Expansion-minded cruise sellers form alliances abroad

By Tom Stieghorst
Cruise specialists are looking outside the U.S. for growth as they follow the industry into foreign markets, and two of the bigger names in the U.S. are in the vanguard.

World Travel Holdings is already active in the U.K. and is looking for more foreign acquisitions.

And Travel Leaders, through its Cruise Holidays brand, is also selling cruises in the U.K. and recently announced master franchise agreements for Australia and Quebec.

By going abroad, agency groups say they can make alliances with some of the more dynamic travel sellers in a country and grow their business in big chunks rather than gradually through organic expansion.

Among the first U.S. agency groups to seek its fortune abroad was World Travel Holdings (No. 19 on Travel Weekly’s Power List), which has a stable of brands that includes CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. and Cruises.com.

In June 2010, the company purchased an undisclosed stake in U.K. travel retailer Cruise118, which, like World Travel Holdings, owns multiple brands besides its flagship Cruise118.com.

The alliance deepened late last year when Cruise118 became a master franchise holder in the U.K. for CruiseOne, targeting the sale of 20 franchises by the end of this year.

World Travel Holdings co-CEO Brad Tolkin said he is looking for similar deals.

“We’re very, very close to another acquisition of a cruise entity in another country,” Tolkin said at the CruiseOne annual conference in Orlando in October. “We hope to announce that by the end of the year.”

Cruise Holidays’ vehicle for U.K. growth is Global Cruising Ltd., which acquired master franchise status in March 2011. At the time, it had 27 retail outlets, but it will end 2012 with more than 50.

The name Cruise Holidays is especially attractive in the U.K. because of the British usage of “holiday” to mean “vacation.”

“It works fantastically well as a brand,” said Tony Childs, managing director of Cruise Holidays U.K.

Cruise sales in the U.K. amount to about 2 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) compared with $17 billion in North America, underscoring the opportunity for growth.

The U.K. has several home-grown cruise brands, including P&O Cruises, Thompson Holidays and Cunard Line, and it is a top market for North American cruises, executives say.

This year, Cruise Holidays continued its expansion abroad by issuing a master franchise for Australia.

CruiseMart, a top five brand there, agreed to run its stores under the Cruise Holidays banner. Les Farrar, who became managing director, said the sophistication of Cruise Holidays’ technology platform for home-based agents was a big part of the appeal.

Last year, 623,000 Australians took a cruise, a 34% increase over 2010.

“It’s a big focus of the cruise lines to build that market and to look outside of the domestic market to fill their ships,” said Mark Schiffner, COO of Cruise Holidays.

Last month, Cruise Holidays announced an alliance with Groupe Atrium, which runs 90 travel agency franchises in Quebec under the Vasco Travel brand.

Groupe Atrium agreed to translate Cruise Holidays’ marketing materials into French. For now, Cruise Holidays’ move abroad has been almost entirely into English-speaking countries.

“For us to expand into non-English-speaking countries would require a huge investment, because you’d have to do it right,” said Tom Baumann, president of Travel Leaders Leisure Group. “That would just require everything being rewritten into that foreign language, including our technology base.”

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 
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