How to Sell the Galapagos? Celebrity's Ritzenthaler Offers Tips

Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president of sales and trade support and service, and her husband Kevin, and two children, Reece and Cole, encountered this gigantic tortoise in the Galapagos. (Photo courtesy of Dondra Ritzenthaler)

Whether it’s the anticipation of getting up close to wildlife/marine life, an interest in the work of Charles Darwin or a place "to see before you die," the Galapagos Islands is a bucket-list destination that inspires travelers to venture to its remote location -- a volcanic archipeligo hundreds of miles off Ecuador's coastline. 

Celebrity Cruises, Metropolitan Touring, Silversea Expeditions, Ecoventura, UnCruise AdventuresHurtigruten, Haugan, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic and others offer a wide range of cruise products in the Galapagos. 

But selling the Galapagos is a bit different than selling a European, Alaskan or Caribbean cruise. So Travel Agent talked with Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, Celebrity Cruises, for trade insight.

Ritzenthaler has sailed in the islands with her family, and shares insight from that trip, as well as tips and research "intel" for travel advisors.  

Talk "Bucket List" Travel

“The Galapagos is one of those bucket list trips...right up there in the ranks of an African safari or Antarctica,” says Ritzenthaler. “It's that expedition type mentality."

She says "there are a lot of people in the world [herself included] who feel that when they're going to take time to go on vacation, I love that expedition type of an experience. And that's the appeal of the Galapagos."

So be sure to use words that create that aura and paint the picture of an adventurous expedition. And let clients know they won't have to sacrifice comfort to explore there. Clients can simply float from one remote spot to another. 

Draw in a Line's Past Guests

Ritzenthaler emphasizes: "We’ve done a lot of data analytics and research ourselves to say 'where's the right target audience and market for this?'" 

She says two main factors are involved. One is past guest loyalty, which likely comes as no surprise to agents. 

Guest loyalty helps agents in selling future voyages on the same line, whatever the line is. Shown above is a Sky Suite with Traditional Veranda on Celebrity Flora, launching in 2019 in the Galapagos.  

Ritzenthaler says that in her line’s case, there is a huge contingency of past Celebrity guests on the Galapagos cruises. When asked why they went, she says they say: “We wanted to go to the Galapagos but we only wanted to go with you because we know you and we trust you...and we know you're going to deliver the experience we want.”

Bottom line?  Advisors who have loyal past guests of any line now sailing to the Galapagos should definitely promote to those guests. Tap into their brand loyalty, but with a hook focused on seeing a new destination.

Seek Out Far-Flung Adventurers

The second group discovered by Celebrity's research is a bit different, according to Ritzenthaler. “Their last vacation was an African safari," says Ritzenthaler. "So those aren’t necessarily cruisers.”

She suggests travel partners review the agency's data base to target clients who took that African safari last year, or perhaps journeyed to Antarctica. They are potentially good prospects. "That's then the audience that we [cruise lines] want to collectively target with you," she adds. 

Tap into the clients' adventure mindset, but let them also know that while the Galapagos is "out there," some 600-plus miles off the coast of Ecuador, it's still easier to access for many travelers than an African safari or Antarctica voyage.

Look for Doctors & Pharmacists

Ritzenthaler says the line's research also showed that "doctors really love" the thought of traveling to the Galapagos. Why? Many have a personal passion about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the research arena. Many are also first-time cruisers. 

“It’s amazing,” she says. “We’ve gone out and done cruise nights with travel partners for local doctors and pharmacists and that type of audience.” The cruise nights have been very successful, she says.

Consider Direct Mail

Discussing what she's seen with travel partners that "work" on the promotion and sales side, Ritzenthaler says, “I think direct mail works for the Galapagos as it’s a higher priced product, so it does require a little more explanation. It’s not Alaska, it’s not the Caribbean, it’s not Europe."

Direct mail that is highly visual and details precisely what's involved in a Galapagos cruise experience can really connect effectively with consumers. 

Agencies who've done that have reported an eight to 12 percent better response rate for the Galapagos than on other direct mail promotions about other destinations, says Ritzenthaler.  

For the best response, though, be sure to showcase the islands' diversity, its eco-sights and dramatic scenery -- both on land and within the ocean -- and, most importantly, do so in detail.

Visually too, it must showcase a destination that's "alive" and teeming with natural creatures, and how guests can have up-close experiences with sea lions, birds, tortoises and marine life. But it must also show the lifestyle of the people who live on this remote island chain. 

"It does require a little more explanation," she says, but can work well, particularly with the higher per diems. It works well when there are two folds or three folds, lots of pictures and so on. 

But she says direct mail may not be the most effective tool if agents have no experience in direct mail, and thus another approach might be best, such as a cruise night or emails with video. .

