Cruise, Land Sales Boom as Demand Accelerates, Says Brad Tolkin

Dream Vacations and CruiseOne’s cruise sales for 2024 travel are up a whopping 73 percent, when compared with 2019, the last normal cruise-selling year. For 2023, the two franchise agency groups also expect to post record cruise sales. Land sales, too, are booming, up 26 percent for 2024 travel on the books. This year is expected to be the group’s best ever land sales year.  

Speaking to 600 franchise agency owners and their associates attending the 2024 national Dream Vacations and CruiseOne “Focus” conference onboard Carnival Celebration this past week, Brad Tolkin, co-chairman/co-CEO of World Travel Holdings (WTH), parent company of the two agency groups, told the advisors, “demand is accelerating.”

That echoed what Christine Duffy, Carnival Cruise Line’s president, had told the advisors about robust consumer demand earlier in the week, and what Royal Caribbean Group had reported several weeks ago in its third quarter financials.

Bits With Brad

Why are the results so positive? “First, you are very good at what you do,” Tolkin told the advisors during his “Bits with Brad” conference-ending presentation last Saturday. “Second, travel wins out,” he stressed. “Travel is increasingly essential. The dance between financial constraint and the desire to travel continues, and travel is winning out.”

For instance, he quoted a Canadian survey (which he felt had similar ramifications to what's happening in the U.S.), which revealed that 48 percent of those surveyed have restructured their budget to accommodate trips that would otherwise have been financially out of reach. And in mid-August 2023, Forbes released survey results that showed 49 percent of U.S. citizens expect to travel more. 

Plus, “travel spending—as we hear from Wall Street and the credit card companies’ reports—is outstripping all other sectors,” he said. “We are in the hottest industry right now. Our time has come.”

Strengthen Your Focus 

Throughout his career, nearly 44 years in the travel industry, Tolkin said he's witnessed times of economic uncertainty, and “we are certainly in one of those times now." But “travel transcends financial concerns. We are seeing this. The proof is in your numbers…The proof is in full planes, full ships and overflowing airports.”

Setting the stage, Tolkin emphasized that “the cruise industry is supporting the retail travel community like no other industry.” He cited such new cruise products as Virgin Voyages, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, Explora Journeys and, coming soon, Four Seasons. “No one is pulling back,” he said.

“We continue to break records and grow the business, and the pent-up demand for travel that your customers want is not going away,” he told the trade audience. Tapping heavily into the conference's theme, he urged the advisors to focus: "It is the common denominator amongst our most successful CruiseOne and Dream Vacations owners.”

He also urged the advisors to “set clear goals. This is critical to your success. And this can be different from budgeting. There is nothing wrong with saying, 'this is our budgeted goal, and this is our stretch goal.'” Tolkin explained that Drew Daly, senior vice president and general manager, Dream Vacations and CruiseOne, and Debbie Fiorino, COO, senior vice president and COO of owned brands for World Travel Holdings, submitted their 2023 budget for the two franchise groups to him a year ago, and while he accepted that budget, he also added a goal.

“I wanted to get to $200 million in 2023 for this division in land sales,” he explained. And right now, it looks as though “we will come dangerously close to that number.” He stressed that by simply having that stretched goal, there wasn’t a month that passed that management did not talk about it and continue to reach for it. 

Another way to focus? As Daly had told the advisors earlier in the week, “try to eliminate distractions,” Tolkin added, however, "this is not easy.”

Brad Tolkin, co-chairman/co-CEO, World Travel Holdings, talks to 600 travel advisors attending the 2024 national "Focus" conference of Dream Vacations and CruiseOne.
Brad Tolkin, co-chairman and co-CEO, World Travel Holdings, talks to Dream Vacations and CruiseOne franchise owners and their advisors at the 2023 national "Focus" conference onboard Carnival Celebration. (Photo by Reeves Watson Photography, Courtesy of Dream Vacations and CruiseOne)

Visualize Success

Tolkin also urged the advisors to “visualize success.” In one personal example, between March 2020 and August 2023, Tolkin continually visualized what he believed would ultimately be the greatest build-up of demand that he’d ever witnessed. “And I kept visualizing what that would look like, and we are seeing it today. I didn’t know when it would come, but when it came, the visualization that I had in mind is what we are seeing today. “

Most successful Dream Vacations or CruiseOne agencies have “a real focus,” says Tolkin. “They focus on how one goes to market or what one markets, or sometimes both.” Here are a few of the many examples he provided: 

  • Ed Brill of Play Bridge at Sea, a Dream Vacations agency in New York, NY, goes to market with bridge groups and only by putting them on luxury ships.
  • Jamie Margolis of Moms at Sea, a Dream Vacations franchise agency in Carmel, IN, started a travel blog. That's how she goes to market, and Tolkin said she also focuses intently on one particular cruise line.
  • Jason Newquist of Lake Mary, FL, owns the largest franchise agency in the Dream Vacations and CruiseOne network. That CruiseOne agency is called Cruises It. "He has an incredible management team,” says Tolkin. "He does not operate the business." Instead, Newquist focuses on going to market and "doing what he does best, which is the creation of videos on cruise ships, and then posting them on the YouTube channel."

