Arnie WeissmannWhen it comes to cruise lines and travel agents, the elephants in the room are, as all elephants should be, rather big and difficult to ignore.

From the agents' perspective, the elephants are labeled Direct Sales, Noncommissionable Fees and Rebating.

The cruise lines see a different set of elephants. They worry about the future of the travel agent channel. They despair that too many agents are technophobes. They're frustrated that agent loyalty is fickle and that many agents appear unappreciative of the investments and opportunities that the lines have provided.

In my discussions with agents and cruise line executives, I believe I might have spotted a few baby elephants wandering around, as well, and in time, they might grow larger.

Most agencies and cruise line execs express a desire to deepen their relationships with each other, but in making efforts to do so, they sometimes demonstrate how even good partners can become divided by rational self-interest.

For example, a cruise line executive told me he wished he knew more about individual agents within a host agency.

"People at the top of those organizations are extremely well-known to us," he said. "They represent a lot of production. But what's hard to tell is how much value they're injecting into their own operations. How would we know? How can we evaluate that when they won't tell us anything about the individuals they are hosting? They will not open the kimono."

The executive said he wants to know who's producing what within the network. He wants to know where they're located. And, most importantly, he wants to see individual agents' progress so he can tie compensation directly to an individual agent's performance. He believes that at the end of the day, he can help increase sales, to the benefit of the hosts.

On the agency side, the head of a large host agency I know expressed a wish that the lines would be more willing to share data about his clients. If he could better understand his clients' post-sale service demands, the host owner said, he could retrain his agents to minimize issues and even take on some of the servicing efforts.

"Agents can affect, negatively or positively, what cruise lines make on a sale," he said, adding that if he saves a line some money, he wants to share in that savings.

He has been working on this issue for more than a year now, he said, but finds it's "complicated" and that progress is slow. For now, the cruise lines are keeping their kimonos closed.

If one side were to share information, would the other reciprocate? I think it's a long shot.

Good hosts believe they can demonstrate to the lines that they inject value without having to give details about their agents. And I suspect they don't want anyone pressuring them to modify their compensation plans, which are often structured to provide significant points of differentiation from competitors.

And while shifting post-sale service issues to agents might save cruise companies some money, I believe the lines aren't eager to outsource every aspect of passenger relationships back to agents. Once the sale has been made, everything is a reflection of their brand, and brand positioning can be a significant differentiator from their competitors.

The subtext of the agents' desire to take on customer service issues (on behalf of the cruise line) is that in doing so, they will also strengthen their own agent-client relationships and, possibly, prevent the line from getting closer to clients -- and a potential direct-sales relationship.

And the subtext of the line's desire to alter the compensation of individual hosted agents is that they want to speak directly to these agents without having their message filtered by a host.

These baby elephants, like some of the big elephants in the room, revolve around ownership of key relationships, and the struggle over how those relationships are divvied up will likely never end.

If the hosts and lines accept at some point that they've reached a stalemate, then these particular elephants won't get any bigger.

The baby elephants trumpet a desire for more trust and deeper relationships between agents and cruise lines, and that desire is real. But they also bring to the surface the reality that there are often legitimate business reasons to keep the relationships status quo and their kimonos tightly wrapped.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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