Use Video for Dramatic Impact

Whether agents put videos on a website, or embed or attach them in an email to potential clients, video can also effectively entice consumers into booking a Galapagos adventure. 

If agents themselves have experienced the isles, it's even better. For example, Celebrity had one familiarization trip that provided a high level of first-hand experience for advisors.

One agent posted a video of her "animal encounter." As she and others ventured out to see sea lions, the marine mammals actually came around the back of the Zodiac. That made for superb video. 

"That email also performed particularly well," Ritzenthaler stressed. It also showcased the agent's level of knowledge and experience.

"The key is that you have to get things right, but you also have to go after that market [explained earlier] that is somewhat different than maybe your normal data base."

Focus on the Destination

Yes, every line believes its product is tops, says Ritzenthaler. And throughout the world, people love a particular cruise line and it's one of the prime factors for booking.

That said, she stresses: "The Galapagos is always about the Galapagos." It's all about the experience guests encounter there. 

"It’s about the animals, it's about the islands, it's about the native people who live's about sea lions who come up to your [snorkeling] mask and play with you. It's about going to find sharks, versus being away from sharks," Ritzenthaler says. "And you know there just aren't that many places in the world where you can say that." 

Show They Won't Be Roughing It

Celebrity brought its Modern Luxury product to the Galapagos starting in 2014, and Silversea Expeditions arrived with ultra-luxury within the past decade too. Many other lines also offer increasingly upscale products, including customized yacht-like experiences.

It's not unusual now to find private butlers or suite attendants onboard Galapagos ships. They also offer gourmet dining, often with farm-to-table concepts, and onboard lounges where bartenders will concoct a favorite cocktail.

Naturalists and other experts accompany the voyages to provide in-depth immersion in the destination. Pre- or post-cruise hotel stays in Baltra, Guayaquil or Quito add another dimension and level of pampering to the entire experience.

“I absolutely think there has been an evolution that's taken place in the Galapagos [from mainstream to more luxurious products],” Ritzenthaler believes. She says most players in the marketplace have stepped up their game.

And, she adds that ultra-luxury Silversea Cruises, now part of the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. portfolio, has provided a great brand halo. “It actually raises 'the floor' of what the fares are."

Add to that a range of competitors that are reputable, and it’s good for the Galapagos and the people there, she says: "I think it's great for the customers who want to go there."

Stress No Crowds

Government restrictions on the number of cruise ship passengers (no more than 100 per ship), plus strict permitting rules for vessels, has kept the Galapagos from being over-touristed.

“I love that, because it keeps it pristine and keeps it from being overcrowded," says Ritzenthaler. "It keeps the animals and the birds and everything safe.”

She says it’s important for agents to explain to clients that from the time Celebrity began sailing in the Galapagos in 2014 through today, the islands -- with most of the area a national park or marine preserve -- remain as they were: “It’s just as beautiful, just as pristine.”

So advise clients that if they're seeking "bucket list" destinations that aren't overly touristed, this is one of those. 

Consider Families

From her personal experience in the Galapagos traveling with her own family, Ritzenthaler says the destination can be a “wonderful family product” and can also appeal to multigenerational family travelers.

"It's actually quite wonderful, because kids all love animals like we do." Another plus? Many of the small vessels plying the islands can be chartered, perfect for small family groups.

However, from personal experience, Ritzenthaler says she doesn't think she would have taken her own children when they were younger, as most kids under 5 years of age typically don't have the attention span for wildlife viewing (such as walking for an hour and waiting for birds, for example).

In most cases, that’s also a bit too young to appreciate what’s being seen and have fond family memories for decades to come. A good age is in the range of 7 and up, she believes. It all depends on the child, though, so explain what families will see and do -- and what is required in the way of patience for animal viewing. 

While Ritzenthaler's children were 10 and 12 when they sailed, she also reports that another family on that same cruise was traveling with an 8-year-old. That child's teacher assigned him a school report in advance for extra credit.

"This young man was amazing," she says. "He kept a journal. He took pictures," and he received an A upon returning home and submitting the report. 

Don’t Overlook Galapagos Repeaters

With the Galapagos being a “bucket list” destination and because of higher per diems than the typical Caribbean, Alaskan or even European cruise, one might think that it’s not a destination for people to “repeat,” but that's not the case, Ritzenthaler notes. 

Obviously, it's not as much of a repeat destination as the Caribbean or Mediterranean, but Celebrity does see a number of repeat Galapagos guests.

"And I'm one example of that," she says. "I went with my husband when my kids were too little and I loved it so much that when my kids [became older] I went back again."

Why? As with Africa, says Ritzenthaler, "people fall in love with the destination and they say it changes them forever. And then you go back and you take incremental people so you can share that magical experience."

Look for our complete update on Galapagos cruising in the October 1 print edition of Travel Agent magazine. It will include information on new ships, new itineraries or add-ons and new product features and guest perks.  

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