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News Analysis: Agents Show Their Value Post-ConcordiaFebruary 13, 2012 By: Susan Young
It’s been one month since Costa Concordia hit rocks off the coast of Giglio, Italy, creating a global shockwave of concern about the safety of cruising. The accident killed 17 people with 15 listed as still missing and presumed dead.
How have agents contributed in maintaining calm post-Concordia and helping the lines retain bookings? What’s happening at the site now? And what's planned by Italy to remember the victims and their families? Here is an update.
Agents as Trusted Advisors
Travel Agent wondered if, in this unfortunate situation, whether cruise lines feel that travel agents have been more successful than the lines’ own staff who handle direct bookings in hanging onto reservations?
Royal Caribbean hasn’t seen an increase in cancellations overall, said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, Royal Caribbean International (www.cruisingpower.com). "That’s in big part because the consumer understands this was a very unusual situation, and, if the client has any hesitation, I think the travel professional has a done a great job of reaffirming to them that it’s still fine to take a cruise vacation.”
“There is definitely a value to have the travel agent [during any crisis situation], because the travel agent is the neutral third party,” said Freed. “As trusted advisors, they will give it [the real story] straight to the client because they look at the client for the long term.” She says because agents have no vested interest in the cruise lines, they also can be objective.
In other words, clients trust the agents, and for the agency, keeping clients happy is the most important thing. The commission earned from one sale isn’t likely going to make or break any agency, Freed said: “They want to be sure to keep their clients happy.”
Similar to Royal Caribbean's situation, "what we have experienced since Concordia is that very few cancellations for forward bookings at all," said Rick Sasso, president and CEO, MSC Cruises USA (www.msccruisesusa.com). "The first few days there was a slight increase in cancellations but so small that it would be difficult to measure."
He says that development contrasts sharply with the fall of 2008, when the economy was the front-page news and there were a vast number of deposited bookings that were cancelling. In comparison, the accident aftermath cancellations were "negligible," he said.
That said, he reported that MSC did see some retraction of future bookings for Mediterranean cruises against strong bookings for the same region prior to the event. But "the role that agents play in reassuring guests about the safety of cruises is an important part of keeping the consumer focused on the reality that cruising is safe," Sasso stressed.
"Although I don’t have specific data to show that agency bookings held up stronger than non- agent activity, I can certainly imagine that agents have influenced the clients in a positive way," Sasso said.
Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., has spoken about the cancellation issue with high-level industry colleagues and competitors and "we've all been pleasantly surprised" that the cancellation rate was actually less than what everyone had anticipated in the accident's aftermath.
Wall ran the latest numbers for Travel Agent, and said: "The cancellation rate from the time of the accident through today is actually 6 percentage points better [less] than what we had last year at the same time. That to me is a success story; even flat would have been a success." Being lower in terms of cancellations, "is fantastic," he said.
After participating in a CLIA Travel Agent Advisory Council meeting about about a week ago, Wall said he came away with the view -- particularly when considering the high number of home-based agents who are well-networked within their communities -- that "these agents tend to have a deeper, more intimate relationship with the customer than does a major corporation in a call center environment."
So even if the client becomes nervous or has thoughts of cancelling, the agent is able to talk to them in an informed fashion and change the mindset. "It's hard to dispute the facts," said Wall. "This is a very safe industry, so the agents can just talk about the reality of the situation and how safe it is." In turn, he said, consumers tend to calm down.
Fuel Off-Loading Begins
Costa Concordia remains perched on rocks near Giglio and late Sunday afternoon, maritime salvage companies finally began to remove fuel from the ship. More than 500,000 gallons of fuel are said to be onboard.
Bad weather had delayed the fuel removal last week, but now good weather is predicted for the next few days, at least. The Italian Civil Protection Agency says it should take about 28 days to remove about 84 percent of that fuel, located in 15 separate tanks.
Environmentalists are concerned about leakage from the ship, but thus far, the main fuel tanks have not been breached and no heavy fuel is seeping from the ship.
Italian President Demands Justice
On Sunday, both Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and the country’s leading bishop, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, demanded justice for the Costa Concordia’s victims – imploring those in authority involved to tell the truth about what happened onboard the ship.
Napolitano greeted relatives of the victims in Rome and told them that what transpired was the responsibility of Italy and Italians. He said the investigation will continue and praised Italian prosecutors for their investigative work thus far.
The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, remains under house arrest at his home in Naples. He’s accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all guests were evacuated.
Cardinal Bagnasco also journeyed to Giglio. On Sunday, he thanked island residents for their efforts to assist thousands of passengers and crew who evacuated the ship and ventured ashore after the accident.
Another memorial service is planned today in Giglio – to observe the one month anniversary of the tragic accident.
Moving Forward with Positive Steps
Christine Duffy, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association, wrote an open letter to the travel industry on Feb. 10.
In that written document, she outlined the major efforts being undertaken and steps that have already occurred to enhance cruise industry safety. Among them is a change in the cruise lines' muster requirement, part of the overall review of industrywide policies and processes related to safety. The full text of that letter is here.
Whatever the messages that need to be disseminated to consumers, travel agents remain on the front lines.
"We’ve long regarded travel agents as the most important source of front-line communication with consumers and this incident only underscores that importance," stressed Joanie Rein, vice president of worldwide sales, Carnival Cruise Lines (www.goccl.com).
Rein said travel agents have the ability to help the entire industry address the various concerns consumers have with their cruise vacation: "They’ve done an exceptional job in this case and under many other circumstances we’ve faced together as an industry."