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Travel Agents Give Their Advice for Enticing First Time Cruisers

December 7, 2015 By: Susan Young

Qualifying first timers is critical. Do they want nonstop "fun," as shown here on Carnival Breeze, or a quieter river cruise experience? // Photo by Susan J. Young

The top challenge facing the cruise industry is “exposure.” Despite tremendous growth, only a small fraction of the U.S. population has ever cruised. Yet, getting more first timers onboard is a good way to assure the cruise industry expands, builds new ships, creates for new home ports, develops new itineraries and improves revenue flow to travel agencies.

So how do agencies get more first time cruisers? How do you approach potential first-time cruise clients -- what works, what doesn't and what do you do to assure the product meets their expectations?

Don't Pitch, Be Their Advocate

"For those who have never cruised before and are searching for the right sailing on their own, it seems they are overwhelmed by choices and promotions, and have difficulty understanding what is right for them," says David Walsh, owner, CWCruises, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel NetworkBradenton, FL.

"I sense many times they’re driven to inaction to avoid making bad decisions," he stresses. "When these customers do reach out to a travel professional, they’re looking for guidance and counsel, not a sales pitch."

Floating accommodations allow first time cruisers to enjoy diverse experiences. // Photo of Alaska cruising by Susan J. Young

Qualify, Qualify, Qualify

From entry-level to luxury, the starting point for Walsh when he speaks with first timers is to find out what they expect by asking them to relate their other travel experiences. He asks where they do, what they like to do and where they dine.

"I ask whether or not they are traveling with children, what type of entertainment and enrichment they prefer, and what age group they fit into," he stresses. 

He says that when he helps a first-time cruiser identify the itinerary, ship, sailing date, luxury level, cost and so on, "I know the trip we choose together is going to meet and exceed expectations. If I have done my job correctly, the travelers enjoy a wonderful experience and I win a long time repeat customer."

Focus on Value, Explain Price

Nearly all the agents we interviewed said to focus on the inclusive value. Jeff Sonenstein, president, Globe Travel Service, a member agency, Bristol, Connecticut, says that after asking if the client has ever cruised, his agency focuses on explaining the benefits of cruising. “Cruising is the best value in the travel industry because almost everything is included." Typically, accommodations, meals and entertainment are included in the fare.

Plus he explains they won't have to pack and unpack to see multiple destinations, and that they can get accommodations in all budget ranges – from inexpensive inside cabins to luxurious suites.

Steve Hale, owner, Big Dog Cruises Int’l LLC, another independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network, Palm Harbor, FL, says potential first time cruisers often will see advertising and deals online saying that they can go on a seven-night cruise for $299 or so. While the customer typically will want to know what that price represents, they may not realize everything that's involved and what they're getting and not receiving for that low-ball price. 

Matching the client with the right cruise and "holding the client's hand" throughout the process can mean a repeat client. // Photo by Susan J. Young

“It’s very important as a travel professional to educate first-timers about the experience a cruise offers and find out what is right for them," stresses Connie Rush, Creative Getaways LLC, Silverdale, PA. Most people who talk with her have already shopped on other sites and have a price in mind. But no one has explained the price.

"By qualifying the client, I can inform them of what the price they have will offer and recommend what they may be happier with," Rush explains.

For example, if the client who likes a quiet aura brought in a price for an aft cabin on a deck right above the theater, Rush would suggest they select adjoining cabins mid-ship on a deck that would be quieter. 

Consider Short Cruises

Short cruises of three to five days have great value in enticing first timers. Candie Steinman, a CruiseOne franchise owner, Fort Myers, FL, has three groups going on the Norwegian Sky in the next few months. “Although a few of the group members have gone before, the majority of the passengers are first time cruisers,” Steinman says.

She says a short cruise with friends makes people more comfortable in trying cruising for the first time. “Once they go, they are likely to go again and this makes for lots of new clients,” she emphasizes. 

Short cruises often feels like a safer choice for the client if they aren’t sure they’ll like cruising, according to Hale. In fact, his clients taking a short cruise are surprised how quickly the three or four nights go: “They aren’t ready to pack their bags at the end and this first experience then whets their appetite for another, longer cruise vacation the next time.”

