The prospect of beginning anew rings in with the coming of each new year. For travel agents, resolutions are closely tied to the cruise wave season, a booking period that ensues after the New Year and runs through March—a time period that is a fair prognosticator of an agent's annual success. But like any New Year's resolution, it can fall apart—unless certain steps are taken to ensure that robust sales are achieved.
For the home-based travel agent, such steps are even more precipitous than for agents linked to larger agencies with more tools at their disposal. This is why independent agents must resolve to be more prepared than their counterparts—and more savvy, too.
Wave season sets the pace for the year and is a telling predictor of cruise demand. More specifically, it is the time when travel agents field many bookings, based in part because the trend has been for people to book farther out in advance. According to a recent Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) study, nearly half of all cruise bookings are made six months or more in advance. Consequently, reservation calls begin rolling in soon after the first of January, as both families and couples look to shore up their vacation plans.
Climate is another reason they're calling. "After the holidays, people get the fervor to travel," says Amanda Klimak, vice president of Largay Travel in Waterbury, CT. "Cold weather usually makes people book cruises in the Caribbean or other warm weather destinations."
While the din of ringing telephones is a travel agent's favorite sound, being unprepared to answer them can make for a rogue wave season. That is why taking steps to ensure success before the wave period begins is key. It began in January; with any luck, you've been preparing for a while.
"What we do in November and December is make sure that all of our staff have proper training and the latest information from vendors," Klimak says. "We review our staffing and do small things like order in lunch so that the office is completely staffed. It's an all-hands-on-deck approach." Smaller things, such as making sure the phone system is working, office supplies are replenished and brochures are up to snuff can go a long way toward mitigating any pop-up administrative concerns.
Yet just being a travel agent in a home-based setting can be difficult unless you have some base of support. Anthony Hamawy is the managing director of Cruise.com and has some simple advice for independent agents. "Make sure you are a member of a larger organization," he stresses. "There's a value to it, because it allows you to become more competitive with other options. If you aren't competitive, you are out the game already."
Cruise.com is one agency with an outside agent program that allows agents to access its promotions and pricing programs. "It's a way of giving agents equal footing with larger agencies," Hamawy says.
Staying in the game during wave season is paramount, especially this year. Hamawy thinks it will be stronger than last year. "Our business spiked in just the first few days of January," he says. "That didn't happen last year."
On the flip side, supplier guidance can also help you get through wave season unscathed. Marilyn Conroy, Silversea's vice president of sales, says that agents can capitalize on wave season if they are savvy.
"Add value propositions," she says. Conroy highlights the line's Silver Savings program—tied to over 50 different itineraries—which discounts some suites up to 50 percent. She also says that agents should hone in on onboard activities, such as seminars and other educational programs. "The smart agents will do things like that," she says.
While the luxury cruise lines like Silversea don't need to rely heavily on wave season bookings, Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean do.
"More people are going to book during the first quarter, especially since pricing in a place like the Caribbean is soft," says Vicki Freed, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Carnival Cruise Lines. She also says that qualifying prospective customers is something that should be done right off the bat and, selling cruises is something agents should play up—especially now. She cites the fact that international destination vacations require a passport, while cruises still do not. Further, "Attracting first-time cruisers is important during wave season," Freed says.
Royal Caribbean is doing its part to entice agents to book RCL cruises during the wave period. One way is through its portal for home-based agents, accessible at www.cruisingpower.com. The site gives up-to-date brand information and available promotions. Also, Royal Caribbean's Ride the Wave kit helps prepare agents for wave season. It provides a checklist for planning marketing strategies and offers pre-printed marketing collateral.
While all of the tools can prep agents for the task at hand, it is still up to the agent to be as cagey and proactive as possible. Understanding the travel climate and keeping tab of trends is vital says Lisa Bauer, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president, North American Sales. "Look at the value of the euro versus the dollar," she proposes. A destination vacation to Europe will cost more now that the U.S. dollar is deflated versus its European currency counterpart. But booking a cruise in Europe is cheaper because it is paid for in U.S. dollars. "Push the value of a cruise instead," Bauer says.
Just like tax season for accountants, wave season is travel agents' hectic time. Above all else, agents must be accessible throughout to ensure that a possible sale isn't missed.
"Availability is key," says Jan Swartz, senior vice president of sales and customer service for Princess Cruises and Cunard Line. "Agents should extend hours, even open on a weekend," she instructs. Once a schedule is set, Swartz also stresses the importance of utilizing online booking tools, which will cut down on nagging issues such as paperwork. Online booking engines such as Princess' POLAR can reduce time spent on administrative duties during wave season.
Places to Pitch
Though wave season stretches over the colder months (in much of the country), there are many options other than the Caribbean to sell to your clients.
"Wave season isn't even really centered on the Caribbean," says Terry Dale, president of CLIA. "That's because many bookings may be made during wave season, but not taken until later in the year." Dale says that Alaska and Europe continue to be top sellers, while Asia is emerging, especially for luxury cruisers. And although many of the cruise lines do offer promotions during this time, Cruise.com's Hamawy calls many of them "vanilla," in that they don't have much bite.
"Carnival has two-category upgrades; Norwegian offers up to 150 bucks in onboard credits—but none of these promotions is specific to agencies," he says. "You need promotions that want to make people book today."
Princess Cruises' group space promotion, which Princess cajoles agents to promote during wave season, does however pack some punch. Travel agents booking Princess summer cruises by February 28 can earn double their override commission on all group business.
So much of being a home-based agent is pinned on getting noticed awash in a sea of competition, from both other independent agents and more orthodox brick-and-mortar agencies. However, weighing the amount spent on marketing versus your return on investment is as important as making sure your clientele is serviced.
Jerry Davis, President of Fairfield, NJ-based Alice Travel, ramps up his marketing campaign shortly after the New Year. While any amount of exposure can boost sales during wave season, it is imperative—especially for home-based agents—to not overextend.
"Don't get caught up in the hype," says Cruise.com's Hamawy, pointing out that advertising costs exceedingly more during wave season. "Yes, you have to do well during wave season, but don't get caught up in spending too much on advertising. Know your number, and don't exceed it."