Working the Niche

Travel Agent recently caught up with Larry Dessler, CTC, executive director of the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance (NCMA), for this trade update.

larry dessler

NCMA's Larry Dessler, posing by the Danube

How did NCMA evolve?
NCMA was founded in 1997 when a group of cruise lines— primarily unique, small specialty cruise lines led by companies like Hurtigruten (formerly Norwegian Coastal Voyage), Peter DeilmannCruises and others— joined to promote as a group because it was hard for each singularly to gain any visibility. By speaking together as a group to travel agents, they thought that perhaps the synergy could get them the visibility they desired. And they were right.

How do the NCMA lines— many small firms based outside the U.S.— serve agents?
All our lines are focused on North American distribution of their products through travel agents. So most have North American representation, although that’s not always the case. All have made a concerted effort to assure agents can reach them to discuss cruising products and client bookings. For example, a vice president for Orion Expedition Cruises assists agents from a California sales office. Other lines, too, have U.S. phone numbers and staff. And Galapagos Explorer II services North American agents with an 800 number, ringing directly into the firm’s Ecuador office. The phone is answered by an English-speaking representative.

What’s new with NCMA’s training programs?
When I joined NCMA in 2004, the original six member lines had been jointly exhibiting at one trade show a year. Today, we have 16 member lines and we’re involved at multiple venues. For example, we’ll be visible in various ways at Luxury Travel Expo and Home-Based Travel Agent Expo December 2-4 at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas. NCMA is planning to offer a post-show educational program on December 5.

Our training program began in 2004 as a Niche Cruise Specialist Program. That’s now called our “undergraduate” program. In 2006, we also introduced the Certified Niche Cruise Specialist, our “graduate” course. With the Niche Cruise Specialist program, we basically give each member line 10 minutes to explain their product. The certified program gives much more detail. We currently have more than 3,000 Niche Cruise Specialists and 500 Certified Niche Cruise Specialists.

How can an agent sign up for the “graduate” course?
In a new training option, we’ll be offering our Certified Niche Cruise Specialist program from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, December 5, immediately after Luxury Travel Expo and Home-Based Travel Agent Expo. While I’ll participate in two niche panel discussions during the conferences themselves (so all attendees will learn about niche cruises), we hope agents also will stay for this much more detailed, day-long session.

Our member lines will teach agents about their brands, ships, onboard products and shoreside options, as well as how to market and sell their cruises. Agents who participate will earn two CEUs and 10 CLIA credits. They’ll learn how to increase their earnings from top niche cruise experts. And at day’s end, they’ll receive the Certified Niche Cruise Specialist designation, a newly expanded NCMA Sales Guide and $700 in bonus commission certificates.

Agents must first register for either Luxury Travel Expo or Home-Based Travel Agent Expo to participate in this special post-show(s) training program. An added perk is that the normal NCMA program fee is waived. Space is limited, though, and separate registration is required at

On another front, on October 30 we’ll also offer a fall open-house Certified Niche Cruise Specialist training program in Fairfax, VA; go to the same website for details.

What’s the commission potential?
On one hand, the base price of niche cruise products is generally higher. It’s not unusual for our cruises to be in the $500 to $1,000 per person, per day range because of the unique nature of the products and the value associated with them. If the pricing initially seems daunting [in terms of making a sale], the reality is that the products are very much in demand by consumers seeking more vacation options and something beyond a traditional big-ship experience.
In addition, commission starts at 10 percent and goes up to 20 percent, depending on the individual line. That’s substantive, particularly when you couple the percentage with the overall cost of niche cruises.

How do the lines promote, and how can agents piggyback?
Most of these companies don’t use price as their major marketing message. So they don’t cut the price [most of the time] because they basically can’t. They have too few beds in each of their departures to risk polluting the price environment. That’s important for agents.

Another common element is that our lines focus on the destination or a unique method of transport. Your clients might enjoy a Star Clippers voyage with sails unfurled for a one-of-a-kind experience, or they might journey on Pandaw River Cruises up the exotic rivers of Southeast Asia. Alternatively, they might cruise U.S. waterways on a voyage replicating the spirit of a bygone era in American history.

Any new members? Research to show growth?
We may take on new members in 2009, but it’s too soon for details. Niche cruising is a new industry and very diverse. The industry has more than doubled in capacity for ships and berths over the past five years. A number of new ships are on the drawing board.

Who is the best client for a niche cruise?
I’d say the “been there, done that” client. They’re looking for unique experiences. In addition, agents might promote to past tour passengers. They likely haven’t considered a niche cruise because they think all cruises are alike, and because traditional, big-ship cruising products don’t answer their needs. For example, your clients might float along on a river cruise through Russia, Indochina or Eastern Europe; guests see multiple destinations in an efficient manner and with all the comforts of a cruise.

What is your best advice for agents?
Our niche products have commonalities. Use that to your advantage. The greatest commonality is the nature of the passengers. The target passenger for each member line is very similar. So if your clients go on one niche line product, they’ll likely be open to considering a different type of trip on another line the following year.

Selling niche cruises is a great way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace. If you don’t want to constantly compete with hundreds of other agents in your market selling big ship cruises, or with the Internet or 800-number agencies, selling niche cruises is a way to create an expertise, identify a local market and then service it. There is both an interest and a need. And you can sell outside the chaos of mass-market products. 

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