Communicate: "We'll Hold Your Hand" 

Julie Drouin, a Nexion agent with Drouin Cruises in Austin, TX, likes to communicate via her website or other print media that she welcomes first-time cruisers and will be there to “hold their hand” throughout this process. “They need the assurance you aren’t going to close the sale and leave them having to figure it all out on their own,” emphasizes Drouin.

She views booking as the easy part of a sale, noting that the majority of her time is spent with clients in between the time they book and when they step aboard. “Because I go the extra distance to help them understand the nature of cruising, they tell others who haven’t cruised before and now I’m on fourth-generation referrals for new clients,” she says.

Balkers? Invite Them to Join You

One easy way to get first timers is book is to set up a cruise for yourself and then invite clients or friends to join you. “There is something reassuring knowing that their travel agent will be there with them for this ‘first cruise,’” emphasizes Drouin. Case in point? A few years ago, a couple in their 60’s approached her agency about wanting to try a cruise for their anniversary. 

“We looked at so many different options but nothing seemed to appeal to them,” she says. During that time, Drouin and her husband booked a cruise for themselves, a sister and sister-in-law. “As a last minute thought, I sent the itinerary to this couple with the note: 'We’d love to have you join our little group.'”

Within a few days the clients asked Drouin to book a balcony cabin and said the itinerary was the perfect fit. Still she wondered if it was that or the appeal that they’d have friends along to help them out? In any event, they enjoyed the voyage, and she just rebooked them on another cruise. And now they travel with other friends.

Dig Deep Into Your Database 

Cruises can take guests to places they might only have considered on a hotel or resort vacation. // Photo courtesy of Costa Cruises

John Gawne, an independent vacation specialist with Cruises Inc., Virginia Beach, VA, says the potential for first time cruisers lies right at your fingertips -- within your existing base of land-based travelers. Review that list and pick out ones that may be a good fit with cruising.

“Share a few tidbits about including a cruise in their future plans and discuss the benefits, costs and differences from a vacation at a single destination," Gawne emphasizes. 

Tap Into the Multigenerational Appeal

Michelle Weller, vice president, sales and customer support for a Travel Leaders franchise location in Houston, TX, stresses the family friendly and multigenerationally friendly nature of a cruise. That can help draw first timers traveling in groups -- small and large. 

One of Weller's client booked an entire wedding and honeymoon on a cruise. "It was a nice, one-stop shopping and there was something for everyone in one place for the 100 people who attended the wedding," she says.

Use the Drive Market Card

In addition, Weller taps into the “drive market,” noting that her agency is close to the Port of Galveston and the Port of Houston, so that’s a plus in enticing first timers. People don’t have to fly to reach the ship.

“The wedding and honeymoon couple especially found this option appealing since many of their guests were located in Texas and would not have to fly in and could still enjoy a vacation while celebrating with the newlyweds," says Weller.

Squash the Myths & Inaccuracies

Overcome myths and objections. Many first timers believe they might get seasick, they don't think there are enough activities, and that it's "their grandfather's cruise product."

Recently, Sonenstein assisted a couple who had never cruised, nor been to Europe. They were celebrating their 70th birthdays and wanted to do Italy, their once-in-a-lifetime dream trip. “I suggested a cruise, but they were hesitant at first because they had never cruised before and were afraid of getting seasick and not being able to see land,” Sonenstein says.

He recommended small-ship Windstar Cruises because the ship wasn’t in open water for any length of time and covered much of Italy and the French Riviera. It also had fewer than 300 guests so it was romantic. “Hesitantly, they decided to take my suggestion,” he stressed, reiterating they could go to Rome first and spend three nights to see the sites and get over the jet lag.

“I spent a lot of time going over what the experience would be like for them," he said. "I assured them that it would not be rough waters and they would be able to see everything they wanted to see in Italy and have a unique experience.” The result? Throughout their trip, the couple sent him photos and raved about what a great experience they were having.

The good news for Sonenstein is that the couple are now planning where to cruise next: “This was supposed to be a one-time event that they decided to now do once a year.”

