Onsite: NCL's Andy Stuart Holds Court With Agents, Trumpets Growth

AT SEA-Travel Agent had the chance to snatch Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line's executive vice president of sales and marketing, away from his hectic schedule aboard Norwegian Gem, which set sail for Rotterdam on Tuesday, as he talked to us about the future of NCL and what was on the mind of its travel agent partners. Stuart met with about 45 agents on NCL's newest ship, gathering immediate feedback and discussing a range of topics from online tools to Apollo Management's $1 billion investment, which Stuart called a "good thing that validated our efforts," adding, "it puts us in a strong position to go forward and potentially grow faster."

Growing quickly is one thing, but growing the right way is paramount. In November, according to Stuart, NCL will become the youngest fleet in the industry with the sale of Norwegian Crown to Fred Olson Cruises and the addition of Norwegian Gem (NCL's average ship age will be 5.5 years). "We simply get younger," Stuart said. "Not the biggest, but most innovative and youngest."

Stuart touched on three main goals going forward: drive demand, drive revenue and work with agents. He said agents are most impressed with the freestyle cruising element. "They [travel agents] get it," Stuart said. "It's genuine differentiation."

There is room for improvement. Stuart said NCL will look to improve its group programs, though he was sketchy on how that would be accomplished. He also added that agents were looking for the cruise line to add more online tools to facilitate better reporting and keep a clearer line of goals.

While the feedback from agents was mostly positive, Stuart understands that not all agents are willing to express their true feelings when in the presence of company executives. To address that, Stuart left the room at one point, handing over the discussion to an independent party who recorded additional agent comments. "People will be more frank," said Stuart, who will learn the results at a later time.

The travel agent community will also find out at a future time if NCL plans to cut out air commissions on bookings like Carnival and Royal Caribbean have already done. Stuart would not speculate, but did say it's "not sensible to get with a higher cost structure." (DE)