Cruise Planners is posting double digit sales increases when comparing the year-to-date 2017 sales against the organization’s record sales year in 2016.
Based on customer booking trends, “2017 doesn’t seem to have much of an impact from the terrorist incidents [in Europe] earlier this year,” noted Michelle Fee, CEO and co-owner, Cruise Planners.
Fee was speaking to hundreds of Cruise Planners travel agency owners and agents attending the group’s first Luxury Forum this week at the Broward County Convention Center, Port Everglades, FL.
She pointed to a slide that showed that travelers are becoming increasingly resilient and traveling no matter what. Terrorist incidents occurred at Westminster in London on March 22, April 7 in Stockholm, April 20 in Paris, May 23 in Manchester, UK, and June 4 at London Bridge.
Yet, Cruise Planners posted a 20 percent increase in sales thus far this year, despite having a record year in 2016. Mediterranean bookings are up 19 percent, and river cruising is up 13 percent.
“Bookings continue to strengthen on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Fee. “So travel is back, people are buying, and I think you all are feeling it.”
She said her conversations with agents also show that “people are buying better….and the number one thing they want to do is travel.”
Fee discussed recent Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) research showing that there are 11.52 million ocean travelers from the U.S. alone. “That represents 47 percent of the global market, and it’s up year over year,” noted Fee.
With five months left in the year, Cruise Planners’ departures are up 14 percent and “we’ve already surpassed the full year last year,” she said.
She said popular big-ship cruise departures are up 15 percent, luxury departures are up 35 percent, river departures are up 15 percent and specialty cruise departures are up 23 percent. “Luxury in this market [the cruise segment] is exploding.”
Also, “2018 looks off the charts,” Fee emphasized. “We are front loading so much.” She cited the growth as well as the potential for her agents – now some 260-ocean and 198 river vessels to sell.
Another interesting statistic? Cruise Planners agents had 525 additional luxury bookings for the four-month period between April and July 2017, compared with what the group posted the previous year.
A Look Toward Luxury
Delving into the luxury focus, “we have a great deal of you who sell a great deal of luxury, and then we have some who are looking to step a little more into it,” Fee acknowledged.
A veteran of 18 years working for cruise lines and with a strong food-and-beverage background, Adam Martindale, a franchise owner, Cruise Planners, San Diego, CA, and Seattle, WA, said that in his business, he focuses on luxury sales, food and wine cruises and group cruises.
He already sells much travel on Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. He attended the forum to expand his luxury knowledge and learn more about other luxury products including Seabourn, Silversea and Tauck.
Jackie Steiner, a Cruise Planners franchise owner from New York, hoped to learn more at the forum to increase her luxury sales, while Carol Ross, a new Cruise Planners franchise owner who only started on the job two weeks ago said: “I’m trying to do any and all [to increase knowledge and sales].”
Delving into demographics, Fee told the agents that at least 50 percent of discretionary funds in the marketplace today are in the hands of Baby Boomers.
“This is our sweet spot," Fee said. “It doesn’t mean we aren’t keeping our eyes on the Millennials, but as of today, this is really what we are focusing on, the Baby Boomers."
As for travel forecast trends, she told the agents that the number one travel bucket list item for luxury travelers is a river cruise, followed by Italy and the Mediterranean (cruise).
“The most popular luxury region is Europe, and the most luxury popular destination visited is Italy,” said Fee. “Italy is across the board [top choice] for Millennials, Baby Boomers or Generation Xers.”
She also spoke about growth within the luxury cruise segment, citing Viking Ocean Cruises, Silversea’s Silver Muse, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Explorer, and more than 12 new river vessels through 2019.
Silversea has an option for three new oceangoing ultra-luxury ships. “They haven’t given it the green light yet, but they have options,” Fee said, but added that’s a plus as shipyards are so busy that the lines must have a spot in the pipeline years in advance.
Speaking of all the new ships, “if they are building them, we have to fill them,” she stressed. “They have a lot of confidence that travel is going to continue to grow.”
She also talked about “the new guy on the block,” a reference to Sir Richard Branson’s plans for Virgin Voyages: “I’m not really sure where this is going as yet, but three identical ships will debut, the first in early 2020.”
And she spoke about the rise of Crystal as a lifestyle brand, noting they want to dominate all segments of the travel industry by moving into new areas such as yacht cruises, river cruises and jet vacations. The company's new Boeing 777-200LR jet, Crystal Skye, is shown below.
Luxury Is a State of Mind
As for luxury, “what is luxury,” Fee asked the audience? “We all know it’s a state of mind," as there are different types and views of luxury.
Luxury isn't always the traditional concept of being pampered in a five-star resort or on a top-of-the-line ship. It could mean highly experiential travel for some clients – such as snorkeling in the Galapagos, climbing Machu Picchu or meeting locals and immersion in local culture.
The good news is that luxury travelers are usually more loyal to their travel advisor. "They know when they call you that you are going to do the research and concentrate on providing an exceptional experience," said Fee. In other words, luxury sellers aren’t order takers.
She urged the agents to “be a matchmaker.” If a client says, “I want to book this,” go ahead and still ask all the right questions -- why he or she selected the cruise, tour or resort stay? Why do they like this particular trip?
Agents should then assure the trip selected best fulfills the client’s desires for a specific type of experience or destination. Fee said agents may have other options more suitable.
Also, “don’t let your customers go online and book their own shore excursions,” she said, again focusing on the agent's value as a matchmaker. She said it's imperative agents help clients pick what’s really best for what they hope to see or do, and the experience they hope to have.
She suggested retailers create one-of-a-kind client gifts or special perks. Agents selling luxury shouldn't just send that standard bottle of champagne. Instead, they should aim for creating something personal or something that sets them apart from the crowd.
“They’ll always remember a feeling [they got from the personalized gift or perk]," she said. "That’s what sets you apart.”
She also urged the agents to offer VIP services such as private or exclusive tours, luggage concierge services and so on. “It might not be that they buy them, but when you offer them, you sound like you’re a luxury seller.”
And she added, “it sounds like you know more than the guy they’re calling at the online travel agency.”
“We know that luxury is all about creating those emotional experiences,” Fee stressed. And top of mind for all agents seeking to sell luxury? “You all know you have to deliver exceptional service. That is what is going to make you stand out from the rest.”
Stay tuned to Monday's cruise newsletter for Frank Del Rio's keynote presentation at Luxury Forum.