With only a bit more than a month remaining in 2017, how would professional travel agents describe their 2017 business results? That’s a question Travel Agent asked several dozen cruise sellers in a survey conducted during the week of November 20, 2017.
Results? More than 83 percent of the front-line agents or agency owners who responded, many affiliated with consortia or host agency groups across the country, said their 2017 agency business results were “better than 2016.”
“So far, my sales are up 47 percent over last year, so 2017 has been a great year for my business,” said Darci Upham, franchise owner, CruiseOne in Hampstead, NC. In addition to her cruise sales, she's also selling more all-inclusive resort stays this year.
Calling 2017 “the best year ever for volume and commissions” was Holly Tucker, Tucker Travel, a Nexion agency in Hendersonville, NC. “I’ve booked more cruises than ever this year.” She believes more people are planning ahead and her agency has lots of bookings for both 2018 and 2019.
Similarly, Timothy Joseph, president of Revitalize Travel, Long Island, NY, has seen almost 25 percent growth between 2016 and 2017. He's an independent agent in the Avoya Travel Network.
Approximately 13 percent of survey respondents, though, said their 2017 business results should be about the same as last year. Only 4 percent said their business results were less than in 2016.
Among them was Bobbi Wagner, Destined to Travel, LLC, Stevens Point, WI, another Avoya independent agent. But she also acknowledged "personal reasons have kept me away. But I do not think people's love of travel has decreased."
Booming Cruise Sales
Cruise sales for the vast majority of agents are up in 2017. The atrium of Oceania Cruises' Sirena is shown above. Photo copyrighted by Susan J. Young
Travel Agent also asked: “Do you believe your agency's cruise sales will be up from your cruise results in 2016?" Nearly 80 percent said “yes,” just over 8 percent of agents said “no" and 12 percent said they weren’t sure.
“My river cruise sales have increased markedly,” stressed Jenny Lyn Senter, owner, Celtic Heritage Destinations of Willits, CA, a Nexion agency, while Sheri Mruz, Directions Luxury Travel LLC, an independent affiliate in the Avoya Travel Network, Ocala, FL, described her sales as “significantly better” year over year.
While working fewer hours this year, Beth Leonardt of Vacations by Beth, LLC, another independent agent with Avoya Travel, Houston TX, said her sales volume is about the same: “I believe my agency will be the same or a little up but I'm taking the whole month of December off and have taken more vacation time this year. I only work about four days a week and I do almost three million [dollars annually] in sales.”
Other agents cited multi-generational trips as adding to the bottom line, greater overall sales volume and clients proving to be bigger spenders than in the past. In addition, Jennifer Leventhal, president, Sentinel Travel, Northbrook, IL, an Ensemble agency, reported that people “seem more relaxed about the economy.”
Trends aiding increased agency revenue? Many consumers desire to step up to the next level of accommodations - for example, moving from a balcony stateroom to a junior suite. “Clients are listening and wanting to try the next category,” stressed Shirley Melachrinoudis, franchise owner, CruiseOne, Port St Lucie, FL.
Melachrinoudis also said her clients also have a bigger selection of premium and luxury cruises to choose from, and they're also "listening to the value of nicer products."
Small ship line Ponant is among the upscale brands offering guests new premium and luxury experiences.
One new Dream Vacations franchise owner, Derek Krabill, travel advisor, Royal York Travel, New York, NY, acknowledged that “as a newer franchise owner, some of my perception may be due to the organic growth of my business. But my perception is that friends and acquaintances are looking for more travel opportunities.”
Group bookings have helped boost sales for some agencies. “We had a jump start in January and February 2016 due to an increase in the number of groups that we booked for cruises,” responded Jack Fingerman, an independent agent with Cruises Inc. from Mount Laurel, NJ, but he noted that being proactive will help boost sales even more this year.
Fingerman's agency is doing more marketing and public relations and also launching a new customer newsletter. In addition, “we feel that the annual calendars that we mail to our database encouraged past clients to book in the beginning of the year instead of closer in to the date of their vacation," he said.
Cruise Pricing Assessment
The survey also asked retailers specifically about 2017 cruise pricing and whether it's increased from 2016 levels. Approximately 63 percent of all agents taking the survey said cruising fares were indeed “up” in 2017, versus 2016.
“Pricing is up and inventory is down so I recommend my clients to book early,” emphasized Bill Schneider, a Dream Vacations franchise owner, Tampa, FL.
Upham believes cruise pricing is strong compared to the last few years: “Clients seem to be getting used to the higher prices and are not expecting the rock bottom rates that they saw a few years ago.”
“I’ve noticed a slight increase in pricing, but I've also noticed cruise lines are offering more amenities to offset the pricing,” said Jo Ann Williams, vacation specialist, Cruises Inc., Manassas, VA. Another travel agent noted that “even though I see BOGO fares, general fares are higher.”
Responding “yes, but only a little” as to whether cruise prices were higher was Krabill: “I think that increases are generally imperceptible to consumers as cruise line pricing models have added to confusion with some fares including amenities like beverage packages.”
But not all agents surveyed thought pricing was higher. At least 25 percent -- one quarter of all agents -- felt cruise fares were not higher this year than in 2016.
“With the industry building larger ships, the market and pricing have become very competitive,” said Sposa, who pointed to this fall’s Caribbean hurricanes in helping create some lower cruise pricing.
Susan Wolfson, owner, Go Astro Travel LLC, Allentown, PA, expects both stronger 2017 sales (over 2016) and better cruise sales year over year, but she too doesn't see higher cruise pricing this year.
In fact, more than 12 percent of all agents surveyed said they simply were "not sure" if cruise pricing overall was higher or lower than last year.
Whether pricing is up or not, value is what counts, some agents stressed. Posting higher cruise sales this year, Rick Stieff, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Fort Lauderdale, FL, told Travel Agent that "with the enhanced amenities that the cruise lines are including in pricing, it has become a greater value, even at a higher price point."
Concurring is Fingerman: “Although pricing may be slightly higher, we always stress the value of the product and experience versus the overall cost of the trip. We are memory builders, not one price fits all.”
Stay tuned to www.travelagentcentral.com over the next few weeks for more survey results, showing additional insight and opinions from these and other front-line agents.