How to Book the Perfect Cruise Vacation

Consumers should ask their phone provider about charges they’ll incur at sea or package options; AT&T has cruise packages for consumers sailing on Norwegian (pictured) and other lines.

If a cruise selling agent creates a fantastic “Life at Sea” experience, clients will post Instagram photos, talk about their cruise on Facebook and tell everyone they meet about the fabulous voyage. Plus, they’ll return to their valued travel agent to buy their next vacation and referrals will flow. But what measures should agents take to keep them coming back for more? What’s the secret sauce?

Relationships and Qualifying 

Simply put, start with the basics. “It’s not selling, but relationship building,” says Van Anderson, co-founder, Avoya Travel, who tells Travel Agent that it starts when the potential client first contacts you. Each conversation holds clues about the customer, his or her family, travel desires, likes / dislikes, personal interests or hobbies, past cruises or trips, and what he or she thinks is a “perfect vacation.” Once you have a good sense of those, keep in touch via e-mail, phone, mail or social media. 

Yes, mention a great cruise offer, but also wish the client a happy birthday, forward information about a favorite hobby, ask about their son or daughter’s wedding or send an invitation to a community event. Client discussions on any level create a “treasure chest” of knowledge that morphs into a valuable database to help the agent match the client with the best cruise product. 

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That’s critical as each cruise product has its own style / personality. At the Seatrade Cruise Global 2018 Conference last month, Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Inc., told the audience: “If there’s one thing I’m thankful for every day, it’s that we have resisted the urge to homogenize ourselves.” 

If clients desire an Alaska cruise, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new 4,000-passenger Norwegian Bliss, sails summer Alaska cruises from Seattle. Guests can expect a 180-degree Observation Lounge, multiple dining venues, Broadway-style entertainment and top Alaska ports. Compare that with Alaskan Dream Cruises’ 10-passenger Misty Fjord expedition vessel that operates flexible itineraries in remote wilderness areas; it’s small, intimate and there are no set routes, as the captain and shore team decide that weekly based on wildlife migrations, guest interests and weather.

Either trip could be perfect for one client, totally wrong for another. “There is nothing worse than sending a person on a vacation that is not a good fit for them,” says Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance, CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc. “This is your gift. You are entrusted to find the right vacation for them and their family.”

Daly suggests asking open-ended questions to find out as much as possible about their vacation style and desires, but also ask “yes” or “no” questions too. Both will help, but remember that “you will only be successful if you do one thing — listen,” says Daly in his new trade-focused book, “Selling Fun,” available on Amazon. “You must listen to every word that the customer says.”

Also, re-qualify long-time customers every year or so. The young couple who formerly only wanted all-inclusive adult resorts or to party on a cruise, may now have kids and want a family experience. New for the family market, Disney Cruise Line will launch three new 140,000-grt ships setting sail in 2021, 2022 and 2023. They’ll embody the Disney style and design, reflecting the Golden Age of Cruising, will feature 1,250 staterooms and have all the family-friendly Disney attributes such as supervised kids’ clubs and character interactions. 

Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection will begin taking reservations in May for its inaugural season in 2020. Pictured is a rendering of a Terrace Suite.

For those clients who say, “Oh, I’d never cruise,” Virgin Voyages launches in 2020 with an adults-only experience that plays itself as not a typical cruise. Virgin’s research shows that eight percent of cruise skeptics would indeed sail on the new Virgin brand. Similarly, for yachting fans, consider Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, opening for sale in May. It plans high-end suites, an aft marina and water toys, multiple dining venues and Ritz-Carlton service. 

Assuring that guests have a great “Life at Sea” sometimes means simply putting them on a cruise line they already love. Tap into new ship “buzz,” such as that for Viking Ocean Cruises, which just ordered six more 930-passenger ships last month; all will have balcony staterooms, Scandinavian design, a full-service spa and the Aquavit Terrace.  

Agents can also pique client’s interests with refurbished or updated ships. Launched in 2009, Silversea CruisesSilver Spirit was “stretched” last month — cut apart and a new 49-foot middle section inserted. Now, the vessel has 12 percent more capacity, 15 percent more seating in dining venues and 20 percent more outdoor seating. It’s likely to appeal to clients who have sailed previously on the ship or line.

