Cruise Execs Tout Importance of Travel Agents
by Andrew Sheivachman /

Cruise line CEOs struck a playful tone at the ASTA Global Convention last week, jousting with each other over stealing rival lines’ ideas and the way in which cruisers change as they age.

In a panel discussion led by Travel Weekly’s Arnie Weissman, cruise industry leaders told an audience of travel agents that supporting agents is vital to the growth of the industry – with some going so far as to write off the potential of online sales.

“It is interesting to me and instructive how small the proportion of our cruisers is who actually book over the Internet with us,” said Kevin Sheehan, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines. Sheehan characterized the number of passengers who book online as “trivial.”

“It is remarkable how robust the agents have been in the industry for all of us, despite all the technology trends and people who try to do more themselves.”

Ensuring that travel agents are well-educated and motivated to sell is a work in progress, his colleagues said.

“We need to continue to make sure agents are relevant and that we’re investing in the tools to provide them with everything they need to stay in the game,” said Richard D. Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean International.

Changing channels
The executives played down claims that they are focused on growing their direct business at the expense of other channels such as travel agencies. But they did not suggest they would abandon other distribution channels.

“There is no question that things have evolved over the years and we have to evolve with them; one of the important elements of that is [diverse] channels,” said Sheehan. “We have to value each channel and try to make sure we’re building them, since we’re all not feeling the great demand that we would like to have.”

Of course in the river cruise segment demand has in fact been quite strong, leading to increased profits for agents and cruise lines.

“We have had 35% growth over the last five years, and I attribute that to our great relationship with travel agents,” said Tor Hagen, chair of Viking Cruises.  

More variety
Another major topic of discussion was the importance of offering a variety of product on one vessel.

“When you have guests who like to cruise repeatedly, you have to make it so that they can enjoy several things; you want grandparents to come and watch their grandkids,” said Fain. “Getting the entire family together is important.”

Sheehan jousted with Fain over which company made the first move to accommodate a wider swath of cruisers, drawing guffaws from the audience.

“We have the right situation for the 55 and over families, because we do consider a cruise vacation as multigenerational,” said Sheehan. “We think that having it so that everyone can get together for a reunion or special trip can make our cruises a unique experience.”

We have to value each channel and try to make sure we’re building them, since we’re all not feeling the great demand that we would like to have.

Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian Cruise Lines