The Top Cruise Trend for 2016? Travel Agents

When front-line travel agents and travel agency owners were asked by Travel Agent this spring to cite their top cruise selling trends, the agents chose “themselves” as number one. More than half (nearly 57 percent) of the retailers responding to our survey listed “Greater Recognition of the Value of Travel Agents” as their top trend for spring 2016. Forty-one percent of our survey group also said that more consumers are turning to travel agents.

Pris Phillips, independent vacation specialist, Cruises Inc., Columbia, SC, says that some clients “only want to invest their vacation dollars in someone they know and trust.” While today’s consumers are proficient at Internet research, they are swayed by online and peer reviews of products, and are often left confused by all the options, only to realize that a skilled travel agent can help them pick the right vacation. Mary DeGroat, director of leisure sales, Rennert Travel, San Antonio, TX, puts it this way: “I’ve received a lot of feedback from new clients that are younger saying ‘we didn’t know travel agents were still around’ but they [now] know they need to use them.”

The harborside Vancouver Convention Centre (the low-rise building on the right) is hosting this year’s Cruise360.
The harborside Vancouver Convention Centre (the low-rise building on the right) is hosting this year’s Cruise360.

Heading for Vancouver

More than 24 million North Americans will cruise this year, and agents across the continent are striving to keep pace with the cruise industry trends; build their product knowledge; hone their marketing, sales and customer service skills; and enhance their professional development. One prime resource is the annual Cruise360, a conference hosted by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry trade association with 60 cruise line members and 20,000 global travel agency and 30,000 travel agent members. Between June 1 and 6, 2016, more than 1,000 travel professionals from across the globe are expected to travel to the Vancouver Convention Centre, Vancouver, BC, for the 11th annual Cruise360 conference.

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“We have a common goal to bring people together to create meaningful and memorable experiences.” — Cindy D’Aoust, President and CEO, CLIA
“We have a common goal to bring people together to create meaningful and memorable experiences.” — Cindy D’Aoust, President and CEO, CLIA

“Everything we do promotes the value” of the trade, emphasizes Cindy D’Aoust, CLIA’s new president and CEO, who took the organizational helm earlier this year. She joined CLIA in December 2014 and had previously served as CLIA’s acting CEO and executive vice president of membership and operations. D’Aoust says too many consumers misunderstand what agents do but once they’ve used a skilled travel agent, they’ll gain first-time awareness of the value and will return to book again. Cruise360 can help assure agents snag more sales, build their customer base and enhance the bottom line.

“The objective of Cruise360 is to really create an interactive event and we hope to bring together the key players in the industry — everyone from our travel professionals, our cruise line leaders, our ports and destinations, our suppliers to all the preferred partners,” says D’Aoust, noting that the event has an international flavor and is diverse, not just geographically but by the industries represented across the executive partner base.

At press time, agents who registered for the conference hail from 36 U.S. states, several Canadian provinces and a number of other countries, including India, Indonesia, Germany, Israel, Japan, the United Kingdom and Malaysia. CLIA reports strong West Coast and Florida participation this year, with total U.S. participation between one-third and one-half of the attendees. One-third of the agents scheduled to attend are from Canada.

During Cruise360, agents can not only hear and speak to cruise executives, but also attend training courses and benefit from peer-to-peer and supplier-to-agent mentoring. Historically, travel agents attending Cruise360 go back home and increase their cruise sales by a sizable amount. “Cruise 360 is about ‘sharpening your saw,’” says Charles Sylvia, CLIA’s vice president of membership and trade relations.

So, what’s planned? During the first general session on June 2, Adam Goldstein, CLIA Global chairman and president and chief operating officer of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., will offer the keynote address, which will be followed by a discussion on “The Cruise Industry Evolution.” Participants will include Orlando Ashford, president, Holland America Line; Christine Duffy, president, Carnival Cruise Line; Rick Sasso, president, MSC Cruises (USA); and Andy Stuart, president & COO, Norwegian Cruise Line. Separately, guest speaker Dick Durrance, a National Geographic photographer, will share with agents how they can expand their creative vision.

