Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Cruise executives have long talked about the importance of travel advisors and what makes their line the most trade-friendly.

But the shoutouts for travel advisors have never been at the level they are now. On earnings calls, CEOs are telling Wall Street how vital "travel agents being back open again" is, as Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings boss Frank Del Rio said last week. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s chairman Richard Fain continues to publish videos directed to the trade in which he thanks them for hard work. And Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald has said that travel advisors are key to relaunching the industry.

The lines for the most part are putting their money where their mouths are. After initially not quite knowing how best to structure commission payments on hundreds of canceled cruises, many are now paying commission on those canceled sailings if the booking was paid in full, as well as on cruises that are rebooked using future cruise credits.

For the luxury lines, paying commissions twice on canceled sailings is particularly costly because their cabins are priced higher than contemporary brands, and a higher percentage of those cruises are booked through advisors. But Jack Anderson, a luxury cruise consultant and former executive with Crystal Cruises, Seabourn and Holland America Line, said that for the upscale brands, keeping agencies afloat is considered a matter of survival.

"We the cruise industry have a dependency on our distribution system, and we don't want to be part of creating greater distress, because we make the assumption that we will come out the other side and be cruising again, and we need our partners," he said.

At Crystal, where Anderson is a consultant, he said that from the beginning the company said, "we're in this for the long haul, and retail travel agents are our distribution system, and we can't afford to alienate them or be an acting participant in their failure."

"It was not a hard decision internally," he said. "We see it as a symbiotic, synergistic relationship. I don't know that there was a lot of discussion of doing otherwise."

That was similar to a video message from Silversea Cruises last week from CEO Roberto Martinoli, who said that the line would begin paying commissions on canceled cruises that were paid in full, retroactive to the line's first cancellations in March, as well as on FCCs. 

"As our  travel partners, you are vital to Silversea's success, especially during these challenging times," Martinoli said. "We rely on you to do what you do best: to keep your customer engaged, informed and focused on future travel adventures."

Mark Conroy, Silversea's managing director of the Americas, said of the policy that it's "a big investment on our part because we're paying commission on revenue that we don't get to keep... we've gotten an amazingly positive response about it.

"And the great news about it is when this is over, which it will be, we'll have the great support of our travel advisors and the travel agency owners."

In Seabourn's note about its commission policy, the line said: "You are getting paid twice because we recognize that you are doing twice the work. It is the only right thing to do."

And the incentives keep rolling in. Anderson also said that since advisors often get paid long after their work is done -- sometimes as far out as 12 to 24 months following the cruise -- Crystal began paying immediate commission on the $500 deposits the line is offering as part of its Crystal Assured Savings program, which enables travelers to start a booking on any itinerary for $500 per person by June 30 and get an additional 2.5% off any itinerary of seven days or longer. Anderson said the line has booked millions of dollars under the program. 

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