travel’s bread-and-butter products is the Galapagos for families. In addition to selling Lindblad, she books a variety of adventure destinations on Orion Expedition Cruises, American Safari Cruises and Aqua Expeditions.
What’s different about expedition cruises?
"We don't call it a cruise but an expedition trip," McCabe said.
"These ships can get into some very interesting and intimate locations the big ships can't get into. The cruise is more about the destination than the ship itself. The ship gets you to the destination and then you are immersed in the destination.
"It's all about what they will learn in the location," she said. "They are not going on a trip to get a suntan."
Other advantages are the fact that excursions are included in the cruise fare, and passengers don't have to worry about dressing up for dinner.
Building family memories
When pitching to clients, McCabe also emphasizes the once-in-a-lifetime and family togetherness aspects.
"With older clients, we tell them how a trip like this builds memories, and in taking the kids or grandkids you are hitting a homerun. You know what your costs are upfront. And a child is going to remember a trip like this – it' so unusual – whether you go to Alaska or Papua New Guinea.”
McCabe's clients come from across the U.S., and nearly all her business is via referrals.
"We always suggest to clients they may know someone who wants to come too, and we pick up friends and relatives from across the country," she said.
The agency also is listed as a preferred agent with most of the expedition lines and major cruise lines in the luxury category.
McCabe doesn’t do much social media marketing, other than maintaining a Facebook page.
Who is the target client?
Expedition clients tend to be well-traveled, McCabe said.
More than half of her clients have cruised before. Some are looking for what she called the "anti-cruise," while others enjoy both traditional and expedition cruises.
Other clients thought they would never cruise, but are particularly interested in an expedition itinerary, she said.
Those who book these cruises are the same types of people who would book safaris or hiking and biking trips, she said.
Staff training is key
Staff training is a big reason for her success selling expedition trips, McCabe said.
Agents at her agency undergo five hours of training per week, whether by meeting with visiting suppliers, who come in several times a year, or sitting in on webinars by vendors, The Travel Institute or Virtuoso.
Most of her agents have been on an expedition trip and can speak from their own experience, "including how it was life-changing in some cases or such an interesting trip in other cases," she said.
Everyone makes mistakes, and McCabe said she has learned some lessons along the way. For instance, "We failed recently to tell someone that ships in the Galapagos don't have locks on the cabin doors. The client had a real problem with that. We had to calm him down a bit when he got there."
She has also learned the hard way that expedition cruises may not be the best bet for some very high-end luxury clients, even those who ask for them.
"One didn't like it. We had explained that meal choices are limited and cabins are small, but the client came home unhappy. We knew it wasn't right for her and it wasn't."
McCabe said it's important to tell clients that expedition ships are a get-what-you-pay-for kind of trip.
"There are more basic and budget-oriented trips, and in those cases the naturalists might not be quite as experienced, the food not quite as good and the facilities onboard definitely not as good."
Expedition ships range from small and rudimentary to small and casually luxurious, she said.
While suites on expedition ships meet the luxury market's need for space – providing larger hotel room-like accommodations – it's important to remember the public rooms and food are the same for everyone onboard. So don't promise the client luxury, she advised.
Food on expedition ships tends to be good and plentiful, but not gourmet, she added.
"The commission potential is huge when booking a trip like this. You're looking at a minimum of $10,000 for two people. Selling this kind of travel is great for your bottom line," she said.
Some expedition companies do pay override commissions based on volume, she added.
McCabe said even at $5,000 and up per person for the expedition cruises she gets a good number of repeaters.
"Some may do one expedition trip because we tell them how extraordinary it is and some will do one every year," she said. "We have one customer who has been on Lindblad 25 times and has been on Orion as well."