Small Ships, Big Reward: Adventure With Small-Ship, Expedition Cruises

Navin Sawhney, CEO, Americas, Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, answered questions fielded by Diane Moore, president, Paul Gauguin Cruises, during a discussion about "Small Ships, Big Reward" at CLIA's annual Cruise360 conference in Port Everglades, FL. (Photo by Susan J Young)

Many agents wish to tap into high-end, luxury oceangoing cruise sales. But how do you get started? What can you do to improve the odds of selling more of these lucrative, high commission voyages?

At CLIA's recent Cruise360 conference at Port Everglades, FL, Diane Moore, president and CEO, Paul Gauguin Cruises, moderated a small-ship program that featured insight from seven senior executives of river lines and small ship ocean and expedition lines.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, published on Monday, Travel Agent looked at the four river cruise speakers on this program; they were executives from Uniworld, Tauck, Avalon Waterways and AmaWaterways. 

Here in Part 2 of the series, Moore talked with three luxury oceangoing, small ship lines. Speakers, in order of their appearance, were John Delaney, president of Windstar Cruises; Joseph Leon, vice president of field sales, the Americas, Silversea Cruises & Silversea Expeditions; and Navin Sawhney, CEO, the Americas, Ponant Yacht Cruises and Expeditions.

Moore asked Delaney: “What can you say about the qualities of an agent who is successful at selling this type of product?”

Brand Characteristics

Delaney stressed that these agents really understand what small ship cruising brings to the table for the traveler, such as sailing into a quaint Provencal port at which a Windstar ship is likely the largest ship that sails there.   

Online training from his line and other small-ship operators is also available. That can help agents see that “while we may represent a very small percentage of the total capacity in the industry, we have a very high booking value," says Delaney. 

It's certainly advantageous that luxury customers want to use a travel advisor, says Delaney, pointing to Charles Sylvia's remarks earlier in the show. CLIA's Sylvia said 93 percent of clients use a travel agent for booking a luxury cruise that cost $500 or more per person per day.

What if agents currently book only larger ships? How do they branch out? Delaney noted that most agents do some type of traditional marketing.

So start including some of the smaller ship products in your business plan's advertising or marketing goals. Focus on the "authentic" local experiences and enticing itineraries to such exotic destinations as Tahiti or the Greek Isles. It will help build awareness among your clients who may be intrigued.  

Paint the Picture

In addition, “social media is super powerful,” Delaney added. Agents should put up first-hand posts or video clips about experiences, or share those of willing clients who have sailed and are happy to show what a fabulous trip they had.

As a suggestion of what to post, try to "paint a picture" of the experience. For example, agents might post small details or photos/videos of such Windstar events as “Evening in Ephesus” or shopping with the chef or watersports, Delaney noted.  

That said, “I’m still a big believer in good old cruise nights,” Delaney said. Why? “If you can bring good brand advocates together with brand prospects, and let them talk and share their experiences, I think it can be very powerful."

Photo by Susan J Young

For instance, Delaney still believes wine-and-cheese events can be effective. Given that a Windstar booking is almost $8,000, a small investment in a cruise night is appropriate, he said.

“You’re not talking about trying to fill ships with thousands of people," said Delaney. "You’re talking about [bringing in] a small group of loyal, very affluent guests, and getting them together with people who have sailed, which is very powerful.”

He spoke about going through the Panama Canal in a small ship. "You are in it, you can’t see out of the lock," he said, noting that, at the same time, the client is experiencing that with a "family of sorts" -- of 200 like-minded travelers.

“The social connection and dynamic is important," Delaney stressed.  

Luxury Meets Adventure

Silversea's Leon then joined Moore on stage to discuss the Silversea Expeditions product. Several years back, “we were asked by our customers to look into expedition cruising,” said Leon, noting that was a time when no luxury lines were in the segment.

"The last thing we wanted them to do was to go to another brand to fulfill those bucket list destinations,” he acknowledged. As a result, the line found itself with two very diverse client-agent bases. 

It now has its very traditional, loyal Silversea customers, and "we continue to work with these partners who’ve worked with us for so many years," Leon said. 

But now, there’s also a second group of agents and a second group of customers almost exclusively focused on selling or taking expedition cruises. These people love adventure and cruises to remote locales.

“The best part about that second group, he said, is that they never would have considered a cruise,” Leon emphasized.

And when those new cruisers sail on Silversea Expeditions, such as on Silver Explorer, many actually return and consider taking one of the line’s classic voyages too. 

That can build a book of luxury business, something the agent may have never had without the initial expedition voyage booking.

“So, the first time cruiser is on expedition,” the surprised Moore asked?  “And then they move over to the other luxury product?" 