In the June 3 general session, Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO, Crystal Cruises, will offer the keynote address followed by a panel discussion, “The Next Generation of Cruisers,” featuring John Chernesky, Princess Cruises and Cunard Line; Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International; Eva Jenner, Holland America Line and Seabourn Cruise Line; Ken Muskat, MSC Cruises; Adolfo Perez, Carnival Cruise Line; Alex Pinelo, Norwegian Cruise Line; Dondra Ritzenthaler, Celebrity Cruises; and Randall Soy, Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Only a small percentage of North Americans have ever taken a cruise, so the market is still ripe for new business. “We want to educate [those] people who haven’t gone cruising, don’t know how to book a cruise and haven’t thought about it,” says D’Aoust. Concurring with her is Rick Meadows, president, Seabourn Cruise Line, and president-North America, Cunard Line, who tells Travel Agent: “We, as an industry, have to continue to convey the ‘value proposition.’ We need to continue to focus on individuals who have never taken a cruise vacation. It’s incumbent on us … to arm our trade partners with the best tools.”

Meadows says it’s imperative for cruise lines to work with travel agents to raise awareness: “What are the unique things that give us that edge over another type of vacation alternative? That has been our challenge for many years and it remains top of the list.” 

On June 4, the Cruise360 general session attendees will hear from Arnold Donald, president and CEO, Carnival Corporation, followed by a discussion, “The Rise of River & Luxury Cruising: How to Break Into the Growing Market.” Scheduled participants are Gretchen Bell, SeaDream Yacht Club; Katharine Bonner, Tauck River Cruises; Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways; Nicola Iannone, CroisiEurope River Cruises; Kristin Karst, AmaWaterways; and Navin Sawhney, Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions.

Based on Travel Agent’s recent trade survey, the river cruise and luxury topics should be popular with Cruise360’s agent audience. Nearly 55 percent of travel agents that we polled cited “The Rise of River Cruise Interest and Bookings” as their second-most popular trend for 2016. This dovetails with CLIA’s Q2 2016 Travel Agent Cruise Outlook, wherein 60 percent of agents reported that river cruises “offer the most potential for growth this year.”

Third on our list, with 43 percent of agents concurring, is “The Rise of Luxury Cruising” — moving clients from contemporary or premium products to luxury cruises. Other top trends mentioned by our surveyed agents were “Client Desires for Cruise Customization” (35 percent); “Increased Multigenerational Travel on Cruise Ships” (31 percent); and “More Affinity Group (non-family) Cruise Bookings” (12 percent). Fourteen percent listed other trends, among them more educational and adventure travel, more requests for U.S.-based (rather than foreign) travel and more destination weddings.

Among the survey responders, Mimi and Mark Comfort, franchise owners, Cruise Holidays of Kansas City, MO, say they’ve watched bigger ticket sales evolve gradually through the past 12 months, while Linda Carter, Luxury Cruise and Travel Inc., Crawfordville, FL, sees “clients shopping all agencies for the highest rebates — a race to the bottom.”

Showcasing Agents’ Value

At Cruise360, CLIA’s member lines, partners and their executives will help agents learn how best to overcome misperceptions and showcase their own value in the sales and booking process. For cruise lines, travel agents, ports, destinations and executive partners, “we have a common goal of bringing people together to create meaningful and memorable experiences and we do that through face-to-face interaction,” D’Aoust emphasizes.

Many agents will attend the Vancouver conference to fast-track their achievement of CLIA certification, earning a slew of credits toward their Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC) certification or Master Cruise Counselor (MCC) certification. What’s hot on the training side? Sylvia says one of the most popular Cruise360 training courses for those registered is “Business Writing” for travel agents: “Think of e-mail and how many prospects want to deal by e-mail. So, the more effective one can write, the more valuable one becomes.”

