|Costa Atlantica in the Bahamas.// Photo by Susan J. Young|
With Costa Concordia lying on its side near Giglio, Italy, and images of the stricken ship splashed across television news programs and newspaper front pages, the big question for many travel professionals is: “What will this tragic accident and its aftermath mean for my Wave Season sales?”
Wave Season, which generally runs January through March, is absolutely crucial for cruise sellers and lines. This is the industry's peak sales period that sets the booking tone for the year.
Lines introduce deals, value-added perks and agent sales incentives during the Wave, and then, as inventory fills, the lines begin raising cruise fares throughout the year. That helps both cruise lines and agents, who earn higher commission as fares rise.
So Travel Agent asked cruise selling agents, agency owners and franchise or consortia executives for their perspective on any potential booking drop-off during this year's Wave Season, based on the Costa Concordia accident publicity.
Weekend Sales Hold Up
Elisse Gaines, cruise consultant and luxury/group specialist, Cruise.com (www.cruise.com), was working this past weekend, and “frankly, the calls for cruises in Europe have not lessened,” she reported. In fact, over the weekend, she sold seven cruises – four of those to Europe.
Gaines said two clients did ask for her thoughts on Costa Concordia, which she provided. But the bottom line is that she received only new bookings and no cancellations this past weekend.
None of Gaines’ clients were onboard Costa Concordia at the time of the accident, but she did have clients planning to sail on the ship Jan. 20. Thus, her agency advised those clients about the accident. “They cancelled gracefully and most took Costa’s offer for the full refund and a future cruise credit,” Gaines said.
Nadia Jastrjembskaia, owner and founder, Aurora Cruises and Travel, (http://aurora17.com), in Port St. Lucie, FL, also worked over the weekend. She reported that no clients cancelled their booked cruises, or even contacted her about possibly doing so.
In fact, "I sold five cabins on Sunday after this tragic event," Jastrjembskaia said.
A European Line
Gaines doesn’t believe the accident has impacted U.S. travelers in the same way as it might European travelers. That point was also made by Nancy Salisbury, travel specialist, Advantage Cruises and Tours (www.advantagecruises.net), Pinellas Park, FL.
Salisbury emphasized to Travel Agent that “the general public doesn’t realize that this is a mostly a European cruise line.” She said they sell no Costa in her offices because the majority of people whom have cruised with them are put off by the multiple announcements in languages other than English, along with some other factors.
In addition, she said European airfares are high right now making European travel and cruising a hard sell right now for her clients. Most people today, Salisbury said, "just want to experience more of the good ole' USA."
“It is too early to know about cancellations but I doubt we will have any,” said Sally Goldwasser, owner of Unique Travel of Palm Beach (www.uniquetrav.com), a Virtuoso agency. “Our cruise bookings are more than half our business and I expect [that] to continue.”
More Insurance, Little Impact
One impact? “We will sell more insurance because of this,” Goldwasser believes.
Goldwasser also stressed that while everyone is upset by what happened, she believes the industry does not yet really know all the factors that contributed to the accident. Full-time accident investigators such as those from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board always stress it’s premature to assess the cause of any transportation accident prior to a robust investigation.
Yet, from his personal perspective, Brian Robertson, certified travel consultant and owner, Robertson International Travel Consultants (www.robertsontravel.com), a Virtuoso agency in Santa Barbara, CA, puts solid blame on the ship's captain, whom he felt took the ship too close to the coastline. As for Wave Season sales fall-out, Robertson doesn’t expect any.
“In approximately two to three weeks, I do not see any major effect on cruise sales because of this incident,” Robertson said. He doesn’t sell mega-ships like those operated by Costa, though; he specializes in luxury cruises, and says he has confidence in the safety procedures of the major luxury cruise lines.
Robertson said the accident will not negatively impact his ability to sell cruises either short-term or long-term, or to change the way his agency sells: “People have a very short memory when it comes to this type of accident,” he believes.
A Rare Accident
While Friday night's accident was certainly a tragedy, it was also extraordinarily rare, according to Steve Loucks, chief communications officer for Travel Leaders Group (www.travelleaders.com).
Loucks said Sunday that it’s too early to properly gauge how this will impact future bookings. “It’s simply too soon to tell,” he said.
His group’s agents were talking to agents about the “freakish nature” of the Costa Concordia accident, the industry’s good safety record overall, and the fact that tens of millions of cruise passengers enjoying safe journeys each year.
Michelle Fee, co-founder and CEO, Cruise Planners (www.cruiseplanners.com), in Coral Springs, FL, told Travel Agent that from what she was hearing yesterday from her franchise agents -- many of whom are home-based and work weekends -- seems to bode well for the industry. But she stressed that it is early and most Cruise Planners agents are in a "wait and see" mode about client reaction to the accident.
Options for Agents
As of late Sunday, though, Fee hadn’t heard of any actual cancellations. She noted that even if they would receive a large number of cancellations at some point over the next few weeks, clients are absolutely not going to give up their vacations; they will likely just rebook in another segments of the industry [such as tours, river cruises or resort stays perhaps].
But don’t expect Cruise Planners' agents to push clients in that direction.
“We are ‘travel advisors’ and that just might be an option for some [clients] but certainly not something that we are strategizing to do by any means,” Fee said. She wants agents to remain positive about the industry and stress the “isolated” nature of the tragic accident.
And if the worst happens? “I’m confident that if we start to see fall-off, the cruise industry will react,” Fee stressed, noting that those in the industry who survived the drop-off in sales after 9-11 remember that “fear has a price.”
Sure, she said, the agents worked harder and harder to sell more cabins, but they survived.
While the situation with Costa Concordia is tragic, Robertson says this is the time for cruise lines to talk about their safety standards and how a cruise is the safest vacation available.
He does see one problem, though, as repeated press stories won’t help the industry, he said: “The less the news media reports this accident, the better.”
From Fee’s perspective, “I guess this week will be telling as to whether or not passengers are going to react to the media…Thankfully, we as humans have short memories, so let’s hope that holds true during Wave Season.”
Unfortunately, a strong press focus is likely as the investigation continues. In addition, April marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking -- with commemorations and events likely to stir media coverage over the next few months.
Yet, the overall admirable safety record of the industry is what agents need to keep focusing on, our experts say. Fee notes that it sure beats driving on the highway.
“We hope our clients will put this tragedy into perspective,” noted Loucks. “Airplanes crash, as do cars and trains but we keep on traveling and I think the public will also,” says Goldwasser.