Kevin Weisner, Cruise Holidays (left) and John Lovell, Travel Leaders Leisure Group // All photos by Susan J. Young
As Cruise Holidays International heads into 2014, its 30th year, the big question Travel Agent had for the group’s executives at this year’s annual conference on Norwegian Breakaway earlier this week was: “How’s business?
With 15 new cruise ships hitting the water next year, “we know the demand is there,” John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Leisure Group, told us, noting that overall, cruise sales by Cruise Holidays' franchise agencies have been very good this year.
Getting first timers onboard remains a challenge industry-wide but Lovell also said the cruise industry’s overall growth rate is far superior to that of other industries, including the airline industry.
One glimmer of a new trend? Lovell told Travel Agent that, for the first time, deep-water cruising and river cruising are beginning to play off one another. It’s not just getting ocean cruisers onto river boats, although that’s more common. But now, Lovell says, some river clients are trying ocean cruising:
“The river is now coming over to the deep water too. The two industries are playing off each other. It’s a symbiotic reaction.”
Kevin Weisner, senior vice president, Cruise Holidays International (www.cruiseholidays.com), was also bullish on the cruise industry’s sales potential moving into 2014. So were many of the 175 Cruise Holidays franchise owners or agents who attended the annual conference.
We talked to some agents during our foray onto Norwegian Breakaway while it was docked at Port Canaveral, FL, on Tuesday. Ralph and Barbara Young, co-owners, Cruise Holidays of Port Coquitlam, B.C. Canada, were visiting vendor booths in the trade show and talking with suppliers on Tuesday afternoon.
Education and training is a big part of the Cruise Holidays’ model, and the Youngs and others who participated in the program seemed eager to gather more knowledge and skills to help their agency compete in an ever crowded market. Barbara Young said she was getting a lot out of the conference and Ralph Young stressed: “You learn something every day. Every day brings a new opportunity.”
The Cruise Holidays conference included general sessions, a vendor trade show, educational opportunities and one-on-one meetings with corporate headquarters staff.
Weisner outlined what the Cruise Holidays corporate headquarters is doing to help franchise owners. “We are preparing our people and providing an extraordinary level of support,” he said, noting it is important for cruise advisors to stay current and relevant, and providing them with the best technology is a means to do just that.
Major technology enhancements were unveiled by Cruise Holidays earlier this week. The group's CruiseWeb operating system is being rebranded as AgentMate. At the same time, upgrades are being made to the AgentMate dashboard with the ability for greater reporting capabilities.
Weisner said CruiseWeb has been an application Cruise Holidays agents have used since the mid-90s with continued investment by the corporate group in upgrades. “We have grown a very robust, rich operating system,” Weisner emphasized. “Technology is only valuable when you’re doing something with it. It helps our franchises run our business.”
The rebranding and upgraded features will help agents with everything from personalized invoices, automatic reminders and many other intuitive actions. “The goal is to help the agent on the front line manage the transaction as successfully as possible,” stressed Weisner.
For all the AgentMate details, go to the following link:
Weisner and Lovell both said the goal is for Cruise Holidays agents to stay current, relevant and efficient, using technology as a resource and time management tool. That will allow the agents to spend time on what they really need to do – building relationships and engaging with customers.
A new lead management upgrade for AgentMate will also go “live” in AgentMate by the end of November. At that point, agents can put away their hand-written index cards or written quote sheets.
Instead of starting to track a customer after a booking is made, the agency will be able to build a pool of intelligent data on the potential customer “at the first moment of contact,” noted Weisner.
So when a customer asks an agent to make three different regional suggestions for a cruise – perhaps a New England/Canadian Maritimes premium cruise, an Alaska expedition cruise or a European river cruise, even if the customer fails to book, the technology retains this intelligence for future email marketing, agent follow-up or other promotions.
If the customer does book one of those three cruises, though, the other two not selected also remain in the system. Weisner said that's very valuable as the agent knows that a client is already pre-disposed to visit a particular area or take a specific type of cruise. And again, e-mail marketing and promotions can be intelligently targeted at the customer, based on his or her specific "bucket list" items.
The technology also helps control the process. If a lead taken on an index card is not in the system and it's not followed up on, the intelligence is lost. But with the new technology enhancements, Weisner said franchise owners will now be able to track the specific status of any leads – so they’ll be able to spread around work, if someone in their office has a good lead but can’t follow up due to travel or other work circumstances.
Lovell also stressed that the enhancements will allow agents to see return on investment (ROI) for such events as a Cruise Night. In the past if an agency invited 50 people, 30 people came, and leads or notes were done by hand, at times it was hard to follow up on what revenue was produced. Now, the computer can track the leads, look at booked business throughout the year and show the franchise owners what the event's ROI is at year's end.
Most Cruise Holidays agents who learned about the new technology enhancements on Wednesday probably won’t need special training, officials said, as Cruise Holidays is simply adding capabilities to a technology platform everyone knows. “People are not looking for more technology,” says Lovell. “They’re looking for less technology to do more for them.”
That said, while the system has always had a rich suite of reports available to franchise owners, with the recent technology upgrades, the system will be able to run virtually unlimited, very specialized reports. If a particular franchise owner desires to create one of these specialized reports – based on their individual agency needs and what they want to track – those agents will be assisted one-on-one by the Cruise Holidays corporate group in learning how to run these more complex reports.
For the Future
Currently, Cruise Holidays has franchise owners in the United States and Canada. It also has “master franchise” agreements in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Would it like to expand? Yes, say officials, noting they’ve received interest from other countries. But “nothing is imminent,” Weisner said.
What type of agents make good Cruise Holidays agents? Historically, people have come to the agency group with their personal interest and passion for cruising and their lifestyle choice. People come from different walks of life, the executives said. Still, “fundamentally, we’re sales people – people who love people,” said Lovell. “We’re not selling nuts and bolts, we’re selling an individual’s dream.”
One challenge most agency groups face, including Cruise Holidays, is an aging population of agents. One ASTA survey shows that 58 percent of all travel agents are 55 and older. “We as an industry, and Travel Leaders Group in specific…we are looking to attract new people to this industry,” says Lovell. “That’s why we started Travel Leaders of Tomorrow. We have to do a better job; we have to do our part in finding new talent.”
What sets the Cruise Holidays group apart? Why would an agent want to buy a franchise from the group, versus buy one elsewhere or become part of a host agency group? The leaders cite a vision based on four brand pillars - growth, advocacy, resources and product differentiation.
“Next year, we’ll celebrate 30 years in business,” said Weisner. “We’ve had a lot of time to develop our system.” Both executives said that Cruise Holidays has good brand standards and consistency, but at the same time, it allows franchise owners to do a lot within the brand. They can specialize in luxury, develop another niche or focus heavily on land, if they so desire.
The investment that Travel Leaders Leisure Group is making in Cruise Holidays' technology enhancements is substantive. While declining to give a dollar figure, “the investment is very significant and will continue to be,” said Lovell.
Lovell’s view?: “From the corporate level we will continue to invest in Cruise Holidays and any brand we have, as our organization is only as successful as our franchise owners are.”