Cruise lines eager for agents to use online tools

By Johanna Jainchill

As most theories of economics have found, suppliers, sellers and buyers often find each other's behavior irrational. 

Maybe that explains why Vicki Freed and Jan Swartz get so worked up about travel agents not using the extra marketing tools they offer. 

Freed and Swartz, the senior vice presidents of sales for Royal Caribbean International and Princess Cruises, respectively, have been pushing hard to get the word out to agents about the online booking tools and straight marketing offers they've made available, but they say the trade is not taking advantage.

"We allow travel agents to literally have an ad on our website, and so few agents take advantage of this," Freed said about Royal Caribbean's e-tool of the month, the Travel Agent Locator.

The program enables agents who have sold $5,000 worth of Royal Caribbean cruises -- down from the original $60,000 threshold -- to put their agency's name, logo and a message on RoyalCaribbean.com.

Potential cruisers find the agencies by searching with a ZIP code.

Out of about 30,000 agencies registered with the line, 5,000 have created the profile. 

"It's a shame they are not doing it," Freed said. "A lot of cruise lines talk about being friendly to travel agents. We really back it up. We are delivering with programs like this."

Princess also stakes that claim with Princess Alliance, a program that allows agents who have reached Princess Academy's Commodore level to customize Princess' direct-mail marketing pieces with their logo, message and agency information.

Swartz, who said that direct mail is Princess' primary form of consumer marketing, said agents are charged a nominal fee considering the level of marketing that's provided. 

"There is no minimum quantity, and it offers them prices that they couldn't get themselves in the general marketplace," Swartz said.

"This gives them the opportunity to send highly professional mailings for a fraction of the cost if they were to do it on their own."

So why aren't all Commodore-level agents jumping at this opportunity?

"We've had a fabulous response to it, but the challenge is to get the word out," she said. "Hopefully the Commodores are aware of it."

One reason travel sellers hesitate when it comes to taking part in these programs is agents' perpetual distrust of cruise lines regarding client information.

"Anytime a company uses a system that captures information, it can be stored," said a cruise seller in South Florida who preferred to remain anonymous. "That company then can turn around and use the information for their own use."

In response to such concerns, Freed said that all of Royal Caribbean's e-tools are hosted by third-party providers with strict terms and conditions and privacy policy regulations that prevent the line from accessing, collecting, sharing or using customer data coming from travel agents in any marketing effort. 

"Our commitment is that they own the relationship with the customer, and by default they own the customer data," Freed said.

"If we were to access this sensitive data, travel agents simply would not use the tools that we have created for them to assist them in building their business."

When asked if their programs are effective in helping the agents get business, neither cruise line had solid data but both made the point that it could only help to have any extra customized marketing.

Juan Silva, Royal Caribbean's director of e-distribution strategy and development, said the Royal Caribbean website gets more than 1 million unique visitors per month.

He said the Travel Agent Locator generates leads for the agents, though he did not have the numbers.

"We are driving so many consumers to our site, the opportunity to get new clients through the Travel Agent Locator is huge."

Royal Caribbean is so eager for its agents to use its tools, it is offering them prizes to do so.

In August, an agent could win a $2,000 American Express Gift Cheque by creating emails and e-quotes with eConnect, a system that allows agents to personalize emails or e-quotes from Royal Caribbean to clients.

Anthony Adler, president of Cruise and Resort, which has a TAL profile, said it is too soon to notice any uptick in leads.

"But even if we only complete a few new sales per quarter, it is a great return on investment since the cost of participation is zero," he said. "Since the interest in Royal Caribbean's product is already there, our agents should have a high closure rate."

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