A new OTA model will seek to modernize cruise bookings

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The temporary homepage for CruisingStore.com, a cruise-focused OTA that is expected to make its debut early next year.
The temporary homepage for CruisingStore.com, a cruise-focused OTA that is expected to make its debut early next year.

MIAMI -- A new cruise-focused OTA that hopes to modernize the way cruises are sold is gearing up for a debut during the 2017 Wave season, possibly as early as January.

To help oversee its business, the Miami-based startup has attracted some top industry names, including former Norwegian Cruise Line executives Kevin Sheehan and Vincent Cirel, as well as industry veteran Dwain Wall.

Operating as CruisingStore.com, the OTA plans to offer shoppers highly customized and trusted information about a cruise in a variety of digital formats, so that when the time is ripe, a consumer will book without talking to or sitting with an agent.

Key partners include Deloitte Consulting, which has a financial interest in the startup, and Revelex, also an equity partner, which will provide the booking engine.

CruisingStore.com will use agents for some bookings and independent contractors for others. The ICs will not have traditional sales roles, although some will be certified as product experts through online training academies at various cruise lines.

The startup plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to build a robust website and establish itself as a go-to name for cruise shoppers.

"Cruise has been lagging behind in the technology to allow consumers to be their own travel agent," said Stephen Watson, the company's president and COO. "We're going to change that."

To do so, CruisingStore.com will depend heavily on two partners.

The first is Deloitte, which has moved into travel marketing using big data to gain insights into consumer patterns, trends, buying habits and preferences.

"This collaboration with Deloitte will present a new level of deep, data-driven, first-of-its kind customer analytics functionality, said Cirel, CruisingStore.com's CEO.

The second partner will be Salt Lake City-based Needle, a contractor that provides online chat services to retailers and also works with some cruise line customers.

CruisingStore.com will quiz online shoppers and use a Deloitte-developed algorithm to automatically push relevant answers to them in the form of videos, texts, photos or live resources. The algorithm will also be used by Needle to funnel shoppers to chats, to product champions who supply testimonials, to relevant social media sites or to user-generated content.

"One of our certified Needle agents can push a video of a beautiful destination or an article or share some social ratings with them," Watson said. "We're using the best the web has to offer to create an experience that's second to none for the consumer."

Although it will be accredited by IATA, CLIA and ASTA, for the most part CruisingStore.com will operate without people in the traditional sales roles. That will substantially reduce costs, one of the keys to making the model successful.

Agents who are certified product experts, called Anytime Anywhere Advocates, will earn commission based on customer quality scores, as well as on sales. Knowledgeable cruise customers who can chat with prospects, called Cruiser2Cruiser advocates, are compensated with points redeemable for merchandise.

When customers give their credit card information, either online or to advocates, the numbers will be passed through to the cruise lines, which will become the merchants of record and will handle post-booking fulfillment.

Sharing customer information with suppliers is another key part of the CruisingStore model.

"The idea is we're getting out of the way of that direct communication between the consumers and suppliers," Cirel said.

In doing so, CruisingStore will give up the revenue associated with any upsell once a deposited booking is made. It is also forgoing commission overrides and co-op marketing funds that the cruise lines provide other agencies.

CruisingStore will also share with cruise lines' analytical data culled by Deloitte from the OTA's consumer interactions in hopes of tailoring more relevant and successful promotions and packages.

Cirel acknowledged the risk that CruisingStore.com customers could be poached by suppliers but said its website will be so feature-rich and unique that the company expects to retain the majority of its clientele.

In addition, it will run a loyalty program that will give customers cash equivalents such as Visa gift cards for various point levels.

Cirel said the loyalty program would be used jointly by suppliers and CruisingStore.com to develop promotions, something that can't be done in the current system in which agents keep close control of client information.

"We feel like in the digital economy, really, there's a better model," Cirel said. "We intend to move that to the loyalty program as well."

A big emphasis in developing the CruisingStore.com model was to appeal to millennial prospects and noncruisers.

"Millennials are a very difficult group -- the ones as an industry we actually have to appeal to," Cirel said. "They do not like picking up a phone and calling. They want to be able to chat and be handled and dealt with instantly, any time of the day or night, with a person who truly has an ability and the sophistication to handle them and their needs immediately."

He also said CruisingStore is dedicated to helping cruise lines reach new customers.

Cirel said last week that he could not provide a lot of detail, "because it's still early." But he added, "When we talk about helping the cruise industry grow their share of the vacation wallet and bring in new vacation consumers to the cruise industry, we're not just talking aspirational stuff here. We've got some specific, tactical programs that we're in the process of implementing."

Cirel acknowledged that some big-ticket, high-end clients were not likely to book cruises without a traditional sales agent. To that end, CruisingStore.com has acquired Galaxy Travel & Cruises, a Signature agency in Fort Lauderdale owned by Dwain Wall and Joshua Oretsky.

Wall, who formerly headed the CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. brands and worked for CLIA as executive vice president of agent and trade relations, has joined CruisingStore as chief development officer.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line have signed agency agreements with CruisingStore.com and Galaxy. Wall said he was also talking with several other big lines.

Alex Pinelo, vice president of key accounts for Norwegian, said the CruisingStore.com business model "enables us to enter the conversation with the customer earlier in the travel planning phase."

Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade service and support at Royal Caribbean International said CruisingStore.com has an innovative concept and veteran leadership.

"They're going to be an online player generating new-to-cruise [clients]," she said. "They seem to have an understanding of the cruise business, so I said, 'OK, we will work with you.'"

Cirel has an IT background, having been chief information officer at Norwegian Cruise Line until 2014. He started a firm in which Deloitte is an investor called Milepost Group, of which CruisingStore.com and Galaxy are both subsidiaries.

Watson was a founding partner of Worldmedia Interactive, a marketing agency that is providing CruisingStore.com with long-term marketing strategy, agency services, on-site branding and customer acquisition.

Former Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Kevin Sheehan serves as nonexecutive chairman.

Watson said the goal for CruisingStore.com is to provide information that consumers can trust.

"That's what we keep trying to build, that trust factor," Watson said. "Trusting that they can call the cruise lines, trusting that they can talk to a consumer and get the real scoop on something, trusting that they can talk to and chat with an advocate who's knowledgeable and trained or trusting that if they really have a sophisticated need, they can talk in person or on the phone to one of the agents under the Galaxy Travel umbrella."

He added, "Our main objective is to give consumers the ability to be their own captain."
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Correction: Kevin Sheehan has not invested in CruisingStore.com.

Dwain Wall is CruisingStore's chief development officer.

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