Larry Pimentel never made plans to work in travel, nor did he ever imagine that one day he would be leading an international travel company like Azamara Club Cruises. “There was never even a thought,” he said. “There was never even an aspiration. It came accidentally.”
Pimentel, who has spent more than three decades in travel and has been the president and CEO at Azamara since 2009, initially thought he would spend his life working as a teacher and got his professional start doing just that in California, eventually becoming the youngest head of the Social Studies department at the third largest private school in America.
Things would change when Pimentel sought to find a way to help his students travel, to see things they were talking about in class, outside of a textbook. “I thought, ‘What could happen if I convinced social districts to put together travel programs to Europe?’” Pimentel said.
To do so, Pimentel would start a travel initiative, a pseudo-Mary Kay cosmetics hierarchy program, where students would sell to other students, to do just that. The program took off, with thousands of students passing through Europe because of it, giving him the start of a career that would bring him from Classic Custom Vacations to Seabourn to Cunard to SeaDream to Azamara.
But, even 30 years removed from that private school in California, Pimentel’s roots are still apparent. “I’m every bit of an educator as I was 30 or 40 years ago,” he noted.
Selling what counts and not what discounts
Pimentel’s education background shines through the most when he’s talking about travel agents and the lessons he wants to pass on, including realizing that the value of the profession goes far beyond just getting the best price. “Your client is never going to remember what they paid for their vacation,” he said, but they will remember what they did, who they were with, and what they felt.
He continued: “The best agents will sell what counts and not what discounts … the best value isn’t always the best price. Agents are value interpreters. A lot of agents sell from their own pocketbooks and experiences in place of interpreting value. That’s wrong.”
An agent’s relationship with a client isn’t over after booking a trip, nor is it over after an agent believes he or she has sufficiently qualified their client. Things, and people, change, Pimentel said. It’s the agent’s responsibility to keep up with the changes both in the products in the marketplace and in the lives of their clients.
Pimentel relayed a story of one agent who learned that lesson the hard way. That travel agent spotted a previous client in a Safeway grocery store while shopping and the two got to chatting. “The customer tells her she’s really excited, that she had just booked a cruise,” but the agent hadn’t heard from the client in years. It turned out that the customer used a different agency — “because the agent kept on selling Carnival instead of evolving with the client.”
Agents have to see themselves more as just a means to an end for their clients’ vacations. They have to realize that if they only “take their booking as a vendor — as a processor — you will die,” Pimentel said, adding that, “I don’t need an agent for point-to-point air tickets.”
Authentic experiences surrounded by human connection
Azamara helps travel advisors meet the deeper needs of their clients by providing immersive travel experiences and helping travelers make local connections.
The line’s latest ship, Azamara Pursuit, entered the fleet last summer and is currently sailing in Europe. It was originally built in 2001 and at one point or another, has sailed with Oceania Cruises, Renaissance Cruises, Princess Cruises, P&O, and most recently, Fathom.
Before it jointed the fleet, Pursuit underwent a complete bow-to-stern refit at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Belfast, which was once the shipbuilding capital of the world, was chosen, Pimentel said, because he felt that, “Irish pride went into construction of the ship.”
Picking Belfast to refit Pursuit into the ship it is today falls into the whole philosophy behind Azamara, which is one of the brands that exists under the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. umbrella. It’s all about providing people with authentic local experiences surrounded by human connection, whether it’s onboard or onshore.
That means staying longer in ports, featuring more overnights on itineraries, and offering night touring to guests. “This is about catering to those who want to see the destination,” Pimentel said.
Most recently, Azamara has launched City Stays, a pre- and post-trip program created through a partnership with Cox & Kings. Highlights of the new program include itineraries in Singapore, Barcelona, and Rome.