he ship didn't stop at any ports. I
boarded in Los Angeles and got off four days later in Acapulco,
Mexico. Though it was a luxury liner, I never visited the spa,
didn't swim in the pool, never relaxed on deck with a book. Still,
I came back refreshed, more so than from any trip in recent memory.
I was aboard the Crystal Symphony for Crystal's 12th annual
travel agent sales and achievement meetings attended by members of
its elite President's Club. What was refreshing was being in an
environment of mutual respect between travel agents and
The agents aboard the Symphony received the royal treatment,
with lavish meals and special entertainment, and in return they
filled a small theater for hours of daily training -- tempting as
the amenities aboard the ship were, there were few truants.
I had thought this type of event, where the red carpet was
rolled out for travel agents, had disappeared from the travel
industry. It does still exist -- but only for agents on the leading
Crystal's functions, beginning with a gala dinner at the Beverly
Hills Hotel and continuing through a shipboard dinner-dance on the
final night, were not open events for the agency community at
large. Only 90 agencies out of more than 26,000 were invited, and
each of these agencies had produced more than $350,000 worth of
sales for Crystal.
I spoke with many of the invitees. Some were from one-person
shops, some were from large agencies. What they had in common was a
passion for this product and the ability to convey this passion to
During an open forum with Crystal's president, Gregg Michel, the
agents spoke knowledgeably about the staterooms and amenities, and
made suggestions about everything from pricing strategies to
whether passengers should get free bottled water.
Michel listened attentively, and I could see his staff members
making notes. Following the forum, I sat down for lunch with him,
vice president of sales David Morris and vice president for group
sales Eric Graves to try to get a better understanding of their
strategy for working with travel agents.
"Ninety-nine percent of our bookings come in through travel
agents, and about 14% of all our bookings are brought in by just
these 90 agencies," Morris said. "We want to reward them."
And they reward them with more than just a four-day cruise.
Anyone who sells $350,000 in Crystal cruises can join the
President's Club and also get a 15% commission. Sell $450,000 in
Crystal Cruises, and the ante is raised to 16%.
And their top level -- 650K or above in sales -- receives 17%.
Pretty soon you begin to understand that these agents have their
own interests, as well as Crystal's, in mind. A Crystal cruise is
not an inexpensive product.
The continuing education is an important component of the
President's Club, Michel added. "We have a sophisticated, complex
product. This is not a commodity for the masses. We need to have
relationships with the agencies that sell Crystal. If we commit to
each other, we have a partnership."
I asked what was the cruise line's greatest challenge in getting
agents focused on selling Crystal. "Convincing agents that they
can, in fact, sell a cruise at this price point," Michel said.
"Some are simply uncomfortable selling premium brands. They don't
believe in themselves."
"But if they want a relationship with us and are willing to make
a commitment, we can help," Morris added.
Agents might feel good listening to this type of talk, but it's
important to remember that, while Crystal's executives are willing
to make the effort to partner with any interested agent, at the end
of the day, they're only interested in rewarding agents who prove
they can deliver: roughly one agency out of every 300.
Over the past few years, I've heard many agents tell me they
long for the good old days when just showing up at an ASTA World
Travel Congress meant suppliers would lavish attention on them.
Those days are gone. But respect for travel agents isn't.
It's just reserved for agents who get to know their preferred
supplier's lines thoroughly, and strongly believe in the value of
what they're doing: selling products they trust to people they care