Wave Update: Some Agents See Strong Bookings, Others a Gradual Surge

Photo by Susan J. Young

As temperatures throughout the U.S plunged well below normal earlier this month, many consumers couldn't wait to book a warm weather cruise.

That's among the anecdotal findings about the initial Wave Season results of 12 agents in 11 agencies around the country. Many reported strong bookings, while others said it's been a more gradual surge, and a few also said, the sales are good, but they really have a clientele that books throughout the year.

For many, though, the start of Wave Season has been positive. "My phone started ringing starting Dec. 26 and hasn’t stopped,” emphasized John Gawne (www.jgawne.cruisesinc.com), Cruises Inc., Virginia Beach, VA. “This is the most client interest I’ve had this early in Wave Season in several years.”

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Gawne believes that in the past few years, there was essentially no traditional Wave Season awareness on the part of clients -- only on the part of the cruise lines and tour operators. His sales were more typically spread out in the first six months of the year.

Now, Wave Season itself has expanded and consumers are more educated. “Interestingly, this year some of the cruise lines started offering Wave specials starting in December, instead of January,” Gawne noted.

More cruise lines are participating in this year’s Wave Season and focusing on getting a great jump-start for 2014 cruise bookings, according to Paula Kaisner, franchise owner, CruiseOne (www.pkaisner.cruiseone.com), Lakeway, TX. “My agency is having a great first week for this year’s Wave Season from both a booking perspective and the dollar amount of the bookings.”

Kaisner said her customers have been trained to wait for the Wave: “Many seasoned cruise travelers are aware of Wave Season and in most cases, wait until this time to make their bookings because of the various promotions that are offered.”

Also experiencing a much busier Wave Season this year is Janel Fidalgo, owner of the Janel Fidalgo Agency (www.AvoyaTravel.com/Experts/JanelFidalgo), an independent agency in Ware, MA, affiliated with Avoya Travel. Last year, she said, the booking surge took off a little slower, even going into April.

This Wave Season, in contrast, “I’ve been absolutely non-stop with bookings -- so much so that finding personal time has been a little difficult,” Fidalgo said, but noting she's very pleased with the sales results.

Sales Trends

Rich Skinner, owner, Cruise Holidays (www.luxurient.com) of Woodinville, WA, said “one of the top trends we are seeing with our cruise bookings is a noticeable increase in river cruising. That is a particularly hot vacation option with our clients.”

Skinner said television marketing by Viking River Cruises on “Masterpiece Theatre” (Downton Abbey) benefits all major river suppliers. It creates elevated consumer awareness. He also cites the all-inclusive nature of river cruising is as a differentiator taking hold with clients.

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Concurring are Ira and Helene Kaplan, owners of Cruise Holidays, Marlboro, NJ, who reported their clients also are booking 2015 Europe river cruises during this year’s Wave Season. Their other clients are booking Royal Caribbean International's (www.cruisingpower.com) Quantum of the Seas for 2015 as well as both European cruises and land tours.

From Gawne’s perspective, “the most interest since Christmas has been from family groups seeking spring break cruises in the Caribbean.” He stresses that many clients don’t realize it’s often already too late to seek those staterooms accommodating four for March spring break dates.

A relatively new franchise owner, Beth Edwards, owner, Cruise Planners-American Express (www.whendoweleave.com), Tampa, FL, has clients who are excited about all the new ships and feeling more confident about the value of cruising. “So far, I’m noticing groups of families sailing together – three or four unrelated families who are friends or whose kids are friends,” she said.

Edwards is also selling many celebratory cruises, primarily milestone anniversaries, and sees greater demand for longer versus shorter cruises. According to Fildago, “it appears that a lot of people are traveling as larger family groups, so I’ve been having multiple bookings on the same product from people traveling together.” She recently sold five cabins to a family group sailing to Alaska.

Fildalgo also experienced good demand for the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Alaska, but reported that, for her agency's sales, Europe isn’t tracking as well.

Sabine Harris, another Cruise Planners-American Express Travel franchise owner (www.cruiseplannersintampa.com), Tampa, FL, is also getting more Wave Season family and group bookings than in the past. “This year is off to a great start and it's only the 10th of January,” said Harris.

Tammy Lackey, a fellow Cruise Planners-American Express Travel franchise owner (www.crosspointcruises.com), Suffolk, VA, has had a strong start to Wave Season this year, but said it’s not always easy to project where the interest will be. One Wave Season she gets many European bookings, the next more sales for Alaska.

One interesting sales development this Wave Season? “For the first time in 10 years of having my Cruise Planners franchise, I've had more holiday bookings,” Lackey stressed. After five years of not tapping into these markets, “in the past two to three years I’ve seen a consistent shift of more people booking trips for these holidays,” Lackey says.

Mother Nature and More

Toby Nash, owner, Cruise & Travel Masters (www.cruiseandtravelmasters.com) Salt Lake City, UT, a Vacation.com agency, said her agency has been extremely busy since the start of the New Year, but “it’s hard to say with certainty if the significant number of cruise bookings we make during the first quarter of the year are directly related to the promotions that the cruise lines roll out for Wave Season or if it’s because of our clients’ desires to get away from the cold and snowy weather in Salt Lake City.” Either way, she said, it’s a great time to book.

Also citing weather as a booking influencer is Edwards: “The great deals being offered by the cruise lines and the relatively awful weather we've had in the U.S. have really motivated people to plan vacations." But she said if the first few days of Wave Season are any indication, the first quarter for cruise lines and agents is going to be "awesome."

