Even in luxury cruising, it’s not business as usual, given the challenging economy. That said, agents who proactively promote, communicate with clients, reassure clients already booked and use value as a sales hook will survive and even thrive, according to luxury cruise executives who shared marketplace tips and trends with agents at Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas last month.
A panel of leading luxury cruise executives shared sales tips for agents at the recent Luxury Travel Expo
In a robust panel discussion, moderator Terry Dale, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association, asked the executives to relate their top sales tips. “Call your clients, take them to lunch, be extremely proactive and mail notes, as they want to hear from you,” stressed David Morris, executive vice president of worldwide sales and marketing, Silversea Cruises. He recently received a letter from a family-owned retail store in Dallas that stated: “We’ve been in business 20 years, and we need your help this year.” So Morris immediately bought all his holiday gifts from the store, but said he might not have thought of the store without the letter.
When talking to luxury customers, “communicate with value,” said Carol Marlow, president and managing director, Cunard Line. She also suggested agents tap into enrichment programs and theme cruises when promoting and selling.
Share your enthusiasm, emphasized Gregg Michel, president and chief operating officer, Crystal Cruises. “People get interested when you talk to them. They get enthusiastic.” Michel also believes it’s advantageous for agents to focus on luxury cruise ships as a great way for people to travel together in a group—providing a family or close-friends experience, yet still allowing each traveler both a choice of activities and private time (and space) away from the group.
Crystal Serenity is Crystal Cruises' largest ship
In this tough economy, examine all expenses, said Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Agency owners should ask: “Can we do it better?” But “don’t cut back on marketing,” said Conroy. “You’ll pay for it in 2009 and beyond.” Someone else will market to your customers and you could lose them. Pamela Conover, president and CEO of The Yachts of Seabourn, concurred, adding that “those who keep marketing are seeing results.”
What one new initiative in late 2008 created marketplace excitement? Marlow said Cunard introduced a new trade webinar that trained thousands of agents. Through the end of this month, agents may still complete that webinar at www.onesourcecruises.com and receive a $600 bonus commission. Morris cited Silversea’s recent initiative to pay agents 25 percent commission (through the end of last year), which “really did stimulate a great deal of business for us.”
Michel cited the new Crystal Assurance program that lowered initial deposit requirements and adjusted Crystal’s cancellation policy. “This program has been very effective and it’s shown that we are sensitive to the marketplace,” Michel noted. At Seabourn, Conover said her line’s guests are eagerly awaiting the June 2009 launch of Seabourn Odyssey, while Conroy pointed to Regent Seven Seas’ free-air program in several regions.
Value Instead of Splurging
Whichever line they sail on, luxury clients are now immersed in a new mindset. “The idea of ‘splurge’ [as a sales hook] may be gone,” acknowledged Michel. “People are looking for experiences.” Today, the best sales message embodies such hooks as value, enrichment, choices, onboard space and exclusivity. The “trade up from premium” message is also a good one. “It’s very important that we all get the message out there to our guests that there is tremendous value at the moment in the luxury segment,” said Conover, and “that this is really an opportunity for people to try the luxury segment if they haven’t.”
Value is a good thing, Conover emphasized. It shouldn’t be embarrassing for consumers to say they’re going on vacation during this difficult economic period. “People should feel good about that, and we should feel good about helping them arrange those plans,” she said.
Look to your past customers. “They’re the ones that are easiest to convince to sail again,” said Conroy. In a similar vein, Conover told the agents that research shows 66 percent of those who cruise with Seabourn will do so again in the next 18 months. Morris recently participated in a multi-industry luxury event with non-travel executives from Saks Fifth Avenue, Citibank, Cadillac and other luxury suppliers. “One of the things that resonated with the group across the board was how strong we’re reaching out to past guests,” said Morris. For example, a recent initiative by Silversea to past guests resulted in more than 1,000 guests booked.
Beyond getting a booking, agents must also work increasingly hard to hold it. Since September 2008, Regent Seven Seas has observed a trend of guests canceling 120 days prior to sailing (the point at which major penalties kick in and when people have to either write a big check or charge the trip) and, therefore, agents are not getting their commissions. Some say, “Well, maybe I won’t go,” said Conroy, who urged agents to keep clients enthusiastic about the vacation at every stage of the booking. Keep encouraging them not to pull back, and if they do cancel, stay in touch. “Chances are they’re going to change their mind and you need to keep them with you,” Conroy said.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Nationwide, “real estate has certainly tumbled and we have a general confluence of economic and financial media that’s causing a great deal of panic,” stressed Michel. “Ten years ago, I don’t think the general consumer was open to the kind of financial media sensationalism that is out there today.” The good news? Given that economists now believe the nation has been in recession for more than a year, “depending on which history book you read, we could [possibly] be pulling out of this thing in anywhere from six to 12 months,” Michel said.
Marlow urged agents with clients who typically fly business or first class to Europe—and have extra time to spare—to consider a Cunard transatlantic cruise, giving the client “the most incredible time, but less than what you’d pay for first-class or business-class air.” European cruising as a whole remains a top sales hook, said the executives. Conover cited a seven-day Mediterranean cruise on Seabourn priced as low as $7,000 for a couple, compared with a three-destination European land vacation costing $5,000 more.
Inclusivity is another good sales hook. Both Regent and Seabourn are working on new value-added perks on the shore-trip side. The new Seabourn promotion, “Between Friends,” now offers guests on most European voyages inclusive private shore arrangements (with a value of at least $4,500 per group) if they’re traveling with several other couples, including one couple new to Seabourn.
Other trends? Consider escorting your own cruise group to exude confidence: “It says a lot to say ‘I’m willing to go out there and travel and I want you to come with me,’” said Morris. And while luxury consumers today are acquiring “less stuff” such as expensive watches or cars, they continue to live their lifestyle, according to Conroy, who believes his luxury guests view a luxury cruise as an extension of their normal lifestyle.
Luxury lines continue to invest in upgrades and protect their brand integrity. “Nothing is being cut back,” stressed Michel. Clients will definitely get the pampering perks and service they’re used to, said Conroy, as “we have to assure [them] we’re all in this for the long term.”
Despite the challenging marketplace, “this is a great business to be in,” said Conover. “You’re helping people create lasting memories and experiences, and that’s still something to be very proud of.”