It’s not for the faint of heart. While there’s good money to be made, any travel agency that takes on the financial responsibility of a full-ship charter needs a good plan and nerves of steel.
But co-owners Tracy Michaels and Ann Macker of Flying Dutchmen Travel, located in Santa Rosa, CA, have successfully navigated the full-ship charter side of cruising.
They started with an idea, pitched it to top entertainers or vintners, paid attention to the smallest details, had a good plan, committed resources and put in the hours to make it a reality.
Today, Flying Dutchmen Travel, a full-service agency, operates full-ship themed charters with Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com), Carnival Cruise Lines (www.goccl.com) and Royal Caribbean International (www.cruisingpower.com).
The agency, which is a member of the Signature Travel Network, ASTA, CLIA and the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau, is now fielding its fourth Dave Koz Jazz Cruise (www.davekozcruise.com). That week-long themed charter will sail Sept. 22 to Italy (including Sicily) and Greece on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas.
For the Koz cruises, Flying Dutchmen handles “fulfillment." That involves marketing and selling the cabins and dealing with cruise customers. Koz and his team produce the cruise; they direct and control the entertainment and shows as well as all the themed activities onboard.
Agency as Producer
But Flying Dutchmen Travel has now extended its footprint for the other full-ship charters it creates. It's now actually "producing" those voyages in their entirety. These include country music, 90s rock music,and food-wine-music cruises, among others.
Just as in a Hollywood movie, the agency is handling everything to do with creating and operating the charter. On a recent country music cruise, the agency handled “the whole enchilada,” Michaels emphasizes.
That included hiring and handling management of 10 security personnel, 31 production people, and 16 travel agent escorts. Flying Dutchmen even cut the paychecks for the headliners, Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins, who worked directly for the agency.
That country music charter also featured five secondary entertainers and many up-and-coming artists. In total, Michaels says her agency put on 102 live shows. Many were presented simultaneously in multiple venues across the ship.
Overall, the themed cruise was so successful that Trace Adkins will return for Flying Dutchmen’s next Country Cruising voyage (www.countrycruising.com) on Jan. 12-19, on Norwegian Pearl.
Also participating in that upcoming full-ship charter cruise are Neil McCoy, Wynonna, Montgomery Gentry, Lonestar and others.
Ports of call on the Caribbean voyage include Ochos Rios, Jamaica; Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico. Fans will likely love the vacation and the cruise, but they clearly book for their strong interest in the entertainers.
The Country Cruising voyage will feature a nightly show in the Stardust theater; two performances (early and late) by each main theater entertainer; nightly performances around the ship from special guests in two other locations; and question-and-answer sessions with the performers.
Clients have opportunities to get up close and personal with musical guests, enjoy late night dance parties with radio station DJs, participate in song writer workshops and much more.
Flying Dutchmen is also producing a Mark McGrath & Friends Cruise (http://markmcgrathandfriendscruise.com) Oct. 18-21 from the Port of Miami on Carnival Imagination.
This short cruise will feature McGrath, Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, Gin Blossoms, Cracker, Spin Doctor, Vertical Horizon, the Verve Pipe, and Marcy Playground, with special acoustical performances by Ed Rolland of Collective Soul and Ed Kowalczyk of Live.
“We have an extraordinary hands-on production team, and Ann [Macker] and I do all of the planning,” said Michaels. The agency has also invested heavily in technology, which has allowed them the efficiencies and effective tools needed to handle such a complex project.
Flying Dutchmen Travel has 20 employees, “but not all our escorts for the cruises come from the office,” Michaels notes.
"You have to have a talented team onboard, but you can’t raid your own offices [too much],” she says. Many travel agents who escort her full ship charter cruises are former employees who have retired or moved away, yet they're great with escorting groups.
Commission to Agencies
Full-ship charters definitely aren’t for any agency without nerves of steel. “I own it,” Michaels says emphatically about the agency’s financial responsibility. “If I don’t sell it, I still own it.”
The agency is not only contractually obligated to cover the cost of the accommodations but also a portion of the onboard revenue.
For many agencies, it's just too much financial risk and too much operationally to handle. So if any agencies want to book clients on any of Flying Dutchmen's themed full-ship charter cruises, Michaels says her agency will pay commission.
“We don’t work for free and don’t expect other agents to do that,” says Michaels. “We’re happy to pay commission to other agents.”
It's an easy way to get clients onboard these specialized cruises without taking on the responsibility for a full ship charter.
