Agents attending Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld conference this month had a clear message for a panel of cruise industry executives: There is a lack of quality communication between cruise sellers and suppliers.

Six cruise sales executives responded to that concern, and most acknowledged their own frustration with communication issues.

"It is a real problem," said Norwegian Cruise Line Executive Vice President Andy Stuart. "Travel professionals don't know all the different ways to engage with us.

"We all want to communicate with you," he added. "It's not out of a lack of desire; it's a lack of ability to get the word out."

Carnival Cruise Line's vice president of worldwide sales, Joni Rein, said it seemed to be an issue not of needing more dialogue "but more effective dialogue." She said the cruise lines were investing a significant amount of money to engage agents.

Paul Allen, vice president of sales for Holland America Line, said it was at least partly a geographical issue: Because so many agents are affiliated with host agencies, he said, "we don't know where most of you are. But there are two people assigned to you in every territory."

Dondra Ritzenthaler, Celebrity Cruises' senior vice president of sales, agreed that the growth of host-agency affiliation made communication a greater challenge.

"It's frustrating for us," she said. "We want to reach you and work with you, and you feel we are not here."

Communication problems are an issue not only between agents and suppliers but between agents and their clients. For that reason, agents asked the panel to address the lack of consumer loyalty and retention.

The panelists agreed it was a huge problem, with most suggesting that the agents communicate more often and better with clients.

Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales for Royal Caribbean International, asserted that four out of five people who bought a cruise vacation from one travel agency bought the next one from another agency.

"It's not because they received bad service but because of indifference," Freed said.

She said agents should work harder on staying connected to clients, adding that the "old-fashioned" phone call was an effective tool. "Email is a monologue," she said, while the telephone "is a dialogue."

Stuart suggested using the latest forms of technology and social media.

"There are so many new ways to engage customers," he said. "Technology is the loudest way to talk to them in so many different ways. ... You have to put the brand in front of customers in some way, shape or form."

The panel became heated when Rein and Ritzenthaler exchanged fire about their companies' direct-sales policies.

Rein suggested that Ritzenthaler was being dishonest when she told audience members, "At Celebrity and Royal Caribbean and Azamara Club Cruises, we have a very distinct, very authentic trade strategy, and we really do not have a direct strategy."

Ritzenthaler said that while the line does take direct bookings, it does not pursue them [see Letters, Page 36].

Rein countered that Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s direct strategy was outlined in a 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, a copy of which she had with her.

She said she brought the document "not to be combative, but we are all doing the same thing. The most relevant thing that we can talk about today is: How do we partner together?"


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