The agent can create onboard joy by matching the client with a themed cruise that fulfills a personal interest. AmaWaterways is among river lines operating wine-themed cruises, while other lines offer everything from music to art, lobster to the Civil War and health / wellness. Tauck and Uniworld have family-themed options. On the ocean side, Carnival Cruise Line has an impressive line-up of “Carnival Live!” concerts / shows, while Cunard Line’s “Greatest Generations” cruise, departing July 20 on Queen Mary 2, gives guests a personal glimpse into wartime experiences through stories from World War II veterans. 

Another way to satisfy guests is to give them value. They don’t want to get onboard and feel they’ve paid more than others. So, motivate clients to book far in advance, use early booking savings and garner value-added amenities. Increasingly, lines have held the line in not dropping prices (but perhaps offering value-adds) as the voyage nears. If they do drop the price, they typically credit the guest in some way. 

Another guest satisfaction strategy is to “check the price and always take an option,” says Mark Conroy, Silversea’s managing director - North America. He says that holds the suite and gives the client typically 36 to 72 hours to decide. Instead, if the client waffles, the agent opts to not take the option, then later when the client says yes, it’s a recipe for disappointment if the category is sold out. Just release the option, however, if the client opts not to book. 

Often a “Life at Sea” experience is most satisfying when it’s shared with family, friends or like-minded people. Putting a small group together typically only requires five or more staterooms. Ask about group programs with sizable perks. American Cruise Lines recently added new dedicated group coordinators to help agents with bookings of 10 or more passengers traveling together and confirmed simultaneously. The line gives groups onboard meeting spaces, private dining and cocktail hours, onboard enrichment and entertainment, guided shore excursions and complimentary pre-cruise packages. Commission is 10 to 15 percent. 

Educating and Personalizing 

“Agents that take the extra steps to offer expert advice create that high-touch personalization that keeps their clients connected to them,” says Theresa Scalzitti, vice president of sales and marketing, Cruise Planners. “Tell them about a special lounge onboard that has the best view on the ship, which excursions in the ports are the most popular, what shows are a “must see” or where to make dinner reservations either onboard or in certain ports.”

Explain Dining, Book Specialty Restaurants: Certainly, dining is a critical part of the cruise experience. New cruisers need sizable guidance and cruise veterans need to know all the latest culinary options. 

Holland America Line’s Culinary Council chefs are enhancing and elevating dining experiences, such as the new light, fresh choices at Koningsdam’s Pinnacle Grill.

Later this year, Crystal Cruises sends Crystal Serenity into dry dock. Overall ship capacity will drop, allowing for the introduction of open-seat dining in the newly named Waterside (formerly Crystal Dining Room); the Lido Café will be replaced with The Marketplace and Churrascaria; and Tastes will soon become Silk Kitchen & Bar, serving Asian noodle dishes, dumplings and soup at lunch and dim sum and seafood at dinner. If an agent books a guest who loves Asian food, but didn’t discuss Silk Kitchen’s menu prior to sailing, the guest may wonder, “Why didn’t my agent tell me that.” 

Holland America Line just asked its Culinary Council chefs to enhance and elevate a designated onboard dining experience. For example, Chef Elizabeth Falkner is introducing such new light, fresh choices as “Roasted and Raw Carrot Salad with Omega seeds” with touches of labneh cheese, oranges, mint and cilantro. Travel Agent recently sampled this in Pinnacle Grill, but if a client who doesn’t have a booking there or isn’t briefed on the new choices may think his or her agent let him down, particularly if other guests mention that their agent discussed it with them.

Anderson says agents must suggest specialty dining and ask to make the client’s booking. Do so as far in advance as possible. If reservations are closed, advise the guest upon boarding to immediately head for the restaurant or a dining reservations desk to book a slot. Emphasize that minutes matter when many others also want reservations. 

Beyond regular dining venue reservations, also inform foodies of culinary and wine options, including cooking classes, wine tastings, chef demonstrations, vineyard / winery tours ashore and culinary-themed excursions such as those Holland America has created in conjunction with Food & Wine. 

Outline Entertainment Choices: Entertainment too is a critical part of the customer’s onboard experience and some shows require tickets. Book those early for clients. Outline all entertainment options for them. 

