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