That said, Flying Dutchmen is the middle man and must cover its own expenses. So it pays 10 percent and isn't able to pay the higher levels of commission some top producing agencies might earn from cruise lines or through their franchise or consortia relationships.
Michaels emphasizes, though, that even agents earning 11-15 percent or so with a cruise line on a typical voyage may still reap comparable or even higher revenue with her agency by booking into her full-ship charters.
How? These specialized cruises are priced higher than a typical cruise because the cost of the headliner and other entertainment must be included within the cruise fare.
In other words, that inside cabin that costs $500 per person double on a contemporary line, might cost $1,199 per person double on Flying Dutchmen’s full ship charters.
Yet, consumers who adore an artist or a thematic offering - many typically first time cruisers - are often willing to plunk down extra dollars for such a specialized fan-based experience.
How did it all begin? For seven years, Michaels had worked for a tour wholesaler; she sold and escorted custom tours. At some point, she became tired of living on the road. “I thought, ‘I’ve seen the world,” she said. “I know a lot about the experience and the delivery issues with travel.”
So in 1997, she and Macker bought the Flying Dutchmen travel agency, an existing agency with a good reputation. “I was just going to [sit in my office and] sell travel,” she notes.
Instead, the agency reinvented itself three or four times. She now says she could not have imagined where the journey would take her.
After 9-11, when many agencies called it quit or laid off staff, “people stopped calling and everything we’d already booked cancelled,” she noted. “Yet, we never laid off a single person.”
Flying Dutchmen markets and sells everything from airline tickets to Las Vegas vacations and African safaris, along with cruises. Through perseverance and assertive selling, the agency survived and thrived.
Then in 2008 during the heart of the recession, people said, “I can’t quit going to the grocery store, but I don’t have to go to Paris.” Basically, the business fell off the ledge again.
But they kept selling and bouncing ideas around. When they approached their first charter client, jazz great Dave Koz, he said “yes” and that started the agency's foray into full ship charters.
When others said “yes” too, Michaels acknowledges that “nobody was more surprised than we were.”
Given their locale in the heart of northern California's wine region, Flying Dutchmen Travel has now capitalized on the wine connection. “We are within 30 minutes of 1,800 wineries, so we began to approach these wineries,” says Michaels.
Wineries must be highly competitive to survive and wine clubs are a big deal to them. If a winery has 1,000 members in their wine club, those members typically might buy one bottle a month. That's a big plus for a winery, which is virtually guaranteed the sale of a minimum of 12,000 bottles a year.
For vintners,“it’s really about the relationship they have with their customers," says Michaels, who adds that wine enthusiasts typically belong to four different wine clubs.
In a recession, however, if people cut out one or two of those clubs, the result is clear. Thus, the wineries like to keep their customers engaged. A charter cruise becomes an affinity building experience with high-touch value for the wineries involved, she says.
Flying Dutchmen’s upcoming Wine, Dine and Music Cruise (www.winedineandmusiccruise.com), a full-ship charter, is planned Nov. 9; it’s a seven-night Caribbean voyage on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas.
This cruise showcases wines from seven different wineries, the culinary flair of John Ash, and multiple musical acts including Kenny Loggins, Three Dog Night, Don Felder, World Classic Rockers, Nestor Torres and Brandon & Leah.
One factor that’s very important in promoting full-ship charters is the social networking part of the equation. As a condition of their contract, typically, stars must promote the cruise via Facebook and other social neworking sites.
On the Blake Shelton cruise, Michaels says Shelton's social networking engagement with his country music fans played a "huge role" in helping entice more customers onboard.
Other means of promotion? For the Blake Shelton cruise, the agency also partnered with Country Music Television, purchased a portion of their mailing list to use, and also did radio advertising. To promote food and wine cruises, Michaels says bloggers are crucial in spreading the word.
Also helping are Macker's efforts in Web marketing, as well as the sales and marketing expertise of consultant Joan Levicoff-Sanchez, a former Carnival Cruise Lines vice president of charters, meetings and incentive sales, who now works with the agency.
When the agency team actually thinks about its beginnings within the full-ship charter business, Michaels quips that it’s easy to ask, “What were we thinking?”
As Flying Dutchmen’s team pitched Blake Shelton several years back, they just walked into his office and said: “We have an idea and this is what we’d like to do.”
Energy, creativity and enthusiasm can be infectious. The Shelton team's answer on that day, simply put, was “yes.”