What’s new? In February, Princess Cruises debuted “The Secret Silk,” a new show by Stephen Schwartz, the Oscar-, Tony- and Grammy-winning creator of “Wicked,” “Pippin” and “Godspell,” on Royal Princess. It will be added to Island Princess in May and Diamond Princess this coming winter. Adapted from the ancient fable “The Grateful Crane,” the new show tells the story of Lan, a beautiful, selfless young woman who possesses a magical gift, secretly creating brilliant silk fabrics. It’s a contemporary spin of an Asian folkloric tale with drama, music, puppetry (including original life-sized puppet creations by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), an original song, “Sing to the Sky,” and highly effective visuals.  

Launching this month is Carnival Cruise Line’s 133,500-grt Carnival Horizon. Guests will discover three new shows onboard — “Soulbound,” “Celestial Strings” and “Vintage Pop” — plus a fourth show, “Amor Cubano:  A Caribbean Dance Romance.” These new shows combine the artistry of live performers with the technology of interactive LED screens. Azamara Club Cruises just introduced new onboard entertainment with cabaret style performances and musicians from Feinstein’s / 54 Below, as well as short opera vignettes and theater shows from Magic City Opera and City Theatre. 

But entertainment isn’t just about shows. It’s also about “retail.” Starboard Cruise Services designs creative retail entertainment for guests on various ships. One new option is the “Kate Spade – Eat Cake for Breakfast” event on the Royal Promenade of Royal Caribbean International’s new Symphony of the Seas. At The Collection luxury leather store, cake and champagne are served as guests discover Kate Spade’s newest collections and strike a pose in fun photo opportunities.

Update Clients on Enrichment: Agents can help clients have a good time by discussing onboard speakers. Seabourn’s new Seabourn Ovation launches in May 2018. Sailing on May 5 is Sir Tim Rice, English author, lyricist and Oscar-, Tony- and Grammy-winner. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994, he’s collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita.” On December 4, Dean McFlicker, director and producer, NBC Entertainment and other firms, will sail on Seabourn Ovation to share his experiences creating campaigns for “The Voice,” “This Is Us” and other shows. Other luminaries sail throughout the year on this and other cruise lines too. 

Help with the Shore Experience: Help clients choose and book the best shore trips, as it’s a high satisfaction item on a cruise. Increasingly, specialized or curated shore trips — beyond the standard city tour or beach break — are becoming more popular. Celebrity Cruises offers a “Bermuda White Night Catamaran Sailing,” for example. 

Discuss voluntourism opportunities as many clients like “giving back.” A volunteer trip could involve an ecotourism tour, or it could be offering hurricane support, helping improve agricultural facilities or teaching English to kids. Fathom, a former stand-alone line, is now partnering with Carnival Corp.’s brands including Princess for social impact shore trips.

Agents can also offer to book clients on some specialty tours ashore, such as a private Key Lime pie making class in Key West, FL. Classes are offered for six or more at Key West’s Key Lime Pie Co., 511 Greene St. Cost is $20 per person

“Vintage Pop” is one of three brand new shows just introduced onboard Carnival Horizon that combine the artistry of live performers with the technology of interactive LED screens.

Discuss Internet / Wi-Fi: Ships are at the mercy of global satellites when it comes to connectivity, and bandwidth at sea can be slow. Posting lots of selfies could incur costly charges without the right plan. Yet, things have greatly improved. Royal Caribbean introduced fast-Internet Voom several years ago and is working on the new Excalibur technology initiative. Carnival Corporation is field testing Ocean Medallion on Princess; the latter can open cabin doors, buy goods at the onboard shops, tell waiters what your favorite drink is, explain show times and much more. 

It’s helpful if agents either discuss how technology works on the particular ship. Advise clients to consider a bundled Internet plan, cheaper than per minute rates. MSC Cruises’ Internet plans can be purchased per cruise or per day. Clients should also be encouraged to chat with their phone provider before leaving home. For example, updated AT&T Cruise Packages combine talk, text and data available on over 170 cruises departing from the U.S., including those on ships of Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and more lines. 

Suggest Clients Pre-Pay Their Gratuities: Make sure the last day of your client’s cruise is a positive experience. If they’re not on a cruise line that includes gratuities within the fare, they’ll get a bill on the last day for $12 and up per person per day. Agents who suggest clients pre-pay the gratuities (if that’s available) eliminate the last-day sticker shock. 

Lobby for Travel Insurance: Things happen. Whether it’s a medical emergency or trip interruption, or a parent or child that becomes sick back home. When something interrupts a fabulous cruise, the financial loss that follows can be substantive. Explain the realities. Make the case. Use actual examples from clients (without names or identifying information). Consider offering a small incentive, such as a $10 credit they can use toward any travel insurance policy. 