Historically, 67 percent of Cruise360 attendees are new to cruise selling, so not surprisingly, “Cruising 101” and “Cruising 201,” are also in high demand. CLIA is constantly altering its educational program based on member feedback. “We hear from them what they want to see, and we’re constantly looking beyond the horizon for what they should be providing and what will keep our members ahead of the curve,” says Sylvia.

One new feature of Cruise360 is the Specialty Cruise Collection Hall, which will have its own dedicated space on the trade floor, with room for talks by guest speakers, peer-to-peer and cruise executive-to-agent mentoring, trade booths of appropriate member lines and more. CLIA’s Specialty Cruise Collection represents small ocean, river, expedition and luxury lines, specialty products that are different from what’s offered on a typical big-ship cruise.

Fathom’s Adonia makes its inaugural call to Havana. Agents and cruise executives alike see opportunities for Cuba.
Fathom’s Adonia makes its inaugural call to Havana. Agents and cruise executives alike see opportunities for Cuba.

In addition, during Cruise360, eight ships will be docked at Canada Place and environs for agent ship inspections. “There’s nothing like seeing a ship first-hand,” Sylvia stresses. On June 1, agents who’ve registered and been confirmed (for slots) in advance can tour multiple ships including Holland America’s Volendam, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Mariner, Royal Caribbean International’s Radiance of the Seas; Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam; Princess Cruises’ Star Princess; Celebrity Cruises’ Infinity; Holland America’s Zaandam and Disney Cruise Lines’ Disney Wonder.

Since 67 percent of travel agents attending Cruise360 are new to the industry and, thus, are likely to be unfamiliar with how to effectively inspect a ship, CLIA has a new course that will prepare the attendees to get the most out of inspections. Cruise360 will also offer “virtual ship inspections,” providing the same CLIA credits as a live inspection. Agents won’t leave the convention center and will watch as cruise lines put on a multimedia/virtual presentation; again, these require advance reservations. Options include CroisiEurope River Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Tauck, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Royal Caribbean International.

New Itineraries and Innovations

Moving forward, agents and cruise executives see opportunities for Cuba, good marketplace buzz with new ships, new small-ship and river options, new itineraries worldwide, and cruise line innovation that’s helping draw in new cruisers. “Creativity is coming up with great ideas,” Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., told agents and industry personnel at the recent Seatrade conference in South Florida. But, he added that “innovation is bringing great ideas to life.”

Similarly, at that same conference, Frank Del Rio, CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said that while the cruise industry’s growth rate is 6 percent annually, it’s mostly due to new options available on existing ships and not so much due to the new vessels that are launching. His take? “You’re going to see a more balanced approach of new builds and maintenance of the existing fleets.”

As for industry challenges, yes, the Zika virus scare, negative world events and high airfares have been challenging. But, unexpected things happen every year, believes Carnival Corp.’s Donald, who said that as long as it happens every year the way it’s been going on and if people don’t totally panic, the industry will be fine. “It’s just part of our business,” he says. 

What do our surveyed group of agents see ahead? What’s most important for their sales success? “Selling the experience,” says Betsy Geiser, vice president, Uniglobe Travel Center, Irvine, CA, while Shirley Melachrinoudis, franchise owner, CruiseOne, Port St. Lucie, FL, pointed to “product knowledge and personal experience.” Gary Smith, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, SmithPollin Group, Eugene, OR, identifies “continued education.”

Certainly, Cruise360 offers opportunities for all that. As the year progresses, D’Aoust and Sylvia say CLIA will continue to introduce new training options, whether at the annual conference, regional training events or online. A new partnership between Meeting Professionals International and CLIA has resulted in a new “Meetings and Events at Sea” course; more than 100 agents are registered for it at Cruise360 and CLIA has also been asked to speak at future events about this topic. CLIA is also working with the Society of Incentive Travel Excellence to use cruising as a way to benefit both groups’ business objectives.

Representing more than 90 percent of the global cruise community, CLIA lines operate voyages on everything from small ocean ships to mega-ships, from luxury lines to river boats and expedition products. As its membership diversifies, CLIA has also spread its wings — focusing on globalization efforts that allow the industry to represent more lines and speak with “one voice” for important regulatory, safety and marketing efforts. CLIA now has 15 offices worldwide. But, it’s unlikely that more CLIA offices will open this year, says D’Aoust, as CLIA’s priority overseas this year is helping the Australasia and China regions continue to evolve for cruise business. 