Helene Kaplan noted that last year at this time, many on the East Coast was still dealing with the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. So, she’s "glad local consumers are in a better place personally and financially to be able to spend their discretionary income on a cruise vacation."

Lackey has observed her clients planning for vacations further out. “One of my first calls was for an incentive group for spring 2015 so that long-term planning is starting to come back again,” she said, noting that she isn't seeing as many last-minute buyers.

Changing Dynamics for Booking

Is Wave Season in this era as important as in the past? Some agents said “yes” and others “no,” but Harris calls it a status quo. One thing, though, is different. “I do plan on advertising more to get more new clients,” Harris notes.

Karen Malone, travel agent, Travel Leaders (www.tvlleaders.com/karen), Woodbury, MN, said the Wave Season promotional period for her clients doesn’t seem quite as important as it may have been in the past: “I would have to say that Wave Season isn’t a big factor for my cruise bookings,” Malone said. She told Travel Agent that her clients are basing their decisions to buy more on a particular itinerary or cruise line that meets their vacation needs.

In other words, Malone said clients aren’t overly swayed by what’s available during Wave Season, because they know that the cruise lines still offer other promotions throughout the year. “If there is a promotion available at the time my clients are ready to book, that’s seen as a bonus,” said Malone.

Ira Kaplan also said Wave Season isn’t quite as important to his agency’s clients as it once was, as “our clients are booking all throughout the year and, in fact, the booking window is growing for many of our clients. We have clients booking a year or more in advance to make certain their trip is secure.”

From one cruise line’s perspective, the international mix on ships has also changed the patterns a bit, particularly for lines with sizable international sourcing. “I think Wave Season has changed from 10 or 15 years ago, as we used to put a lot of emphasis, hopes and marketing into the first 60 days of the year, as we thought of it as ‘make it or break it’ but I don’t think necessarily that’s the case today, said Scott Knutson, vice president – marketing and sales, North America, Costa Cruises.

That said, he acknowledges that Costa is an international brand, with people across the globe sailing based on different cultural and societal dynamics as well as weather patterns. So the first quarter of the year may or may not be viewed as the most advantageous season to book in all foreign source markets.

That will increasingly impact other lines, as they take on more international guests. Still, “I do get excited about Wave Season and the opportunity that presents as far as marketing” to North American guests, stressed Knutson, who added that the timing for the Wave couldn’t have been better earlier this month, given all the cold weather up north.

Agencies too are out promoting aggressively to consumers, and using social media more than ever to get the word out about deals. On Jan. 7, Avoya Travel (@avoyatravel on Twitter) tweeted: “Test your travel knowledge! During what three months of the year does Wave Season occur? Find the answer here: http://ow.ly/smjJe.”

When consumers clicked on that link they were taken to a page that provided not only the answer but also sales points and motivational messaging that tapped into the public’s desire for value, such as “amazing deals that include hundreds of dollars off, reduced deposits and more…”

Cruise lines are also introducing promotions to help agents sell. For example, Costa has Wave Season promotions focused on buying an inside cabin and getting an oceanview, or buying an oceanview and getting a verandah, plus reduced deposits.

"I feel that the cruise lines are now much more proactive in not only creating really strong incentives, but also in providing agents with information about those incentives,” says Edwards.

Concurring is Michael Sinn, franchise owner, Cruise Planners-American Express Travel (www.ourdreamcruise.com), Las Vegas NV, who says he’s pleased with the actions his franchise group's cruise line partners are taking to help drive business to his agency.

He says many of his firm’s clients are very focused – much more so than in the past – on what they want in the way of a cruise vacation. “My business continues to grow because of this,” Sinn emphasizes.

Another change? Social media has changed the way agents do business,” says Edwards. “The cruise lines have done a tremendous job in creating Wave advertising and promotional material that translates perfectly to social media.” That allows her to get the information out to more people and helps with marketplace buzz about Wave Season benefits.

Looking Ahead

Wave Season is very important to Fidalgo’s business because it is when her agency does the majority of its sales. “In the past there have been slower months during the year, which is why Wave is so important,” she said. Yet, “2013 had very few slow periods for sales and I stayed busy almost year-round. If this year’s boom continues, I anticipate it will be busy year through all of 2014.”

Agents hope the issues of last year are a distant memory. This year’s Wave is “pulling people back to cruising after a year of less-than-great publicity,” said Edwards. "People want to go on vacation, and they love to cruise. Wave Season gives them the reason and the opportunity to do it.” She added that the great deals being offered by the cruise lines and the relatively awful weather this month have provided additional motivation.

The economic woes of the past are also dissipating, said Lackley: “My personal opinion is that right after the 2008 election, many of the long-term planners were a little afraid to book too far out. I had some clients cancel because they didn't want to tie up funds on trip, in case things with the economy didn't get better. As people have had a few years to adjust to our new economy and current administration, I think the fear of spending money on travel has dissipated.”

Lasley says people now realize they need their time off, they have bucket list items they want to check off, and they’re not willing to live in fear – instead planning trips further out, budgeting more and traveling to enjoy a family experience or personal milestone.

Kaisner reports many of her clients are seriously considering summer cruise itineraries and promotional options. And if frigid weather lingers, agents say many consumers will be even more motivated to book a warm weather cruise.