John Severini, president of Trafalgar Tours, has identified his top three competitors, and none is a fellow tour operator.

The first is a concept, not a company: Independence. "Baby boomers think they can do it on their own," baby boomer Severini said over lunch recently. "They'll take our brochures and try to buy the components individually on Expedia because they think it will save them money."

The second -- speaking of Expedia -- is the Web technology that powers the dynamic packaging of air, cars and hotels.

And third is cruise lines, collectively.

But he believes that two strong trends -- the rise of the euro against the dollar and the strengthening of public support for travel agents -- converge to shift business to him and away from all three competitors.

Though many tour operators are concerned about the stronger euro, Severini sees opportunity in the dollar's relative weakness.

"If you were to try to put together the products in our tours by yourself on the Internet, it will price out 30% to 40% higher," he said. "We're the salvation for agents against the Internet and dynamic packaging. If I were a travel agent, I'd put a big sign up in my window, 'I can beat Internet pricing,' and then give a demonstration."

And with regards to cruising, Severini knows this competitor intimately. He spent 22 years working for cruise lines: first NCL, then Royal Cruise Line, then Disney. That experience appears to have informed his strategy vis-à-vis cruising in many regards.

First, he uses CLIA research to make his points. "On one hand, CLIA says to agents that if you're doing anything but selling a cruise, you're doing something wrong," he said. "They also say that about 750,000 people will cruise in Europe on a CLIA line this year and that 70% of those passengers say they're specifically going to sightsee in the destinations. And of those, 40% say -- remember, this is from CLIA -- they will return to one of those destinations on a land vacation.

"In other words, after they return, you're missing an opportunity if you just present them with another cruise."

This is well and good, I replied, but in the larger battle for agent mind-share, tour operators have lost ground to cruise lines. CLIA may be supplying him with a bit of ammunition in the form of select data, but on the whole CLIA has been relentless in promoting cruising to travel agents, and there is currently no parallel effort among tour operators as a group.

Then the conversation took an interesting turn.

"You're right," he said. "In my opinion, for the most part, we do our message wrong. We're following the old model of 'talk about product, product, product. Pitch, pitch, pitch. Sell, sell, sell.' But we first need to help agents look at this as the consumer does. We need to show them how tours, as a category, fit into their customers' lives.

"When I started, cruise lines struggled for a presence in travel agents' minds. We were competing against Hawaii and the Caribbean. We were fighting for mind awareness. You know how we achieved it? Education."

That Severini understands the importance of education is clear: Last year, he hired industry consultant (and Travel Weekly columnist) Marc Mancini to create a seminar based on the products of his parent, Travcorp. He also wanted to bring in a partner as a co-sponsor, and the company he invited was ... Carnival Cruise Lines.

His explanation was that he wanted a rounded product grouping so he could market the seminar under the theme "Leading Travel Companies," but there was a subtext. "It was a way to get into the minds of people who only sell cruises."

And, he said, it was not a coincidence that he hired Mancini, who is CLIA's educator of choice.

Perhaps it's just because he's an ex-cruise guy that he decided to take such a cruise-influenced approach to selling tours. But unfortunately, it may also be indicative of the difficult proposition of organizing hundreds of tour operators behind the task of marketing tours as a concept to travel agents.


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