When some U.S. travel agents ask what globalization really does for them, D’Aoust answers: “We have to think beyond our own borders, when you look at anything in the world, when it comes to health issues, legislation…there’s no such thing as just U.S.-centric anymore. Things that occur around the world have a ripple effect on the United States.” She says the positive impact is that CLIA now has regional leaders around the world who are helping develop professional training materials and tools for agents that CLIA can put on a global portal, which can be accessed by all agents. “That brings the knowledge to agents without any borders,” she says.

As for Cruise360, D’Aoust adds: “What’s really important for us is that people view this event as the panoramic event of our industry — bringing all these different constituents together. When people walk away they should have learned something from the business partnerships and the personal relationships and have an idea of how to grow their businesses.”

Taking Stock of Cruising Trends

To create a snapshot look of the 2016 cruise-selling marketplace, Travel Agent polled front-line agents and agency owners in a recent SurveyMonkey.com survey. Participating were 54 retailers affiliated with the Avoya Travel Network, Cruise Holidays, Cruises Inc., CruiseOne, Cruise Planners, Cruise Specialists, Dream Vacations, Travel Leaders, Uniglobe and many other agency groups and independent agencies.

A few highlights? Nearly 46 percent of the participants had higher cruise sales in 2016 versus last year at this time, 35 percent reported similar sales, and 19 percent were experiencing lower cruise bookings. For blue-ocean cruises, 46 percent reported higher sales, 34 percent similar sales, and 8 percent lesser sales. For river cruise sales, nearly 40 percent reported increased sales and 29 percent are seeing results similar to last year. But, it was interesting to note that 31 percent were experiencing a decrease in river sales. (Note: Some agents skipped certain questions so percentages don't equal 100 percent.)

On the positive side, “great offers from river cruise companies such as free air are driving the market,” says Lois Sposa, owner, Embrace the World Travel, an independent agency of Avoya Travel Network, Sarasota, FL. “River cruises continue to be a great alternative to coach tours in Europe,” believes Peggy Rosenthal, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Bella Vista, AR, while Barbara Snelling, Travel Agency LLC, North Las Vegas, NV, whose river sales are down a bit from last year, says it depends on clients’ comfort levels as to whether they book.

For expedition cruises, 14 percent of agents reported higher sales, 27 percent similar sales and 2 percent lower sales, but more than 57 percent said they don’t typically book expedition cruises.

Geographically speaking, only 13 percent of respondents said their European cruise sales were up, 32 percent reported similar sales year-over-year and 55 percent said their European cruise sales were down. Rosenthal was one agent seeing a bit higher European bookings “fueled by some very attractive promotions.” Others said their clients have changed their plans from Europe to other destinations and some are avoiding Paris and Turkey.

Holland America’s Oosterdam in Alaska. Cruises in The Last Frontier are attracting more interest, say half the agents polled by Travel Agent.
Holland America’s Oosterdam in Alaska. Cruises in The Last Frontier are attracting more interest, say half the agents polled by Travel Agent.

On a high note, 54 percent of retailers said Alaska cruises were attracting more interest than last year, 30 percent reported similar volume and only 6 percent saw a drop in Alaska bookings. Shari Marsh, owner and travel agent, Cruise Holidays, Raleigh, NC, is seeing a high number of multi-family Alaska bookings for 2017, and Sposa stresses: “We are booking an exorbitant amount of Alaska cruises,” many as an alternative to Europe.

Nearly 49 percent of respondents were posting higher Caribbean sales in 2016, 48 percent had similar sales and only 4 percent saw lower Caribbean sales. “Ships with ‘wow’ features,” are enticing many clients to book, according to Smith. “Ports are secondary to many,” he adds. Caribbean cruises from New York City are hot as are 10-night or longer cruises, several agents say.

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