Costa's Scott Knutson Talks Sales, Marketing and Corporate Focus

costa mediterranea

As Costa Luminosa sails each week from PortMiami to the Caribbean, Costa Cruises' ( staffers in the line’s North American headquarters in Fort Lauderdale can revel in the sales accomplishment. The ship’s voyages are nearly full through March. Only a couple of hundred cabins remain to be sold.

But North American staffers aren’t just focused on selling the ship that sails each winter from South Florida. “We’re also focused on our core business, which is Europe and international,” says Scott Knutson, vice president, sales and marketing, Costa Cruises North America.

To entice clients onboard, “we’re asking for reduced deposits so that somebody booking for fall, isn’t out a chunk of money and it makes the booking decision easier,” Knutson stresses. Presently, Costa is asking for a $400 deposit for so-called international cruises, and $250 for the Caribbean sailings. That’s a reduction of 50 percent, based on availability.

A Bit Different Approach

But while many cruise lines are in full battle mode to secure Wave Season bookings, Costa’s international sourcing puts it in a bit different position. “We’re finding at Costa that the bookings are not necessarily tied to Wave,” notes Knutson. They’re more evenly spread throughout the year."

RELATED: Agents Look at the Initial Wave Season Trends; Knutson Talks about the Wave on Costa 

What type of clients are right for Costa? Knutson says Costa attracts many couples, boomers in particular, who are looking for a certain niche. He cites foodies, wine lovers, spa afiscionados and destination collectors focused on the experience of going ashore.

“They’re combining the sea, shore and ship concepts, they’re not totally focused on the ship like an amusement park, but instead focused on destinations and the immersion experience,” he says.

It's crucial that agents understand, however, that guests typically headed on Costa to the Mediterranean are not seeking an American hotel experience. “They’re not looking for that comfort zone,” he emphasizes, noting that, if clients are seeking that, “they’re better off on another product.”

Why? Costa is Italian to the core. It's based in Italy, its ships are registered there and its onboard product is described as Italian-style cruising.

RELATED: Neal Palomba Appointed Vice President of Hotel Operations, Costa Cruises; Reports to CEO in Genoa, Italy

Costa's core onboard product is designed for a diverse group of international guests from across the globe. So except for minor tweaks here and there, Costa doesn't drastically change the product for a North American audience even when a ship is sailing from South Florida in winter.

When Travel Agent toured Costa Luminosa last month in Miami, passengers waiting to board the ship were speaking Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and several other languages.

“In bringing the Costa Luminosa to North America this winter season, we didn’t want to change the product,” Knutson stresses. “It’s a taste of Italy in the tropics.” Simply put, guests arriving from around the world want the core Italian-style cruising product, from wherever they sail – whether that’s Miami or Dubai, Venice or Singapore.

On any given sailing in North America, only 20 to 25 percent of guests are from North America, the rest hail from countries across the globe. Knutson says many sailings from South Florida have less than 300 North Americans onboard although on some occasions that goes a bit higher.

For example, on last year’s Christmas sailing from PortMiami, 40 percent of guests were either American or Canadian.

Scott Knutson with Tom Armbrust, incentive client, on Costa Deliziosa at San Diego

Languages and Onboard Staff

Some clients have complained to their agents about the laundry list of languages spoken onboard Costa. Safety drills and emergency communications aside, are more routine PA system announcements necessary in multiple languages?

Knutson says announcements are made in a particular language if more than 20 percent of the guests onboard speak that language. So typically, the line will have announcements in five languages -- typically English, Italian, French, German and another language, often Spanish.

But one thing has changed of late. “We’ve drastically reduced amount of announcements we make and we don’t make any [except safety/emergency announcements] in the cabins,” according to Knutson. And for the announcements made in public areas, they once hovered around 75 a day; now, he says, that’s down to just a few per day.

“English is the predominant language spoken on the ship, but obviously we also have a lot of Italian,” Knutson notes. Costa’s officers and hotel management onboard the ships are Italian in nationality, while the rest of the crew is a mixed international group.

Sales Philosophy and Focus

Knutson heads up a team that includes about 50 North American sales, marketing and reservations staffers. The reservations team handles both individual and group sales, plus there is an incentive department in the Fort Lauderdale office.

“The sales force is really fairly boutique but responsive, talking to travel partners on daily basis one-on-one,” he says. “We’re very nimble in North America, with a couple of people in the field to assist large consortia and top accounts. But we’re always seeking new business.”

