Arnie WeissmannA little more than twice as many dollars go into the coffers of tour operators than cruise lines -- the numbers for 2004 were $27 billion for tours, $13.3 billion for cruises. But when you speak to executives of these two sectors, youd think the reverse was true.

At last weeks Tourism Cares for Tomorrow Hall of Fame inductions, the presidents of two prominent tour operators spoke to me about their desire to raise the profile of tour operators with the trade, and both worried aloud that cruise lines seem to be more strongly positioned in the minds of travel agents.

Each put it in a slightly different context. One said that tours werent as well understood by agents as they should be -- that the image of rigid motorcoach itineraries, which used to be emblematic of how tours were conducted, still lingers, whereas todays tour products might include riverboats, significant free time and more interaction with cultures.

The other executive simply thought tours were so superior a product that it was baffling why someone would choose a cruise over a tour. If you want to see Europe, really see it, youve got to take a tour. A day in a port is not a way to see a country.

I think theyre probably correct in their assumption that they are losing ground in the battle for travel agent mindshare against the cruise lines. And though there may be many small reasons, there is one very big one.

The consolidation in the cruise industry has laid the groundwork not only to bring exploitable economic scale to individual lines, but exploitable marketing opportunities for the entire sector.

In addition, cruise lines are aided by uniformity of product definition -- though each cruise line has a distinct personality, each is ultimately presenting variations on a theme, and product choices frequently come down to matching a travelers demographic profile to the handful of lines that might be appropriate to consider.

The lines have leveraged these advantages through the focused activity of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), which has doggedly built strong bonds between cruise lines and travel agents.

Individual tour operators offer successful specialist programs, but the largest of them pale when compared with CLIAs educational outreach.

CLIA now claims that it has more travel agent members -- 16,000 -- than any other organization, and this year, 40,000 CLIA certificates will be issued for its online, video and print programs to educate travel agents about cruising.

And CLIA continues to experiment with the way it leverages its relationships with travel agents. October 19th will be the worlds largest cruise night, during which CLIA is encouraging agents across the country to hold a cruise-themed evening, and CLIA is helping coordinate various specials that will be offered that night only.

Even though there are several independent, cruise-themed trade shows from which travel agents can choose, CLIAs president, Terry Dale, said that he found them wanting.

He responded by creating Cruise 3sixty, a program that will include keynotes by the top executives of the largest companies, seminars and even a technology center with 100 computers to use to complete CLIA educational programs. (The program will be held Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, in Fort Lauderdale.)

All of this begs the question: Can the tour operators engage travel agents in a similar fashion?

Yes, but they face some difficulties, most tied to their diversity.

There are only 19 members of CLIA -- about half that number if you look only at parent corporate entities. (And, one could argue, of those, only three really matter.)

By contrast, the U.S. Tour Operators Association has 50 active members (representing 125 brands), and National Tour Association membership stands at 630.

Theres certainly some common ground among them, but their products are hardly uniform. It would not be easy to pull a unified effort out of such a diverse group.

Then again, tour operators are nothing if not expert packagers.


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