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CLIA Turns 35May 6, 2010 By: David Eisen Travel Agent
In late 2003, Terry Dale, who was then executive vice president of NYC & Company, sat down with four of cruising’s elite: Carnival Cruise Lines’ Vicki Freed (now with Royal Caribbean), Norwegian Cruise Line’s Andy Stuart, Celebrity Cruises’ Dan Hanrahan and Mark Conroy of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (present-day Regent Seven Seas Cruises). The purpose of the meeting was to appoint a new CEO to lead the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade organization that is cruising’s biggest advocate.
That Dale was even there was improbable. “I had no cruise knowledge whatsoever,” says Dale, who grew up amid the cornfields of Iowa—not exactly a cruise hotbed. In fact, Dale told the recruiter, who was searching for candidates, that he had no clue of what CLIA even stood for. “I told him this might be your quickest call of the day,” he says, also admitting to the recruiter that not only had he never been on a cruise ship, he really had no desire to. In a strange twist, the recruiter told him he was the ideal candidate for the job—CLIA wanted someone with a travel tourism background, but someone who could come in and inject a fresh, creative jolt from the get-go.
Dale agreed to an interview and presented his case. “He blew us away,” says Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, who at the time was CLIA chairman. “We knew we needed this guy to continue the success of CLIA. We just hoped he’d take the job.” What Dale had—and has—is a great sense of marketing, public relations and equanimity in dealing with crises, such as New York tourism in the aftermath of 9/11. “It worked out,” Dale says, “and was the greatest thing I could have hoped for.”
Now, CLIA is celebrating 35 years, with Dale at the helm for the past six. The industry itself has been nothing short of the quintessential American success story, having made inroads in what’s really been only a short period of time (the cruise vacation is a spawn of the 1970s). And, yet, it’s still a fledgling industry (by most accounts, only about 20 percent Americans have ever taken a cruise).
Changing the Industry
CLIA has been at the forefront, ever since Warren Titus, president of Royal Viking Line, became the trade group’s first chairman. Today, CLIA has 25 member lines, which under Dale’s guidance, now includes river cruise lines. This year, CLIA members will introduce 12 ships, and 14 more by 2012. It’s going to take the continued support of the travel agent community to sell them—something, Dale says, is the most gratifying part of the job.
“When I came in, I felt we needed to re-energize the whole training and relationship with the travel agent,” Dale says. “CLIA had built this foundation and curriculum, but we really had to get out there with new initiatives that would say to the agent, ‘You’re our No.1 priority.’ We did that.” And how? CLIA, today, has almost 12,000 agents enrolled in its certification program—a record high, Dale says. In 2010, CLIA will facilitate nearly 50,000 training events in more than 150 cities in North America.
When Dale took the helm at CLIA in 2004, he declared it the year of technology. “Six years ago, it was how you are going to use the Internet to really stay competitive,” Dale says. He also started what is one of CLIA’s biggest accomplishments—World’s Largest Cruise Night, a focal point during Wave Season. Last fall, estimated sales were $45 million from World’s Largest Cruise Night events and promotions.
Besides elevating agent education and spurring cruise bookings, Dale was at the center of the successful merger of CLIA and the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL). While CLIA focused on marketing, public relations and distribution, ICCL concerned itself with regulatory issues. “We made the decision that it was in the best interest of the industry to merge associations,” Dale says. “So, we are speaking as one voice.” It was a logistical challenge. “To take two associations and move from New York to Fort Lauderdale, while at the same time keeping stakeholders engaged, was very challenging, but the right move.”
It certainly seems to be. During Dale’s tenure, CLIA has presided over an unprecedented level of cruise growth. Despite a grim 2009, the cruise industry continued to grow. A total of 13.5 million guests sailed CLIA-member lines last year, with 76 percent sourced from North America—which Dale terms “the most remarkable story in the travel industry today.” The cruise business has been all about adaptation. Once air travel trumped ocean liners as the preferred mode of transport, it was up to the industry to reshuffle its purpose. Mega-ships like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and NCL’s Epic, even though multiple years from fruition, were borne by this moment in time. “The industry recognized it couldn’t compete with air, so it reinvented itself and started this notion of a leisure vacation at sea,” Dale says. “By the mid-70s you had purpose-built ships.”
The industry has never looked back and continues to impress. “I am approached many times by friends outside the industry,” Dale says. “They ask me, ‘What’s next? What’s the next wow?’ It’s just remarkable. Every single day I’m wowed.”
Throughout the 35 years of CLIA, two things have remained consistent. One is cruising’s value. No other vacation comes close. “Even though the experience continues to evolve, the value is fundamental and continues to be the basis of our success,” Dale says. The second is the travel-agent relationship. “It’s why we are successful,” Dale says. “We continue to deliver higher expectations and experiences, but we don’t lose value or our relationship with agents. That will carry us for the next 35 years.”
More travel agents, though, is the need of the hour. The stereotype is that being a travel agent is an “old person” profession and, moreover, isn’t a profession at all. That’s a perception CLIA is working hard to tear down. They’re doing it by inculcating younger people, showing them that being a travel agent is a viable career. CLIA has a program in place, an Associate Cruise Degree, wherein the organization goes into colleges with trainers to deliver some of the core curriculum training. “What’s great,” Dale says, “is that when we go in, we’ll have the students, but also invite travel agents from that area to join us. Many times that interaction leads to internships or even getting hired after graduation.” Dale says there are about 1,000 students who now have the Associate Degree. He would like to see that grow to 10,000. “We’ll be on 10 campuses this year,” Dale says. “The response has been phenomenal.”
CLIA and the cruise industry continue to face many challenges, but, together, they are tackling them head on. Environment and government regulation are two of the biggest. “We take being a steward of the ocean very seriously,” Dale says. As such, over the years the industry has invested millions in fulfilling that role—from exhaust scrubbers and shoreside power to advanced wastewater purification systems and extensive recycling measures.
On the regulatory side, the cruise industry just prevailed in the Alaska head-tax debate, when the Alaska Senate approved a measure to lower the tax on cruise ship passengers by at least $11.50 per person. “People forget that we have mobile assets that can be redeployed if it becomes too tough of an operating environment,” Dale says.
So far, Dale has been a hit with cruise executives for both his passion and creativity. Howard Frank, vice chairman and COO of Carnival Corporation, is currently CLIA’s chairman. He’s intent to prod CLIA to be more anticipatory and agile as an organization. “We need to be ahead of the curve on how we position ourselves and lobby,” he says. “We need to be proactive, not just here in the U.S., but abroad.” To that end, CLIA will look to work more in step with its European counterpart, the European Cruise Council.
As for Dale? “He’s a magician,” Frank says. “He’s been able to balance disparate personalities and has laid the groundwork for them to work together.” Frank also notes Dale’s superb job in Washington, working with Congress as an advocate for the industry.
The jewel in CLIA’s crown is its annual cruise3sixty conference, which, after five years in Fort Lauderdale, is being held in Vancouver this year. West Coast agents felt slighted, Dale jokes. Approximately 1,400 travel agents are expected to attend.
Still, there is work for CLIA to do to ensure that the next 35 years are as bright as the first 35. “We have to be persistent in getting the message out about the value of cruising and the experiences it delivers,” Dale says. “There are so many stories to tell, and we tell them day after day. But you can’t stop talking about it enough.”