News Analysis: Taking Stock of the Cruise Selling Marketplace

As agents begin their fall selling season, what’s their impression of the marketplace for cruise sales for the remainder of the year? Do agents and industry officials believe their business is better, the same, or worse than it was at the outset of the year? What opportunities and issues do they have with the cruise lines? And what could cruise lines do better to help them sell into 2011?
America’s Vacation Center / Avoya Travel is seeing a much stronger environment for selling cruises at this point in time then in 2009, according to Steve Hirshan, the group’s vice president of sales support. Similarly, “based on the feedback we are getting … we believe the current cruise sales environment is much stronger than last year,” says Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.
Wall says things are definitely better than at the start at 2010. “From new entertainment and dining to amenities and experiential travel options onboard today’s most innovative cruise ships, people are more intrigued than ever about what a cruise vacation has to offer and how it can fit into their vacation budget,” Wall stresses.
From an individual agent’s perspective, Peter Friedman, CTA, DS, MCC, ASA, Unique Travel, Delray Beach, FL says “advance sales for cruises are up and increasing for 2011 -2012. This is especially true in the luxury market.
Tom Baker, president, CruiseCenter, Houston, TX, believes the market is fairing better than earlier in the year, especially for high premium to luxury travel. In addition, “the contemporary market is very price sensitive and creates more late bookings as prices seem to drop 30 days prior to departure,” Baker notes.
“My 2010 bookings as of June exceed the entire year of 2009 and [future bookings] for 2010 still look very good although not back to 2008 levels by any means,” Baker says.
From another perspective, “the current sales environment is challenging,” according to Carrie Finley-Bajak, owner of Cruise Holidays, Mission Viejo, CA, who says there are more people looking, booking and then cancelling. California’s sluggish economy is likely one reason.
“Compared to last year, we are seeing more people taking bigger trips and less of our mass market customers going on trips,” she says. Finley-Bajak says price does not seem to be a huge motivator when choosing a cruise.
“It was then we would be booming,” she stresses. “Prices have been great with plenty of value opportunities available from mass market to luxury but in California it has not been enough to entice people to go on a cruise.”
What’s the number one cruise-selling issue facing the trade as they enter the last few months of 2010?
Friedman says that’s space availability: “Space is very limited at this time on all of the preferred cruise lines for the remainder of 2010.”
Wall says his group must prepare its agents to handle more sales in the year ahead. “We are forecasting 2011 to be a solid year of continued growth in the cruise industry,” Wall notes. The challenge comes, he says, in providing the right tools, training and marketing solutions so agents are primed to capitalize on the opportunities in the marketplace and to seize marketshare.
Hirshan believes “the biggest impact on our overall sales right now is finding enough talented travel agents who want to run their own agencies and affiliate [with us.].”
From Finley-Bajak’s perspective, the number one cruise-related issue is “dealing with rebaters and competing against a buying frenzy caused from oversaturation on the [Internet].” She says there is a lot of misinformation caused from outdated banner ads on blogs, which contributes to customer agitation.
Finley-Bajak is one of several agents not happy with one or more cruise lines. “A real threat to our agency is Carnival Cruise Line’s new Facebook cruise search feature,” she stresses. “Although Carnival was quoted in the trades as saying that they support travel agents, their new program is a direct slap in the face of travel agents.”
Skilled at social networking and known as @CruiseBuzz on Twitter, Finley-Bajak tells Travel Agent that the Carnival application “requires users to give away rights to privacy while inviting Carnival into their personal life [for such information as] geographic location, age, marital status.” She says the line’s application makes it even harder for agents to maintain their relationships with customers.
From his perspective, Baker says he’d like to change much about the cruise industry’s approach to the trade. One issue? “Non-commissionable fees, especially from all Carnival Corp. companies, remain at an all time high – reducing [agent] income dramatically,” Baker says.
In addition, Baker says recent cruise line decisions to not protect clients who booked and then see the fare lowered are creating massive distrust between the agent and the client, as well as between the client and the vendor.
Baker believes that’s a huge threat to future cruise sales: “Honestly, what benefit does a client have to book early if they are terribly undermined by late booking incentives and much better pricing?”
Beyond the issues mentioned above, what else should the lines do to help agents sell in 2011? “Get rid of electronic ticketing, says Friedman, who notes that it’s just extra work for both agents and clients. “I find it insulting to ask agents to do the work of the cruise lines and most clients feel they are paying more and getting less.”
From the consortia side, “the cruise lines continue working with us as valued partners but, that said, there is always room to evolve and take things to the next level,” says Wall. He would like to see that communications channel become even more open.
“For our network of agents to be successful in 2011, we will [also] need for the cruise lines to continue providing us with innovative promotions, training curriculum and cooperative marketing opportunities,” Wall stresses.
While cruise lines support the trade as partners, “a challenge that our industry faces is rebating and discounting and if more cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and its brands, can restrict and curb discounting, travel agents ultimately will be able to sell more,” says Hirshan.
Hirshan says that by giving the trade the ability to earn and keep their full commissions, cruise lines are helping strengthen overall sales, his network of independent affiliates and that of the entire travel agency community.
For his agency to sell more cruises in 2011, Baker says the lines need to stop pretending to be pro-distribution yet aggressively sabotaging that same distribution system: “The biggest issue is the vendors pushing for direct business with aggressive direct mail offers and not providing those same offers to the agencies [as well as] direct call centers calling clients on expired booking options to ask why they did not book [and thus] undermining the agent relationship.”
Finley-Bajak says it’s time cruise lines embrace a combined social media effort – one involving agents. “Cruise lines are quietly amassing direct relationships with our customers,” she notes, “yet “most cruise lines will not reach out and help fellow agents establish expertise within their [social media] networks.”
She sees a “disconnect” between a cruise line’s marketing/public relations efforts and, on the other hand, its sales efforts. “When I bring this to the attention of my sales reps, a lot them don’t have a clue what their brand is doing online to engage customers,” Finley-Bajak says. Sales reps tell her they’re too busy to engage in social media. Most are only interested in the fact that she is selling.
Yes, “I get support with direct mail, cruise nights and emails,” she says. “However in this day of instant communication, it is not enough.” 

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