Matching clients to a growing selection of ships and products is a constant challenge.
The profession of cruise agent has changed dramatically since I joined the industry in 1968. Gone are the days of face to face selling, replaced with phone and internet contact. In the past, agents could make a decent income since the commissions were already built into all aspects of travel. Many people had the misconception that if they went to cruise travel agents they would pay more for the service. In reality, they usually paid less because the agent did all the research and found the best deals for the client.
The agents were paid by the airlines and cruise lines, so it cost the client nothing. If the travel agent arranged a cruise, the cost was the same as if the clients booked it on their own. The only question: Who gets the commission dollars...the travel agent for doing all the work, or as additional profit for the cruise line company who is having the client do all the work? Today, most airlines have stopped paying commissions which forces the travel agent to charge a service fee to issue tickets.
One of the jobs of being a cruise agent is to be a dispeller of myths. We might get a passenger who suffers from motion sickness, but was told that the least amount of motion on a ship is on the upper decks. The real spot for these people would be mid-ships on the lowest passenger deck. We also need to be proficient as mind readers, arbitrators, group coordinators, dining experts, appointment maker, excursion bookers, font of immigration information experts, procurers of visas and passports, children's programs experts, conspirators in surprises, bon voyage gift givers, continuing education teachers, weather predictors, seminar leaders, transportation experts and liaison in general between the passengers and cruise lines.
The challenge in today's market is matching the passenger with the right product. The questions and choices are numerous. Do they want the rock climbing wall, or the bowling alley? Do they want anytime dining, or confirmed seating? Do they want Italian, or would they prefer sushi? Are they destination driven or looking for leisurely days at sea? Do they want to be part of a 3500 passenger mega-ship, or are they looking for an intimate small-ship experience? Those who use a cruise specialist usually get good matches. Those who book on the internet often book a product that is not matched to their preferences and lifestyles, and are disappointed. It is imperative that people do their homework if they are booking on their own.
The cruise lines have now gone the way of the airlines and today no two people pay the same amount. There are senior fares, military fares, resident prices, past passenger fares, group fares and so on. Now the customer must do all the research on the internet instead of the travel agent. This can be both a plus and a minus for the agent. The plus is that when a customer calls, they have done their research and have a ship, date and itinerary already in mind The minus is that they can book on their own online, and if it is someone else's website we lose.
With the multitude of internet sites available, some agents have gotten into creative marketing. You will often see advertised "the price for 'our' customers is____ "when in reality the price is the same for all, but the internet agent wants the reader to believe they have special prices just for their customers. This is rarely the case unless they have a group price already negotiated for the date. Larger internet companies do so much volume, they can often afford to rebate part of their commission and undercut prices, but only with certain cruise lines. They cannot discount or rebate commissions with any of the cruise lines that uses a flat rate pricing system.
Many clients are price driven and in pursuit of the "great deal". This "great deal" can be a very elusive and deceptive thing. I advise clients never to believe what they hear from other passengers about what they paid for their trip. I have an elderly client who is very wealthy, but extremely frugal. His son handles the money and always books a full suite with me. He tells his father he paid about 1/5th the price other people pay for the suite. The older man believes I get "special" rates for him and tells everyone he meets onboard the ship what a great agent I am.
These same price driven passengers will nickel and dime us to death. They want to pay rock bottom prices, but spend hours with us on the phone asking about shore excursions (which we receive no commission for) will then spend thousands in the on-board shops, casinos and bars. They will travel to and from the airport in a limo, expect to be upgraded to a balcony or suite at no additional cost, and of course have dinner at the Captain's table. It is also these clients that expect to have a complimentary bottle of wine in their cabin from the travel agent .the bottle which usually cost more than the entire commission on the trip.
The industry has changed with the glut of larger and newer ships. In the past, there were only so many berths going to specific destinations to be filled week in and week out. Now with the amount of ships sailing the waters, and the massive number of berths required to be filled every week, the cruise lines look to fill these berths in more creative ways. Often it is given in the form of an onboard credit, or free robes in your room, a complimentary shore excursion, or spa treatment. They have gotten away from the deeper discounts and offer onboard amenities that they can control the cost on more efficiently, and keep the money onboard the ship with the cruise line. Also, many of the cruise lines are offering past passenger coupon booklets that they give out onboard the ship, and your coupons vary according to the number of times you have cruised with that line. They differ from free photos to free drinks to percentage off in the salon or spas. This reward is their way of keeping the customer coming back to their line.
The entertainment has changed also over the years. One cruise line always had a named entertainer in the showroom on every ship and sailing date, whereas now may of the ships are doing entertainment that the passenger participates in .be it ice skating, bowling, rock climbing. The small ship experience may have a seminar on the top deck giving a lecture on the stars, or a culinary demonstration.
The smaller ships are usually more costly up front, but offer shore excursions included in the price, so it makes the trip flow without all the decisions as to what to do, or where to go when you disembark. One example is the California wine country on a small ship for 4 nights. You travel on a river, a motorcoach picks you up for day trips, takes you to the various wineries for tastings and pairings, and a cooking demo at the Culinary Institute of America. These are all included, so when you awake in the morning, your day is already scheduled, and you have paid in advance for everything.
When all is said and done, cruising has the highest rate of customer satisifaction of any vacation, and the number of people cruising are the proof. There is a cruise out there for just about everyone, if they do their homework.
Patricia Andreotta's is President, Escape Cruises & Travel, Ltd