“It seems to be that way,” said Leon.  

Overcoming Objections

What are common client objections to small ship cruising and how can agents overcome those?

“I’d say the top two would be how well does the ship hold up at sea, as small ships move," says Leon. The client may ask their agent if they are going to get sick. "Sometimes we have to remind customers that the ship is moving, but so is the ocean."

“I think we’ve all had questionable experiences, even on mega-ships, so it depends on the weather,” he stresses.  

Another thing people object to, having never cruised, is fear of not having enough to do,” Leon adds. In reality, the expedition ships aren’t that small from his perspective; they just carry fewer people. 

Silversea Cruises Silversea Expeditions Silver Discoverer Editorial Use Only Copyright Silversea

In addition, Lyon says customers should know that expedition ships, like Silver Discoverer (shown above) have many of the same types of beloved public spaces guests expect, and in fact, some that are on his line's classic ships as well.  

Once customers come onboard, they will experience the personalized service, savory dining venues and such perks as "no lines."

At that point, they’re more likely to stick with small ship cruising than go back to mega-vessels, he tells the audience.  

Baby Boomers

Moore says it seems as though the cruise industry, which previously had focused so heavily on Baby Boomers, has almost skipped a generation as it now turns its attention to Millennials

“I can tell you that we are very much still focused on the Baby Boomers,” Leon stresses, as agents applauded. “Baby Boomers travel often and when they do, they tend not to compromise on their lifestyle.”

They’re now collecting experiences and memories, not so much “stuff." So Leon says it's critical that agents speak to potential clients about "the experience of being one of few, instead of one of many," and what comes along with that – personalized service, access to smaller ports, shorter lines and so on.

Yet, "we do get Millennials, particularly on the expedition product and when they are traveling with their parents, he said. Moore quipped, "and when their parents are paying.”

Significant Growth 

Sawhney talked about his French line’s small-ship luxury experiences and the significant growth planned. Last year at Seatrade, for example, the line announced four new expedition vessels were on order. 

He says two of those arrive in 2018, and “we are delighted at Ponant that the expedition category is booming. There is keen interest in it." Ponant has a very young fleet of luxury expedition vessels.

For the luxury traveler, what's the top differentiator? Moore asked if it was the destination or the product itself?

"Definitely destination is a very important part of it," says Sawhney "Let’s never forget that. That’s what the customer chooses first [in booking a luxury expedition cruise], but just think back to why or what motivates anybody to take that expedition."

Self Discovery 

Sawhney emphasizes that the motivation for booking an expedition cruise is quite different from why people book a regular cruise. On the expedition side, "it is about self-discovery," he says.

"It is about wanting to learn more about natural history and places you visit," Sawney notes. "That is very very different from cruising up and down the Aegean or in the Caribbean or in any other part of the world."

He cited a third and fourth aspect too. People want to travel with a sense of purpose to preserve and sustain the environment. "And last, but not least, you want to travel with people who have similar interests," Sawhney says. 

While it's relatively easy for most agents who've sold a few cruises to experience the larger ships, either for a walk-on inspection or at an event like Cruise360, they may not have that opportunity with smaller expedition vessels.

Moore asked Sawhney how the average agent could see the experience and know enough to sell it? How can they better know the products and qualify their clients?

You Can Do It

"I always like to tell anybody in the business of selling that you should work backward from your customer first, and don’t ever be afraid to take that leap, because in the end, you will succeed if you take that leap and don’t worry about never having experienced an expedition," Sawhney responds.

He put it this way: "When you’re going for brain surgery, the brain surgeon hasn’t [personally] had brain surgery and yet [he or she] can perform...and so can you,” he says.  

By posting videos, you can provide a life changing experience for people, he says, so "they can imagine themselves in that experience on an expedition."

"I think that’s a very important aspect of how we work back from the customer and then demonstrate why this is the right match for them," says Sawhney.

Demographics and databases are all wonderful, but Sawhney gave other helpful prospect tips too.

Travel advisors should keep in mind that the vast majority of people on an expedition have cruised previously. But having said that, don't discount newbies. Nearly 40 percent of people on an expedition are new to cruising. 

Yes, there are bucket lists to fulfill. But even more important than that, Sawhney urged the agents to look for "people that have a heightened consciousness about traveling differently and traveling for a higher meaning."

It's the same concept as going to the grocery store and opting for your cloth bag instead of a plastic one. "You want the environment to be sustained," he said, stressing that "it's more about the mindset of why your guest wants to travel, than it is simply about their age or their wealth."

You can read Part 1 about small ships, big reward for river cruise lines, by clicking here.