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Panel Debates Future of Agents

April 10, 2006 By: Susan Young Travel Agent

The future of travel agents was one topic during a top-level executive discussion chaired by former CLIA chairman, Rod McLeod, at CLIA's annual cruise3sixty conference in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. McLeod asked panelists whether agents are doing a good job and will the agency distribution model continue. Frank Del Rio, president of Oceania Cruises, who formerly worked for Renaissance Cruises when it cut agent commissions, said cruise lines or airlines who have tried in any way, shape or form to bypass agents have paid a huge price for it. "I don't think anyone in this business will want to make that mistake again," said Del Rio, who noted the cruise industry is growing, the lines need to fill vessels, and the distribution system works efficiently. "That doesn't mean to say there won't be shifts and modifications, but I don't see a change in the next 10–20 years; the center of the distribution system will be agents," Del Rio said. In response to a recent Goldman-Sachs investment report that cruise lines, will phase out claimed agents Bob Dickinson, president and CEO, Carnival Cruise Lines, says the author "doesn't have any idea what he's talking about," and that the agency distribution system will continue moving forward; that said, he also said agents must evolve, to focus on sales skills, and not rebate. Alan Buckelew, president of Princess Cruises, said agents are more than twice as effective as they were just a decade ago while Lynn Torrent, president for North America, Costa Cruises, said customers tell her line they are comfortable booking through agents and while agency models are changing, that's for the better. The key ingredient is the consumer, said Dan Hanrahan, president, Celebrity Cruises, who stressed agencies must continue to give a wide range of options, and with all the new tonnage coming, agents have a very bright future. Andy Stuart, executive vice president of marketing, sales and passenger services, NCL Group, said agents must seize the opportunity to build personalized relationships with the customer, and that agencies must use technology to help them in getting closer to customers. Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises, North America, says one big plus for an agent is "the amount of money agents can touch" has soared. Thirty years ago, he said, there were only 500,000 cruise guests and not that far different an agent base, but today the relatively same complement of agents is handling more than 11 million customers, providing huge revenue opportunities.

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