Cruise360: Agents Are "Voice of Reason" and Create "Validation," Says Fain

(Copyright by Susan J Young)

Championing the value of travel agents as "the voice of reason" was Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., who delivered the keynote address at Cruise360's third General Session over the weekend.

A good travel agent can take people from deliberating about something to actually making a decision about it, Fain said. “People are buying a cruise, but they’re also making a decision about their time and their family’s time.”

If people make a bad choice, not only won’t they have a good vacation, but their family won’t let them forget it, “so they’re worried about that choice,” he said.

Agents can help clients make the right choice and provide the “validation” that only somebody who knows what they’re talking about can provide.

Fain gave this example. He once accompanied his daughter on a shopping trip to buy a dress. "You look gorgeous,” he told her, but she discounted his opinion.

But “when the sales lady said 'you look gorgeous,' my daughter respected that and felt valued," he acknowledged. "They need to hear it from the right person. And you need to make sure you are the right person.”

Good for Business

Fain is often asked by investors and financial analysts why the company spends so much time and money to support the travel agency community. 

“It’s very simple,” he said. “It’s good for business...I make no bones about it. My job is to do what’s best for Royal Caribbean. We support the travel agency distribution system because it has good payoff for us.”

But how does the industry protect its future? “We all work for one of the greatest industries and our future is very rosy," he said. "It really is spectacular." Yet, he knows there are things that could derail it.

Fain believes agents can help keep things in perspective when news headlines go awry. He cites the example of norovirus, a fast-spreading virus that impacts 22 million Americans annually on land. 

Only a few thousand each year may get sick on a cruise. Looking at the numbers, “the truth is you’re much safer on a cruise ship than on land and we need to get that message out,” he said. That's where travel agents have been and continue to be effective in presenting the facts.

Another example? “We forget how powerful one misplaced word can be," Fain noted. In 2009, during the financial crisis, "President Obama was angry with the people on Wall Street and criticized a few of those people for having a big convention in Las Vegas when our economy was in trouble.” 

Obama wanted to single out those who helped create the financial meltdown, but "the result of that was a dramatic decline in the travel industry – all aspects of travel, even cruising, and it clearly wasn’t intentional,” he said. Yet, words mattered. 

So CLIA put together a group of people – travel agents and cruise line executives – and they went to Washington, D.C. The group met with President Obama and explained how much damage something like that could do. "It made a difference," said Fain.

More recently, he said President Trump’s recent travel ban has had some similar effects. The cruise industry and the entire travel industry has suffered, despite that this was unintentional. 

“So, it’s really important to us and to the success of the industry on an ongoing basis to get the message across,” he said, noting that these are just a few “examples of how words can have such an impact, and how they can have an unintended impact, even if they have our best interests at heart.”  

Photo by Susan J Young

Show the Benefits

The cruise industry provides 956,000 jobs across the globe and has a “tremendous impact on the economy.” Yet, people tend to think those are all jobs in foreign countries. 

So CLIA spent money on extensive research to look more closely at those job numbers. Fain said that showed that at least 373,000 of the jobs are American jobs.  

In addition, CLIA represents 25,000 travel agent members, and Fain said it’s important to understand the importance of that and the political significance of that. 

“Together we can do a lot to effect change," he said. "We can change regulation. We can change legislation that has unintentional consequences. We educate, and education is probably the most important thing anyone can do…and we promote our own interests.”

Cruise Demand Growth

Demand for cruising in the last 10 years has grown by 62 percent, according to Fain, who believes, “there aren’t that many industries that have that kind of a track record.” And it’s set to continue at that pace – 25 million are expected to cruise this year. 

CLIA numbers show that eight of 10 agents in America expect sales to increase in 2017. “It’s really good news for us and that’s what we’re here for,” he said. 

A recent ASTA report showed that of all bookings, 14 percent are made through travel agents, the highest number that it’s been in awhile, Fain said. 

Surprising? If one looks at the research for Millennials from age 18 to 34, they're more likely to use a travel agent than others. They do so 30 percent of the time, twice the national average. 

“It really does show that we’re in the right direction, and they’re [Millennials] the group most likely to recommend to a friend that they use a travel agent," he said. "So the future is bright for all of us.

Yet, it’s important that the industry not get complacent, Fain said. Instead, cruise lines, CLIA and agents need to “activate” he said, meaning to intensify, become more active and that’s what we as an industry need to do together. 

“Our causes are common and, frankly, that’s a good position to be in," Fain stressed. “Together, we create vacations of a lifetime. We help people plan. We help families plan. And it gives them a vacation that people will never forget."

A decade ago, Fain said people were looking for things – to buy a big screen TV or fancy car. “Today, they’re looking for memories, and that’s where you all come in,” he said. 

“I am passionately enthusiastic about what we as an industry do,” said Fain. “Together we can do wonderful things. Together we can do what we’ve been doing and then some. Together, I believe we can do anything.”