Intel for Agents: A Conversation with Costa's Scott Knutson

Costa Cruises, which began sailing from Port Everglades in the 1950s, has returned seasonally to the South Florida port with Costa Deliziosa. // Photos by Susan J. Young

Travel Agent recently caught up with Scott Knutson, vice president of sales and marketing for North AmericaCosta Cruises, aboard the 2,260-passenger Costa Deliziosa at Port EvergladesAgents can see a slide show of some public spaces on Costa Deliziosa from Travel Agent’s brief visit to the ship.  

Back to Port Everglades

Costa certainly has a lot of history at Port Everglades, sailing from the port as far back as the 1950s. While the line left Port Everglades for PortMiami a few years back, Knutson said that move was primarily driven by the international charter business.   

Scott Knutson, Costa's VP of sales & marketing, North America, shown on Costa Mediterranea. // Photo by Susan J. Young

Now the dynamics have shifted. "We’re now sourcing about 30 percent North Americans at Port Everglades so the charter flight options aren't so critical," Knutson acknowledges. 

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While Costa Deliziosa has sailed back to the Mediterranean for the summer season, it will again return to Port Everglades in December for the winter 2016-17 season. As those voyages from South Florida are primarily 10-day voyages, Knutson reports that the average guest age ranges from 58 to 62. 

Demographics change a bit when North Americans book in Europe. "When we get over to the Mediterranean, which is the primary market for North America and for the entire brand – we come down about six or seven years," he notes.

Research shows that the average age for North American guests sailing on Costa in the Mediterranean is about 52. That said, the line does attract some families in summer as well. 

New Costa Cruise Tours

What's new for Costa? Available in the prime European season, running now through November 2016, Costa has introduced 10 new themed Costa Cruise Tours European vacation packages.

Offered in partnership with Central Holidays, these can be booked by guests sailing on four Costa ships. The packages include roundtrip flights to three Italian cities, first-class hotel accommodations ashore and a week-long Mediterranean cruise. 

Cruisers can select packages that focus on art, history, nature, culinary, wine and other themes. For example, on the Food Lovers tour, guests will visit a market in Orvieto, Italy, to gather ingredients for an Umbrian cooking class.

Better Industry Differentiation

Costa, for its part, focuses on Italian-style branding and continues to add business partnerships with high-end Italian brands. Just recently, in conjunction with Milan Fashion Week, Costa launched a new clothing and accessories collection created with SLAM, a traditional Genoese brand. 

Knutson says both Costa and the cruise industry as a whole are doing a far better job of product differentiation than in the past? "Yes, absolutely," says Knutson. "Everyone’s trying to find their brand and expand on it."

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Costa Deliziosa's Dining Room // Photo by Susan J. Young

So while Costa is a contemporary brand, it's very different than such competitors as Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line and even MSC Cruises, also a European brand. 

MSC has chosen a European-style focus with product elements added to South Florida voyages to appeal to North Americans. In contrast, Costa sticks to an Italian focus, even when it sails to the Caribbean from South Florida with many North American guests. "We haven't tried to Americanize the product," Knutson explains.

He says if clients seek a full immersion in an international experience, that’s good, but if the guests want to return to an American style hotel after touring ashore, "we’re probably not the right product." 

To help educate agents, the line offers regular Webinars and programs at such events as Cruise Lines International Association's cruise3sixty in Vancouver. 

On an annual basis, some 3,000 North American agencies sell Costa, but Knutson reports that a couple of hundred agents do the vast majority of bookings. Base commission for travel agents starts at 10 percent, with top accounts making twice that.  

A guest accommodations corridor on Costa Deliziosa // Photo by Susan J. Young

If any issue surfaces impacting a travel agency or their clients, "one positive factor is we’re a small operation here at the North American headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, so agents don't have to go through many levels to reach someone who can act quickly," Knutson says. 

Filling the Ships    

North America is one of 12 offices for Costa across the globe. "The European market is so large, that if they [Costa corporate in Italy] have a pricing opportunity [to help fill cabins last minute], they give it to us before disrupting the brand’s largest source market of Europe," Knutson reports.

As such, the line does many last-minute offers with preferential pricing for North American guests; the same pricing is not offered to European travelers. Those fares typically draw in dual-income, no-kids-at-home travelers who just want to get away from home and can pull it off at the last minute.

Not surprisingly, Florida ranks first in sourcing for Costa's Port Everglades departures with much business from Naples, Venice, Sarasota and Tampa. In addition, almost 30 percent of the line's North American business for Port Everglades is also sourced from Canada

"California is also a very large market for us because of its sheer size," says Knutson, adding that Midwest residents who come to Florida on vacation also like the 10-day voyages with low-end pricing.

For those desiring to sail from Europe and find a bargain, the Mediterranean in winter is an option. Costa has five ships there during the off-season -- November through March.  

Knutson points to lower airfare costs and fewer crowds at major sites ashore during the Mediterranean winter season. A seven-day Costa winter season cruise that visits five cities is typically priced at just under $1,000 per couple for an inside stateroom or about $1,700 per couple for a balcony stateroom.

Moving Forward

For 2016, Costa has introduced a new gala menu created by Michelin-starred chef Bruno Barbieri. Syusy Blady and Patrizio Roversi of the “Turisti per caso” tourism website, popular with Europeans, are also showcasing the line's best excursions. 

The Voice of the Sea, a "take off" on a famous reality television show, will be replicated on Costa ships, plus the line's supervised children's clubs will have new programming focused on Peppa Pig

It's also the fifth anniversary year of CostaClub,  the line's guest loyalty program, which has recently been updated. Loyal guests now have two new membership clubs, new limits and rules for accumulating points, and more exclusive, personalized benefits for the most loyal repeat guests. 

"We're also excited that Costa has appointed New York-based hospitality designer Adam D. Tihany as creative director for our two new ships scheduled for delivery in 2019 and 2020," Knutson says. Both ships will be powered with Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). 

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