Costa ups agent incentives in U.S. push

By Tom Stieghorst
Costa Fascinosa in VeniceAs part of a push to revive its U.S. business, Costa Cruises is offering select agents commissions of 15%, along with other incentives.

Costa is also in the midst of a road show for agents, with an 11-city itinerary. Upcoming stops are slated in Dallas on Oct. 9 and Houston on Oct. 10, with a finale in Miami aboard the Costa Luminosa on Dec. 17.

Scott Knutson, vice president of sales and marketing at Costa Cruises North America, said an average of 100 agents have been showing up to hear his pitch for business.

Most of them are more than receptive, he said. “What I’m hearing from agents is they’re happy to see us again,” he said.

Costa virtually disappeared from the marketing arena after the Costa Concordia accident in 2012. There wasn’t much point in trying to sell the line until emotions surrounding the event had cooled.

Twenty months later, rather than express concerns about the Concordia, agents were eager to hear about something else, Knutson said. “We heard the opposite: ‘We don’t think one event defines your company.’”

Costa’s appeal includes fleet modernization, an authentically European experience and superior knowledge of its home turf. “We live in the Mediterranean,” Knutson said, “and other lines visit.”

Parent Carnival Corp. recently wrote down the value of two of Costa’s older ships in preparation to either lay them up or sell them at a fire-sale price.

The average age of its fleet excluding those ships is less than eight years, with the most recent, the Costa Favolosa, delivered in 2011.

Knutson said Costa appeals to many niche travelers, including itinerary collectors, foodies, wine lovers, people-watchers and those “who want a full immersion experience instead of an American hotel.”

But Costa is more of a side dish than a main course for most U.S. agents, Knutson acknowledged.

“Don’t think of selling us vs. another cruise line,” he tells them. “Think of us as capturing more sales by understanding what we provide.”

Agents who attend one of the road shows can qualify for the 15% commission on sales during the next six months, Knutson said, as can agents who submit a marketing plan to Costa.

There are also $50 restaurant gift certificates to Maggiano’s Little Italy for each booking; most of the road show events are being held at local branches of the family-style chain.

Costa’s prices continue to be a relative bargain, Knutson said, citing a $499 fare on a close-in seven-day European sailing. He said prices are stronger for winter cruises.

Agents who attended said Knutson’s presentations said it addressed any lingering doubts post-Concordia.

“The new fleet of ships is very impressive,” said Tom Slaughter of Slaughter Travel, in Southfield, Mich. “All of the information was very good; I now feel more at ease selling Costa to my clients.”

Chicago CruiseOne agent John Rose said he steered clients away from Costa after the accident, but Knutson’s honest presentation provided a different perspective on Costa as a niche product.

“While I can’t guarantee an increase in the number of travelers I send you,” he wrote in a follow-up note to Knutson, “I am more comfortable in recommending your product.”

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 
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