Stress value, be realistic and be service focused to serve first time cruisers. // Photo of Oasis of the Seas by Susan J. Young

Look to Bridal Shows & the Vacation Rental Market

More sources of first timers? Bill Walsh, Cruise Travel Outlet, a member agency, Salem, New Hampshire, looks to bridal shows and those who have taken vacation rentals in his area as two prime first-time cruise audiences.

At bridal shows, Walsh says people say they’re afraid of hurricanes and thus prefer a land package for their honeymoon. But once he explains that ships “can move” – unlike islands – and that cruise lines may alter itineraries, but they’ll still have a great honeymoon, people warm up to the idea of a cruise.

“Also, we get a lot of seasonal rentals in New England – in New Hampshire, Maine or Cape Cod. I have advertised under vacation rentals 'Cabin on the Water,' including all meals and entertainment, to entice people who are looking for cottages to try a cruise," says Bill Walsh. He believes the recent kids' sail free offers from the cruise lines are helping entice first timers.  

Stress Value, But Be Realistic

Match the clients to the right cruise, but then also “be sure to not overestimate the type of experience they will have,” Sonenstein advises. “Be honest and make their dreams come true.” And, he adds that it’s helpful if agents have cruised on the type of cruise they’re suggesting.

While cruising is highly inclusive, gratuities, government fees, shore trips and drinks may not be included. Rush ensures her clients don’t encounter surprises on a cruise by explaining what is and what isn't included -- upfront.

 “This is particularly important for customers who are accustomed to all-inclusive resorts,” she stresses. To prevent pricing surprises, Rush helps them with their payment schedule and recommends prepaying gratuities and shore trips so they aren’t worried about a big onboard bill at the end of the cruise.

Consider River Cruising

Ocean cruises are great for travelers who prefer razzle-dazzle activities, a lively onboard atmosphere, Broadway shows or a slew of things to do and many places to dine onboard. They're also great for sailing from country to country in a particular region, such as the Caribbean or Asia, or for those seeking to reach the most remote spots -- Alaska, the Russian Far East, Scandinavia, or Indian Ocean countries -- on an expedition style or coastal cruise product.  

However, don't overlook river cruising for first time cruisers, if the clients prefer a more relaxed, intimate aura onboard, and want to sail into the heart of a country or continent. When first-timers 50 and above are considering Europe, Weller says her agency often sells them a river cruise.

River cruises also may appeal to first timers, particularly those 50 and older. // Photo of Durnstein, Austria by Susan J. Young

“It is the most relaxing and best value to see Europe,” she believes, mentioning that food, wine, beer and excursions are often included and “you can do a quick stop on the beginning and end. I think the majority of our first-time cruisers were convinced with river cruises.”

That could mean they'll also navigate to the ocean side. One first timer who was booked on a European river cruise has since booked a Panama Canal trip with Weller’s agency plus another river cruise to the Far East.

Use Scripts and Keep in Touch 

Remember that first timers don't know all the "ins" and "outs" of cruising, nor necessarily foreign travel or how shore excursions work.

"One of my best practices is to communicate on a regular basis with clients and to use scripts," says Rush. Keep clients informed and remind the customer that you’re there for them.

He has scripts to follow about visas and passports, shore excursions, travel guides, dining and beverage packages and more."If I know the cruise line is going to have information onboard or be sending out a flyer, I’ll reach out and walk my clients through the information," says Rush. 

Sending regular communications that are purposeful becomes incredibly valuable, she notes, especially when there is a longer period of time between booking and departure: "It all comes back to staying in touch with the client, providing helpful service, and keeping them informed." 

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About the Author

Susan Young
A veteran of 100-plus cruises, Susan J. Young, is senior contributing editor for cruises – covering ocean, river and niche cruises for Travel Agent and

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By Susan Young | December 7, 2015
We solicited feedback from travel agencies about the reality of drawing first time cruisers. How do you approach them? What inside tips do you have? What works? Travel agents from New Hampshire to California, Pennsylvania to Florida, provided their "take" on how to grab more first timers.