couple of weeks ago in this space, I wrote about how businesses can involve their customers to help them make important decisions. Shortly afterward, I came across a real-life example of how this process can work -- and it involved travel agents.

But in this instance, agents were the "customers" and were being asked to help guide the decisions of a major supplier. And the input of travel agents has literally charted the course of an important new product.

Norwegian Cruise Line relies on agents to book the overwhelming majority of its business -- 95% of its 2001 passengers came aboard holding documents handed to them by travel agents.

Back in 1999, NCL had decided it would launch a seven-day, New England summer itinerary for the Norwegian Sea out of New York. It brought the concept to a group of NYC travel agents.

"We were very excited -- we thought we had a real winner," recalls Andy Stuart, senior vice president of marketing and sales for NCL. "We expected to hear applause."

While they did hear some applause, they also heard something else: If you want to win the hearts of agents in New York, go south to the Bahamas in the summer.

Surprised by this advice, Stuart took the feedback to his internal planning group.

It took a crack at the logistics of a seven-day, southbound cruise and reported the line would only be able to make two calls -- one in Nassau and one at the line's private island, Great Stirrup Cay.

Stuart went back to the agents and told them that, regrettably, they couldn't come up with an attractive itinerary -- they could only make two stops.

No problem, the agents responded. Clients will love it.

So NCL, crossing its collective fingers, scheduled five itineraries to the Bahamas out of New York for the summer of 2001, with the balance of the summer dedicated to the New England Showcase.

The New England schedule sold well, but those five southbound cruises sold out immediately.

Later in 2001, NCL went back to the agents, thanked them and said they were happy to announce that once again they would have five Bahamas itineraries to sell in 2002.

No, the agents said. We want more. Five's not enough.

So NCL again revised its plans, this time dedicating half the Sea's sailings to the Bahamas.

And, again, agents had no problem filling the ships.

How much impact did the agent input ultimately have? At the end of 2002, NCL will accept delivery of a brand new ship, the Norwegian Dawn. It's significantly larger than the Sea (2,200 beds vs. 1,500), and much speedier.

As NCL executives pondered where to deploy it, they went to their New York agent advisors with a proposition: Because of its speed, the Dawn can make five port calls in seven days. If NCL were to dedicate this large ship 100% to a southbound summer cruise schedule out of New York, could agents fill it?

Bring it on, the agents responded.

So, before it has even been inaugurated, the Norwegian Dawn has another set of hands -- the hands of travel agents -- at its helm.

Stuart says agent input affects every NCL decision from pricing to deployment to commission programs. "These are the people driving our business, and they have a tremendous read on the marketplace."

It's increasingly common for suppliers to organize travel agent focus groups, advisory boards and "clubs," and the fact that NCL reached out to agents is only half of what's interesting about this story.

It's one thing to ask for advice. It's another to listen to it.


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