Explainer: Cruise Group Sales 101

Oceanview stateroom onboard Royal Caribbean International’s Liberty of the Seas, which recently hosted a “Men’s Night Out Social Club” cruise.
Oceanview stateroom onboard Royal Caribbean International’s Liberty of the Seas, which recently hosted a “Men’s Night Out Social Club” cruise.

If one or two clients create good commission, just imagine what a group of 16 or more could mean, particularly given more commission or group perks. Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president, Seattle-based Cruise Specialists, says the top ways to increase group cruise sales are to reach out to clients, promote, follow-up and add value. “Ask your clients about their hobbies, interests and passions,” says Scrivanich. “Chances are they have friends and family who share similar interests they would like to incorporate into a cruise vacation.”

Any client can become a “pied piper” for an agency’s group business — including bridge players, ballroom dancers and Zumba enthusiasts. Cruise lines create group-ready sailings, she says, pointing out Crystal’s active, arts, culinary, historical and world affairs experiences and AmaWaterways’ themed wine, beer, art and Jewish-heritage cruises. Holland America Line also draws dance fans with its “Dancing with the Stars” sailings, and many lines have sports-focused fan sailings.

Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder, Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, Coral Springs, FL, says agents shouldn’t wait for a group to call. “Instead reach out to potential groups and make it happen,” Fee stresses. “Find a unique itinerary — maybe a wine-themed cruise — and go out and find wine connoisseurs and market to them.” Create attractive group promotional materials with a clear message to act. “You want to generate excitement and encourage guests to book early for the best amenities and staterooms available,” Scrivanich adds. Then follow up with clients already booked to gain momentum for others to join the group.

Go online and tap into social media. “Another way is to search for affinity groups online that might use a forum or chatroom and offer the host a free cruise if they can gather eight cabins,” says Fee. “Have them help sell the group for you by using that tour conductor incentive.” From another trade perspective, “we are seeing more cruise lines open up their consumer promotions to groups and lower the total number of cabins to earn tour conductor revenues, which can range from $100 to $1000 per eight cabins [typically the minimum] sold in a group,” says Rosemarie Reed, vice president of marketing, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. She cites Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line as the most popular among her agents for group business.

In a new MSC Cruises “All-In” group promotion for MSC Divina, one free tour conductor berth is earned for every 13 full-fare passengers. Agents also receive 18 percent flat commission for group bookings — eight or more staterooms — on sailings of five nights and longer departing between April 23, 2016, and March 25, 2017, excluding New Year’s. Other perks include complimentary stateroom upgrades, up to $100 per stateroom onboard credit and a reduced deposit of $100 per person. Visit www.msccruisesagent.com/allin.

Costa Cruises has a “One for Nine” Caribbean/transatlantic group promotion on select sailings, subject to capacity controls. Groups receive one free tour conductor berth for every nine double occupancy cabins sold, plus agents benefit from increased commissions and commissionable shore excursions and drink packages. Carnival Cruise Lines now allows agents to use promotions and sales for group bookings. Agents receive confirmed space at a set price and payment schedule but now can use the latest deals to entice clients to place a deposit. “Travel partners may simply go to their group booking via www.goccl.com, then choose ‘berth cabin,’ where they will not only see their group block but also have an opportunity to view all current promotions,” says Mike Julius, Carnival’s senior managing director of U.S. trade sales. Agents can keep their group intact for any special events they’ve scheduled onboard, as well as for dining purposes, group amenities and tour conductor credits. “Agents do not have to worry about losing a potential group booking due to a special sale,” he says.

Small ships offer lucrative full-ship charter opportunities. Michelle Weller, vice president, sales and customer support, Travel Leaders, Houston, TX, says her agency will charter Silversea ExpeditionsSilversea Discoverer for a Micronesia voyage in March 2016. “We have the entire 62 cabins chartered for a total eclipse of the sun,” Weller says. The agency has done these successfully in the past, including one on SeaDream Yacht Club last year. She says an onboard NASA expert accompanying the group knows how to use satellites so the captain can position the ship in the right location for the best viewing.

