Selling Ocean Cruises – Issues for Travel Agents

This article, highlighting the issues faced by agents selling ocean cruises, will be part of the second edition of Travel Market Report’s Ocean Cruise Report Card for Travel Agents.

The new report follows TMR’s first River Cruise Report Card for Travel Agents that was released earlier this year. The latest Ocean Report will be released on TravelMarketReport.com, on Monday, February 26th. Keep on an eye out on this space, or become a subcriber, for more updates.

Ocean cruises have long been the lifeblood of many leisure travel agencies. And for good reason. Ocean cruises are a perennially popular product that agents can count on to deliver high levels of customer satisfaction, repeat bookings and steady commissions.

But selling ocean cruises isn’t always smooth sailing. There are obstacles. Some are a direct result of cruise line practices, while others stem from marketplace conditions.

We asked executives from six agency groups what they consider the top issues currently facing travel agents who sell ocean cruises. Here’s what they said.

Rebating and discounting
Rebating by big box stores and OTAs probably represents the largest loss of volume to agencies, said Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer of TRAVELSAVERS, The Affluent Traveler and NEST. “The big box retailers and the OTAs continue to be a problem, with them being allowed to rebate and to offer promotions not in the marketplace or prior to their [general] release.”

Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, also cited this issue. “Right now, some of the big box stores have an advantage. It’s not just that they’re giving customers rebates on cruise fares; in some cases, they’re doing so with credits or cash cards for use inside their own store, she said. “They’re earning dollars on that, where if we give back a credit we don’t earn any dollars on it. That is not an even playing field.”

Flood of promotions and fares
Keeping track of multiple cruise line promotions and incentives, then factoring them all in to find the best value for the client is often daunting for agents, said John Lovell, CTC, president of Travel Leaders Network & Leisure Group.

“There’s so many offers out in the marketplace at any given time,” Lovell said. “From an agent’s perspective, it’s just a deluge of information. Especially in Wave Season, everybody wants that share of their mind at the same time. The biggest challenge is time management and staying on top of everything.”

Explaining cruise fares or revised rules to clients is also time-consuming. Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, cited the recent addition by some cruise lines of nonrefundable deposit fares. “The cruise line might have two prices, one more amenity-driven, one price-driven. First, you have to explain that to the consumer. Then, there’s another layer of ‘if you pay now it’s cheaper but it’s nonrefundable.’ It’s not a bad thing – agents like the nonrefundable fares – but it’s a little longer sell time, a little more explaining,” Rice said.

Direct bookings
Persistent consumer misperceptions about the cost of booking through an agent are a hindrance, Fee said. “There’s so many cruisers out there who feel that by going direct they’re going to get the better deal, the better amenity. I feel that this challenges the travel agent community the most,” Fee said. “As an industry, we need to be do a better job of coming together and making the public more aware.”

In some cases, the cruise lines themselves are the problem. In-house sales teams at certain cruise lines are overly pushy when it comes to consumer-direct sales, even when the customer already has a travel agent, said Mazza.

“If the consumer has called the cruise line, even if it’s to get a little information, or if they sign up for emails, they get a call within 30 minutes,” explained Mazza. “Even if the client says, ‘I’m working with an agent,’ they are extremely aggressive [with offers].”

Global conditions
From geopolitical turmoil and terrorism to catastrophic weather, the unpredictability of global conditions is always an issue.

“Vacation choices are often influenced by environmental and economic factors. Depending on the current state of the world, this can impact where customers choose to go on vacation, the sort of vacation they choose, or even if they decide to go on a vacation at all,” said Matthew Eichhorst, president of Expedia CruiseShipCenters.

“For example, in the wake of the devastating hurricanes last fall, customers didn’t have the confidence to travel to the Caribbean, which impacted many travel agents offering cruises to the region,” he said.

In the Caribbean example, the media focused on the devastation, with little if any reporting on the many areas that were spared, and that exacerbated the problem. In fact, cruise clients are still confused about whether the Caribbean is open for business, said Rice. “Consumers are calling trying to understand what’s the status of the Caribbean and is the cruise line going to change my itinerary.”

Attracting non-cruisers
For Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance for CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc., the top hurdle facing cruise-selling agents also represents their top opportunity – educating the traveling public about the benefits of cruising.

“Roughly 80 percent of the population has never cruised. The biggest challenge is how to raise awareness for the value of a cruise vacation with those that have never cruised, and create excitement and demand. To me, it’s the core of everything,” said Daly.

“It’s up to [agents] to be active in their communities and talking about it. The best thing you can do as a small business owner is always be a communicator of that product and what it provides.”

Continuing to grow
Whether they’re selling cruise or non-cruise vacations, the most pressing issue facing agents today is to grow the business, said Lovell.

“The true challenge is to remain relevant. The agent needs to really work hard to attract new clients. The business owner is looking for growth. The way you grow is to attract and maintain new clients on an annual basis.”