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Top Cruise Execs Visit with Signature AgentsNovember 24, 2008 By: Ruthanne Terrero Travel Agent
At the Signature Travel Network’s recent Owners’ Meeting, the association’s executive vice president, Ignacio Maza, moderated a panel of top cruise-line executives. Included in the lineup were Bill Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Crystal Cruises; Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas; James Rodriguez, senior vice president, marketing for Oceania Cruises; Marilyn Conroy, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Silversea Cruises; Guy Young, president, Uniworld Grand River Cruises; Dietmar Wertanzl, president of Cruise West; and Diane Moore, president of Windstar Cruises.
As a service to the agency owners in the audience, Maza asked each of the executives to give an update on their respective cruise lines. He specifically asked Crystal Cruises’ Smith about the luxury line’s recent promotions to draw families aboard its vessels.
At the Signature Travel Network's owners' meeting are (from left to right) moderator Ignacio Maza and panelists Bill Smith, Crystal Cruises; Mark Conroy, Regent Seven Seas; James Rodriguez, Oceania Cruises; Marilyn Conroy, Silversea Cruises; Guy Young, Uniworld; Dietmar Wertanzl, Cruise West; and Diane Moore, Windstar Cruises
“It’s really kind of funny, because you wouldn’t think of us necessarily as a kids’ product, but for the last couple of years, we’ve been having more families cruising, particularly when we’re in the Mediterranean,” said Smith. “We saw there was a great opportunity there and we had travel agents [saying the same thing], so we developed the ‘Family Memory’ package; it allows travel agents to present a prepackaged family program to the marketplace. It offers things like shipboard credits and a third child in a stateroom traveling free.”
Bill Smith, SVP sales and marekting, Crystal Cruises, pointed out the importance of family travel and for cruises to have activities and amenities to entertain kids
Smith said that this summer, Crystal saw one Mediterranean cruise with 205 children and another with 160.
The secret to a family cruise’s success, he noted, is having an organized program for children. “We found that if you keep the kids active and involved, they’re happy. And if the kids are happy, then the parents are happy. If you don’t have the program and it’s left up to the families, then kids just take over the ship and they do run wild.”
Maza asked Regent Seven Seas’ Conroy about the sensitive issue of the relationship between the agent of record and the cruise line. Conroy replied that the cruise line had been focusing on that very issue a great deal since discussing it with Signature executives a few months ago. The line is now including the name of the last person who booked the customer on a Regent cruise in its direct-mail programs, both print and e-mail.
“We started doing it and the great news is that it actually improved the response rates in the mail,” said Conroy.
Maza then asked Oceania’s Rodriguez if the cruise line could become more flexible in allowing agents to secure group space on the line’s ships. “Your DSMs have been very aggressive in encouraging our members to secure group space, but then it is pulled back very quickly if it isn’t sold right away. Do you see a change going forward?” asked Maza.
James Rodriguez, SVP marketing, Oceania Cruises (left) discussed the futuer of group programs; Marilyn Conroy, SVP sales and marketing, Silversea Cruises, addressed issues of luxury travel; and Guy Young, president, Uniworld, spoke of ship refurbishments and the future of the river cruising brand
“I do see a significant change coming up,” responded Rodriguez, “especially when we introduce the new ship, we’ll have much more space to offer. When we launched Oceania Cruises just five short years ago, we did not have a group program. We recently instituted a group program a few years ago, and we’re getting better at it. I think over the past year, some members will probably have noticed that we opened up our space a little better. We’re getting better at figuring out which groups are actually going to be berthed and which ones are not.”
The question addressed to Silversea’s Conroy was what the cruise line was doing with onboard initiatives to “ensure that it is at the very top of the ultra-luxury category.”
“We are constantly training and retraining,” Conroy replied, noting that a firm had been hired earlier this year to do onboard training and that all of the vessels’ service levels have been standardized. “We are religiously tracking the results. If we get any comments that aren’t as favorable as we’d like, we get hold of the guest and rectify it if there is a problem. And our scores now are in the 90 percentile.”
Maza asked Uniworld’s Young about the very competitive river cruise market. “We seem to be hearing about a new river cruise ship every 20 minutes on the hour,” he joked. “So how can we, as travel professionals, differentiate all the ships?”
Young agreed that the “capacity for river cruising has actually doubled in the last five years, so I think that speaks to the quality of the product and how well it’s being received by the consumers.” For that reason, he said, Uniworld is trying to position itself at the top end of the market by totally refurbishing its ships, a project begun in 2005. “We’ve also tried to address service issues. We have more than 20 employees who oversee the entire service part of the delivery for Uniworld,” he said.
Signature’s Maza asked Cruise West’s Wertanzl about his cruise line’s positioning in the market now that the company has changed the management of its sales approach.
“We are really a destination-cruise company first and foremost,” Wertanzl said, noting that a trademark of Cruise West is its effort to stay off the beaten path of the larger cruise ships, which in turn provides guests with an intimate experience when they’re in port.
“As for what makes us different in the expedition segment, we have our Zodiacs, which make a big difference when we go up close and personal with the great destinations like Galapagos or the South Pacific. When you look at our product, it’s like an ocean safari. When you’re on a bigger ship, you may be in the casino, but you miss the whale.”
Moore, in turn, was asked to explain what’s happening at Windstar now that it’s been under new ownership for a year and a half. (The cruise line was formerly owned by Holland America Line and is now under the umbrella of Ambassadors International Inc.)
“I think the first thing you need to know is that virtually the entire team came over with us,” said Moore, noting that Nick Burger, with whom the agency community is familiar, has been named vice president of hotel services. A major change for Windstar, said Moore, is the fact that it’s no longer a small cruise line within a larger company. “We’re it [with Ambassadors],” she said. “Now we can react very, very quickly to the market and it’s really fun. In fact, we’re such a small company now that we’re redoing our offices. We’re taking the wall down between sales and guest services and our reservations group so that we really are feeling all as one and very close so we can respond very quickly to things.”
Travel agents got a nod from Crystal’s Smith when Maza asked him the common trait among the cruise line’s top producers. “They are first and foremost professional salespeople. They know the product and how to sell it. I play golf with some of these people and on the golf course, they’ll stop and take out their cell phone and make a booking. They’re always on. They’re always working.”
Mark Conroy, president, Regent Seven Seas, addressed the issue of the agent-cruise line relationship
When asked about the future of the luxury cruise market, Regent Seven Seas’ Conroy responded, “The good news is that the business has held up. And that we’ve found that we’re having to help you stay in quicker touch with [customers]. Everything from talking to them once a month by e-mail or mail, providing reading lists, making opportunities for short excursions, highlighting different things. It’s really critical that we all do that and not just assume that you got the deposit and the sale. You can’t harass them, but you’ve got to keep in touch.”