Small ships are providing more group options. In October, Haimark Ltd. will offer sailings on the new 44-guest Amazon Discovery on six-night cruises in the Peruvian Amazon. Staterooms are 237 to 597 square feet. Commission starts at 15 percent for individual (FIT) bookings but soars to 40 percent on some products for groups booked through Haimark. Customized full-ship charters accommodate 24 to 68 guests.

While the destination is important, sometimes the reason for the cruise is camaraderie or family travel. Michael Consoli, franchise owner of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, Roswell, GA, invites top clients to sail with him on a group cruise annually. “It’s a tradition and my clients love to cruise with me,” Consoli says. Separately, for an Indian wedding group, “we had to coordinate several parties onboard that required precise timing and specific food,” he said. “It was a challenge ... since there were about 100 guests, but it was a success.”

Stacy Coggan, owner of a Cruise Holidays agency in Hainesport, NJ, says her top group cruise was for the “Men’s Night Out Social Club,” Fort Lauderdale, FL. Last January, this group of 105 gay men sailed on Royal Caribbean International’s Liberty of the Seas. “It was a high-energy cruise where these guests actively participated in every game and contest onboard the ship,” she says. Promotion for this sailing went viral on the Internet via social media. Coggan was contacted by people from 25 states and the U.K. “I had to hire an administrator just to field social media inquiries for this group … with several suites and over 60 balcony cabins booked,” she says.

Many participants were executives booking suites and solo balcony cabins so they expected the best. “We set up a private [onboard] reception area for these guests where they picked up their group T-shirts, agendas for group events and tote bags filled with travel gifts,” Coggan says. “They felt so spoiled having their own check-in area on the ship. They filled the upper decks of the ship in a sea of blue with their group T-shirts.” Non-group passengers were drawn to spots where the group hung out because it was such fun. Coggan created personalized daily communications and private group parties including a “Totally ’80s” party and a “Fire and Ice”-themed reception. She recommends agents planning a group cruise set up a private beach excursion: “It’s a great way to keep your group together when they hit the port.”

“Another way to grow your group business is to seek out corporations in your area and pitch them on the idea of a ‘meeting at sea’ and increasing their participation through offering a cruise experience over a hotel experience for their annual event,” says Reed. Dave Dunning, a Results! Travel member and owner of the Cruise Center, San Antonio, TX, says his most unusual group cruise ever was an insurance company’s incentive cruise with 144 passengers booked on a seven-night eastern Caribbean itinerary out of Miami.

“We started with 25 cabins but the company changed hands in the middle of the incentive and the new sales manager decided to lower the threshold to qualify ... in order to boost sales,” says Dunning, who added 50 cabins at the end of the qualifying period. He also set up a golf tournament and optional sightseeing in ports. A hurricane two weeks before sailing resulted in a change to the itinerary, but “I was able to move their golf tournament to a course in Jamaica and we ended up giving everyone shipboard credit so they could reserve their own shore excursions onboard,” he says. The trip was a hit with group guests.

Dunning suggests including cocktail parties, poker tournaments and award ceremonies for incentive trips. “Anything that promotes team-building is particularly important,” Dunning says. Whatever the group make-up, it’s advantageous to showcase value, everything from great service to an experienced voyage host, exclusive shore tours, private car excursions, onboard events, customized group gifts, and, at times, pre- and post-cruise stays and transfers.

Toot your own horn too. Consoli creates T-shirts for group participants with his agency’s contact information and requests clients wear them on customized shore excursions: “Everyone in the group loves it and everyone not in the group asks about it, which helps drive my business.”

Their T-shirts read: “I kept calm because I called The Cruising Lady.”
Their T-shirts read: “I kept calm because I called The Cruising Lady.”

A Tightly Knit Group

Mara Hargarther, a Cruise One franchisee (Hargarther, Thaler & Associates LLC) in Ponte Vedra, FL, has had a lot of experience — and success — with themed group cruises. The group that had the highest satisfaction scores, she says, was “the last Knitting Cruise we did in March aboard the Celebrity Equinox to the Southern Caribbean and Panama. We had close to 70 people with us.” (Many of them are pictured here on the Panama Canal excursion vessel Tuira II.) “I have been doing these across the globe for several years and each time we try to do at least one thing different from the time before. We have several solo travelers and this was so wonderful for them to have people to not only knit and dine with, but to explore and discover new places with old and new friends,” Hargarther says.

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