He puts that in perspective, though. Four years ago, Costa’s North American group had an organizational change based on a shift in sales focus. Instead of focusing primarily on selling the winter Caribbean service to the North American market, the line shifted its paradigm for selling Caribbean voyages to greater European sourcing.

In turn, Costa officials in Italy wanted the North American sales team to do more to sell international voyages – getting North Americans to sail Costa from Mediterranean ports, Dubai or the Far East. The attraction, he says, is that upscale, experienced travelers typically enjoy an international product, one that brings onboard an eclectic mix of guests from around the world. These guests love to mix and mingle with those from other cultures.

Knutson took his family on a Costa Luminosa cruise over the Christmas holiday. His teenage son has since proclaimed that it was the best vacation ever. Why? Knutson said his son met other teens from across the globe; they bonded over their common interests of soccer and basketball and are staying in touch by Facebook.

RELATED: A Photo Tour of the Costa Luminosa 

Certainly, your clients will meet many Italians on Costa, as Italy remains the largest sourcing market. That's followed by the second and third source markets of Germany and France.

More Asian are sailing on Costa too, says Knutson. The line has cruises from Singapore and a ship dedicated to the Chinese market. Knutson expects Asian sourcing to increase over the next five years.

More than 90 percent of Costa’s North American business is booked through travel partners, which Knutson characterizes as “pretty unusual for a contemporary line.” Costa also does most of its North American marketing cooperatively through print, online and digital travel partner promotions.

To support West Coast agents, Costa recently increased its reservations line hours a bit later in the evening, five days a week. “But because of the boutique style of our operation, we’re not open on the weekend but I’m seeking to change that as well,” he says.

He adds that most Costa bookings come through GDS systems, though, so adding more reservations department hours hasn’t been a huge opportunity for the line. “But we want to listen to agents and if they think Saturday hours are worthwhile, we’ll consider a change,” Knutson told

Itineraries and a New Ship

Beyond its core Mediterranean offerings, which always attract strong bookings, Knutson says Northern Europe, the Baltic and South America are doing well this month. In the Caribbean, the line offers a winter series of unusual 10-day cruises that typically visit six ports – three in the eastern Caribbean and three in the west, with two or three days at sea.

These Caribbean voyages essentially loop around Cuba, so guests don’t have to choose between the two regions. Knutson says guests experience both regions for about the same price as many other lines’ seven-day cruises.

This summer, Costa will offer seven- to 11-day cruises from Barcelona, Spain; Savona, Italy; Marseilles, France; and Venice, Italy. “We have lots of options, and even on seven-day cruises we have some five-port itineraries.”

In the Mediterranean this year, Costa is also introducing a new, boutique-style premium product called “Slow Cruising,” designed for those who want to slow things down a bit in terms of destination exploration. Clients can expect overnights in ports, more time ashore to explore the destinations and onboard premium perks

The new program will be operated on the line’s classic, more intimate ships – Costa neoRomantica and Costa neoRiviera. During 2011-12, Costa neoRomantica received an extensive $170 million renovation, while, in a recent drydock, soft goods were replaced and new decor added to some public rooms of Costa neoRiviera.

Overall, Costa’s capacity continues to expand. The new 3,724-passenger Costa Diadema, translated as “tiara” in Italian, is slated for delivery on Oct. 30. It’s the largest of Costa’s ships.

RELATED: Costa Diadema Floated Out at Fincantieri Shipyard 

To promote its international product, Costa has just unveiled a new “Magic Path” marketing campaign in North America. It focuses on several consumers who wish to explore beyond the horizon. The new campaign launched in Europe during December and in North America a week or so ago.

“The direction is experiential,” says Knutson, adding that it has language that promotes “getting yourself immersed in local cuisine and culture all over the world. Get out there and explore on a Costa cruise.”

To help get more North Americans onboard, Costa has adjusted its smoking policy as well -- bringing it more in lines with other major brands. Guests can smoke only in the cigar bar and at designated areas on deck, nowhere else on the ship.

Certainly, Costa’s voyages aren’t for everyone – particularly those agents or clients selling and seeking an all-American style product. But Knutson pledges the line will definitely work with individual agencies who have the ability to sell an international product, and whose clients enjoy mixing with global guests and aren’t expecting an American hotel experience.

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