Cruise execs: Agents must change with the times

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ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Travel agents must evolve with the marketplace to continue to profit from the fast-growing cruise industry, several cruise line executives said at an industry conference here.

Speaking on a panel at the Chicago Cruise Showcase on Nov. 3, the executives also emphasized that their business will continue to depend heavily on travel agents to fill the berths on all the new ships under construction.

"We believe that the distribution system's role in the cruise industry will be very significant," said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Carnival Cruise Lines. "We do not believe the Internet will take a lot of bookings away from travel agents."

However, Freed warned agents that they must meet the changing needs of the consumer to sell cruises successfully in the near future. "We do see the distribution system changing, and it needs to change to keep up with the consumers of today," she said.

"They are very different. They're used to getting a lot of information fast, and they demand much more from retailers. They expect you to be there when they want to make a booking," said Freed, who also serves as chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association. "Agents hate to hear this, but 40% of high-ticket sales are made on Saturdays and Sundays, and 30% between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. during the week," Freed said, sounding a familiar theme about agencies that keep shorter hours.

About 350 agents attended the daylong Chicago Cruise Showcase, which included seminars, a trade show and the after-dinner panel discussion. The event was sponsored by the Chicago-area chapters of ASTA, the Pacific Asia Travel Association and the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Rick James, senior vice president of sales and corporate relations for Princess Cruises, also urged agents not to worry excessively about the Internet taking away business but to focus on fine-tuning their client database. "The tool you need to master is database marketing," James said. "You need to truly understand whom you do business with, what their desires are and how to sell them something."

In response to a question from an agent, Rick Sasso, president of Celebrity Cruises, addressed the problem of getting convenient, nonstop air transportation to ports of embarkation. "You do a great job of selling our product, so then we have to scramble for airline seats. Sometimes we'll charter planes or use UPS cargo planes" that are reconfigured to accommodate passengers on weekends, Sasso said. "We're aware of the problem."

Jack Anderson, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Holland America Line, noted that air lift into Vancouver, British Columbia, has "increased dramatically" since the open-skies agreement between the U.S. and Canada.

However, he predicted that cruise lines will continue to expand into new home ports and even depart on different days of the week, which may help ease the air shortage. "We'll see a great diversification of home ports," Anderson said. "We're already seeing cruise lines introducing service from Tampa, Houston, New York and Seattle. We'll see more diversification of itineraries and see more itineraries spread across days of the week."

One agent questioned whether there truly is a "level playing field" among all types of agencies when it comes to cruise pricing. "I don't believe in a level playing field, but I do believe in equal opportunity," James said. "The person who sells 1,000 cruises a year should be compensated in a different fashion than the person selling 50 cruises a year."

On the pricing front, Sasso said the cruise lines don't like to see rebating, and they try to "protect the integrity" of cruise fares. "We don't want people to go out and rebate 10% and make five bucks," he continued. "The way to overcome that is to provide great service."

The executives said providing good service and building loyalty among their clients is the way for local, smaller agencies to combat competition from toll-free-number agencies and mammoth companies that can cut favorable deals.

"For our products, we need a large distribution system," Freed said. "We need the travel agent community to survive and be profitable and motivated. We like 30,000 agencies selling our product."

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