Today, Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com) is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its “Partners First” efforts in support of travel agents. The initial investment included a $16 million commitment in agent tools and $7 million in technology upgrades.
To mark the occasion and show its continued commitment to Partners First, today the line announced an additional $12.6 million for technology investment and new initiatives plus $17 million toward marketing and cooperative investments.
Enhancements for Agents
During the past year, the line has expanded its sales team, streamlined booking processes, enhanced technology for agent use, added customizable marketing tools within its online Marketing Headquarters and made a commitment to travel partners about direct business.
So what’s ahead for 2012 and beyond with the additional investment? Here are highlights:
Universal Reservation Agents: Andy Stuart, Norwegian’s executive vice president of global sales and passenger service, says the new investment will develop technology to support a new concept of “universal reservation agents” in its reservation centers later this year.
Operating under the motto “one call does it all,” the Norwegian agents will assist agents with both individual and group reservations. Stuart says that when agents call today, they might talk to one agent for an individual booking, but then have to be transferred somewhere else to ask a question about a separate group booking or FIT.
That will be a thing of the past, thanks to technology and employee training. Stuart believes the one-stop shopping concept will help improve the line’s efficiency and also better satisfy agents. When the universal reservation team is in place, one call that involves several topical threads will no longer be passed from employee to employee.
New Travel Partner Portal: Norwegian also plans to use the added investment to create a new Travel Partner Portal where agents will log in just once to access Norwegian’s booking engine, NCL University, Marketing Headquarters, information about partner events around the country and additional tools and resources.
As for NCL University, which the line operates itself, more than 27,000 individual travel agents have registered online. The big surprise, Stuart says, is the level of engagement among the agents themselves. “We expected the agents to participate in training and in the certification program, but we underestimated the sense of community created,” he said.
Stuart said Norwegian wanted agents to know more about the brand, to become educated about the brand and product, but what’s happened that’s an added benefit is that “people have developed a connection focused on the brand.” Now, he said, these agents are talking more to each other in almost a “surrogate office environment,” whether on Facebook or other sites.
Agents Onboard: Every agent who travels with Norwegian can receive special benefits offered via the company’s onboard recognition program, “Partners First Onboard.”
Moving forward, Norwegian also plans to give travel partners more opportunity to experience the product first hand via seminars at sea, [email protected] cruises and Travel Partner Reduced Rates.
For example, Stuart told Travel Agent that the line plans to double the number of trade cabins available for partners to preview the new Norwegian Breakaway during its 2013 inaugural events.
Promotions that Protect Commissions: In the past, agents complained about NCL’s extreme discounting and price promotions that cut into agent commissions.
The line says it’s now actively creating promotions that maintain pricing levels and instead offering consumers a value-added deal with free onboard amenities or services. One example is the line's current "Little Norwegians Explore for Free" promotion that provides families with the value of free kids’ shore excursions.
New Group Amenities Program: Stuart says Norwegian remains completely focused on being easier to do business with and will launch a new Group Amenities program that will shift from points to dollar value. This will give travel partners increased flexibility and simplicity when booking group reservations.
Stuart says some voyages gave three points for one sailing, five for another, and it was confusing to some agents. Now, agents will get dollar amounts to be credited toward either amenities or services for clients, or greater commission for agents.
Stuart said: “That will simplify the process for travel agents to help them book on the dates when we need [help with bookings] and they get great value.”
Ships Close to Home: Agents have told the line that they want it to keep more capacity close to home with departures from North America. Stuart cites the line's ultimate decision to base Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway, the line’s new ships slated to begin year-round service in 2013 and 2014, in New York and Miami, respectively.
Travel Agent Locator: Additionally, Norwegian has added a Travel Agent Locator on its Web site. That’s designed to help potential clients connect with a travel partner in their local area.
The line says its research shows a big jump in its travel agency business. Stuart believes Norwegian is much easier to do business with than in the past, citing one of his line's studies in which travel professionals cited Norwegian as "the cruise line that improved the most over the past year.” But he declined to provide any specific numbers.
Many travel agent partners have also done their own surveys, Stuart said, “all of which have shown a dramatic improvement year over year.” In addition, the line now first asks every customer who contacts them directly if they are using a travel agent partner, to try to avoid competing with agents who may have already worked with that client.
“Our commitment to the travel partner community is stronger than ever,” says Stuart. “Our partners are critical to the ongoing success of our business. We are committed to continued investment that focuses on making sure we are easy to do business with and that ensures the long term health of our travel partners.”
To learn more about Norwegian’s Partners First initiatives, visit www.partnersfirst.ncl.com.