Also update them about new insurer features. Allianz Global Assistance’s updated TravelSmart mobile app comes with a simpler, more intuitive user interface enabling clients to access their travel insurance details, claims status and more. It also features a real time global flight status tracker, updated global directory of medical facilities, police stations, U.S. Embassies, and more ways to contact the Allianz service team. 

Anticipating the Voyage 

Yes, the cruise itself is important, but research also shows that consumers also love the anticipation, the thrill of planning and thinking about what’s to come. So, send phone, mail or e-mail updates regularly — every week or two, pre-cruise, depending on the client’s preferences. While some communications must be business focused, others should offer fun video links, factoids and tips for the upcoming cruise or time ashore. 

Many clients book the cruise for the itinerary and the ports / destinations visited. Why not give clients a printed hand-out or e-mail list of movies to watch or books to read, before they set sail. For a cruise calling at Civitavecchia (Rome), you might want to e-mail a list that includes “To Rome with Love,” “Roman Holiday,” “Three Coins in the Fountain” and other favorites. Or, the agent might create a lending library of books and DVDs to loan to guests free of charge. That’s also a good way to encounter clients and answer questions as the cruise nears. 

Conroy has observed that it’s quite effective when a travel advisor provides a customer with a personalized dining recommendation in a port of call. That showcases the agent’s expertise. Be sure to provide directions and a few “what to order” tips. Some agents create a tips sheet for popular ports of call — including dining, shopping, attraction, restroom and safety tips.

Increasingly, cruise lines have become more partner friendly, and on future cruise bookings completed onboard, they give credit to the agent of record. Some agents have future cruise bookings in the double-digit percentage range, when it comes to their overall business mix. 

Anderson advises that agents share options pre-cruise with clients, let them know of promotions and that you’ve worked with “Angela” or “Tom” in the onboard cruise office many times. Even provide directions to that office and motivate clients to get down and put down a deposit to secure a great deal. Often, the deposit is refundable if the client chooses to cancel, but many of these bookings stick. 

Windstar Cruises is introducing a new Onboard Cruise Consultant (OCC) program. It’s now on Star Pride (pictured), Star Legend, Star Breeze and Wind Surf. 

Most big ship lines have future cruise offices, and now Windstar Cruises is introducing a new Onboard Cruise Consultant (OCC) program. It’s now on Star Legend, Star Breeze, Star Pride and Wind Surf, the largest of Windstar’s vessels. Guests receive a reduced deposit for booking their next cruise onboard; the original agent gets the fully refundable booking. 

Surprise and Delight

Many agents send a welcome bottle of champagne or sparkling wine on embarkation day. That’s all well and good, but Conroy says some agents have a bit more creative idea — prepaying for the client’s specialty dining experience.Other options include prepaying for a show ticket, buying a gift card or certificate they can use onboard on buying them a photo package. 

“For my ocean / sea cruise clients, I get an anti-motion sickness wristband,” says Sima Hashemifar, founder of S. H. Journey and travel agent with OASIS Travel Network, San Jose, CA. It’s just a thoughtful precaution. For his river cruisers on group cruises, “I reserve a space for a morning and afternoon meditation session led by yours truly.” 

If the client is celebrating a birthday, anniversary or retirement, agents can either book special packages online at the line’s trade site or, if that’s not an option, talk to the sales director, business development manager or inside sales manager. Also, Conroy says that the agency’s destination management company may be able to assist with private arrangements or suggestions for client surprises ashore. 

Also, contact clients on embarkation day or the following day to see how it’s going. That way you can share in the delight or help them, if something unexpected has developed. Show “I’m on it.” 

After the Cruise  

Follow up with clients immediately after the trip. Don’t wait, says Conroy, who believes it’s advantageous to have an e-mail note ready to go. “Ask them how the trip went,” he says, noting that it’s also good to say, “in the next trip, what can I do to make it better?” 

Finding ways to make the experience as personal as possible is the key to clients returning home satisfied and delighted, emphasizes Scalzitti. Personalize communications, service delivery and marketing. Then, she says: “It’s you they will remember.”

Daly says that the best time to book a client on a cruise is just after they returned from one. The “glow” is still there, they’re still brimming with memories and it’s a great time to start again with the relationship and a potential future sale.

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