Listening to Tolkin's remarks about marketing, "I feel like a lightning bolt hit me," said Jennifer Breaux, a Dream Vacations franchise owner for JB Travel Pros in Lithia, FL. Speaking to Travel Agent after the event, she said: "His speech was focused and simplified what it takes to market my business." Sure, she'd heard some of the advice before, but this time she left with great ideas for marketing, how to implement them and what partners she may desire to work with.

Don't Micromanage, Tap into AI

Tolkin also urged the advisors to examine their management style—and not micromanage. That's something he himself did earlier in his travel industry career. “Today I have a completely different approach to WTH and how I manage,” he told the audience, noting that it reminds him of a scene from the movie, "Secretariat."

In that flick, just before the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, Penny Chenery’s father just put his hand on the horse’s head, turned to her and said, “Let him run.” Today, “that’s my approach as I manage my direct reports,” Tolkin emphasized.   

On other topical threads, Tolkin talked about the future of artificial intelligence or AI. “WTH is on top of this,” he said. “I tell you to embrace it. It is a business necessity.” Yes, of course, it will evolve, plus the U.S. government will be doing safety assessments and looking at AI impact on the labor markets. “But it is not going away,” he believes.

Tolkin believes that AI applications can make people more efficient, and that advisors shouldn’t feel it will replace them: “The Internet did not replace you. Siri, which was just an early version of AI, did not replace you. And ChatGPT will not replace you.”

He also talked about something important to his career and helping his success. “Never forget that the customer has the loudest voice in the room,” he acknowledged.

Boutique Trends or Seismic Trends

And when advisors ask him about new trends, he sees two types. Boutique trends will continue to grow, he says. But he also sees more powerful, “seismic trends.” He cited these seismic trends of the past: The 1978 deregulation of the airline industry; the blossoming of Cancun, Mexico into a close-to-U.S. vacation destination, now with 125,000 hotel rooms; the birth of the all-inclusive Sandals and how that changed how people vacation at resorts, particularly in Mexico and the Caribbean; as well as the launch of Royal Caribbean International’s massive Oasis-class ships in 2009.

“So, today ,we are witnessing another seismic moment, and that is the increase in the number of travel days,” often a combination of business and leisure. But “the increase in travel days is the tailwind that the pandemic has left us,” Tolkin said. “It is the ability to work from anywhere, and the acceptance for employers to allow for this. He pointed to Dream Vacations’ franchise owners Trapper Martin and Shane Smartt, who travel three-quarters of the year. Their office for Trapper Martin, Shane Smartt & Associates is simply wherever they are—on cruise ships or on land.

Simply put, the ability to work from anywhere, the acceptance of that by many employers and the fact that it’s become a way of life for many, “this genie is never going back in the bottle,” he added. “This is a tremendous seismic moment that we are witnessing.” and Advisor Value

During the conference, separately, announced a partnership with WTH that will add cruises to its offerings in the U.S. That’s a direct-to-consumer approach. But what does that mean to Dream Vacations and CruiseOne. “Volume gets you more opportunities," Tolkin told us in a one-on-one interview. “If adds to the overall volume—which it will at WTH—we’re hoping that turns into more opportunities with the suppliers. And that will help all components of WTH.”

He also said that WTH has a specialty of handling those third-party operations for other companies, “and it’s the integrity with which we handle them that's critical. Because you never know where these companies could place their choice of handling cruise. It’s better to be in the family than outside the family.”

As for the value of advisors, “use a travel agent,” says Tolkin. Yes, he acknowledges that World Travel Holdings has larger direct-to-consumer businesses, but the full-service, advisor-focused Dream Vacations and CruiseOne franchise groups constitute the fastest growing division of WTH over the past three-and-a-half years. Tolkin says that more than ever “the consumer wants the guidance and the comfort that comes with dealing with a professional travel advisor."

His parting words to the 600 conference attendees were these: “So, focus. Buckle up. And go get ‘em, because the business is out there.”

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