Self-quarantining in the era of COVID-19 has its challenges. Clients certainly can’t visit a travel agency or attend community events or programs such as a “cruise night.”
But creativity by a cruise line and travel agency working together can save the day when it comes to doing business in a changed world. A great example was set last week by Larry Mahan, franchise owner, and David Diamond, sales manager, Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Newark, NJ, who’d previously set up a cruise night for this past Tuesday, March 17.
On Saturday, they cancelled the “live event” at the agency, which would have been attended by 61 clients and featured a presentation by Danielle Fox, their Royal Caribbean International business development manager who operates in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Instead, with Fox’s expertise and help, they turned the public event into a “virtual cruise night” webinar of sorts – a fun, online program that clients could enjoy from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Mahan gave an agency introduction, Fox did a presentation, and 42 clients in attendance (a good number given the cancellation of the original program) viewed colorful slides and fun videos showcasing a cruise experience.
“We weren’t pushing sales, as it wasn’t the time,” stresses Diamond, but rather “here’s an opportunity.” He says the agency maintained its connections with those clients – boding well for the future – and Fox’s participation helped them do that.
Despite COVID-19 self-quarantining, cruise line pay cuts or even layoffs at some cruise lines, many BDMs and inside sales staffers are still working to assist advisors. They’re just doing it in a different way.
Acknowledging “most people are in a pause” this month when it comes to their normal lifestyle and routine, Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service at Royal Caribbean International, says it’s very important for her sales team and advisors to help clients “forget the stress” and keep engaged.
Among the experiences showcased during the virtual program was a chance to “go ashore” at the Perfect Day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private Bahamian island experience. Looking at video of blue-aqua waters, soft sandy white beaches, private cabanas, fun dining and exciting thrill slides was one way for Diamond’s clients to alleviate the boredom of self-quarantine and stress about COVID-19.
Freed says Royal Caribbean’s technology allows advisors to proactively reach out to their customers and that virtual events such as the one Diamond and Fox helped create “plants the seed” for a future vacation. “They need that connection,” she stresses, and is emphatic that when business takes off once again, the advisors will have clients primed and eager to travel once again.
No, it’s won’t happen overnight, but Freed believes “we’re helping agents on the road to recovery.” Then, when the crisis is over, she says advisors can begin to “reap the harvest” that comes with pent-up consumer demand and ongoing engagement with their clients. From Diamond’s perspective too, “it’s the perfect time to just bolster relationships.”
Most importantly, though, advisors might be surprised at the results of the agency’s virtual event. Diamond said his agency went from no bookings at the end of the previous week to 17 new cruise bookings this past week from that virtual event. One booking was even for a June cruise, but the rest were for voyages departing from October through 2021.
Adapting to a Different World
While some smaller lines have laid off sales staffers, most major cruise lines have not, although BDMs are not on the road and inside sales staffers too are working from home. Some employees have taken pay cuts, but camaraderie and creativity are abound.
“We’re doing some pretty big cool things,” says Camille Olivere, Norwegian Cruise Line's senior vice president of sales. “We’re doing a lot of video meetings, both mornings and afternoons to keep everyone engaged,” she notes. More Zoom meetings also offer a chance for colleagues to interact in an almost face-to-face manner.
“It makes everyone feel like we’re in it together,” Olivere says. “There’s something very comforting in seeing friends and colleagues. It’s very upbeat.”
Though Olivere believes pushing bookings would be “insensitive,” she also says some guests are still booking future voyages. Some clients are using future cruise credits from cancelled voyages, which the sales force is helping with.
Overall, though, “it’s more checking in with partners and asking if there is anything we can do to help – to help them stay motivated and help them get through this,” Olivere says.
Similarly, Carnival Cruise Line’s field sales team has been working to assist and keep partners updated via GoCCL.com, e-mail and phone, as well as via Adolfo Perez’s Facebook page; Perez is senior vice president of global sales and trade marketing.
“We are still marketing cruises and guests continue to book, so our focus is to keep travel agents informed,” says Mike Julius, Carnival’s vice president of field sales, North America. “BDMs have wrapped their arms around their [travel advisor] partners,” to make sure advisors know the line is available to help.
Some travel advisors are still working to get guests home from overseas, answering a slew of client questions or using future cruise credits from cancelled voyages to rebook another cruise later this year or in 2021. But some others are beginning to see some down time while clients aren’t traveling.
Thus, “Carnival’s sales team has created a number of YouTube videos to assist partners on the use of GoCCL.com, particularly for those who have not engaged with us on this tool,” says Julius. The training is helping partners use the site to access the latest announcements and policies, know how to use the tool to cancel voyages and how to rebook clients on new voyages.
“Times have definitely changed due to the impact COVID-19 is having on our world, and this includes the day to day priorities and actions of our sales team,” acknowledges Ken Muskat, executive vice president and COO, MSC Cruises USA. He says that normally March would be the wrap-up period for Wave Season with the sales team making as many physical sales calls as possible, utilizing co-op as much as possible and pushing promotions for high-yielding bookings.
“But now we find ourselves practicing social distancing which makes physical sales calls impossible and our focus has shifted to saving bookings from cancelling above all else,” Muskat notes. “With that said, our sales team is still hard at work.”
As with the other lines, MSC’s sales team is “reaching out to travel partners to simply let them know we are thinking about them and we are in this fight together,” says Muskat. “Our message is that of strength, compassion and partnership.”
His line is also using the time via webinars, videos and phone calls to remind partners about the MSC Cruise Assurance program and help them get the message across to their clients that there is no need to cancel now when they can cancel 48-hours in advance if necessary.
“One thing for sure, our sales team, both field sales and inside sales, are an extension of our travel advisors,” Muskat stresses, saying the line is there for partners, whether that’s to help save bookings via the new policies, promotions and tools for a new booking focus later this year, or just someone to talk to. “An email, webinar, video or phone call can still go a long way during this crisis period,” he said.
All executives echoed the thought that the current situation will eventually pass. Carnival’s Julius says travel advisors have always been an integral part of the growth and success of his brand, and he wants those advisors to know the line “is always here to help them.”
Freed too is upbeat about the future and the recovery of the cruise industry. She says when that happens, advisors who’ve remain connected and engaged with clients during the challenging times will be ready to “harvest” the bookings.
“We know this will pass and we will rebound,” says Muskat, while Olivere points to a glimmer of positive news from China. She says Chinese partners have told NCL that some dining out and some travel is now starting to occur there.
Olivere has shared that news with her sales team and hopes it’s the start of “a light at the end of the tunnel.”