Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

One million dollars is a lot of money. It's a lot of money to give away in a sweepstakes. And when the target of the sweepstakes is not consumers but sales people, in this case travel agents, it is really unusual.

But that's what Viking Ocean Cruises did this year, awarding the $1 million prize to Marie White of Online Vacation Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Viking said the Million Dollar Voyage promotion was meant to mark its 20th anniversary and attracted more than 20,000 entries.

I asked Viking marketing senior vice president Richard Marnell whether in hindsight it was worth the cost.

Marnell said that one of Viking Ocean's core challenges is that the Viking name is associated primarily with river cruises. Viking famously spends millions annually in its sponsorship of Masterpiece Theater.

"Raising awareness for Ocean Cruises both within the trade and with consumers is challenging," Marnell said.

Today, four years after announcing it was getting into the ocean cruise business, two years after launch, and having built four 930-passenger Viking Ocean ships, two-thirds of the line's passenger base is still derived from past river cruise guests.

"We're seeing the numbers increase," Marnell said of the new-to-Viking passenger contingent, "but we still have a long way to go."

So one way to boost that awareness is to flash some cash. Marnell said success of a promotion like the Million Dollar Voyage is hard to measure. "The success is in the build schedule," he offered. "We can't build them fast enough."

Indeed, Viking recently exercised the option on its ninth and 10th ocean cruise ships and will take a new vessel nearly every year between now and 2023.

The line has certainly caught the attention of cruise connoisseurs. I ran into former Carnival Cruise Line president Bob Dickinson the other day and one of the things he asked about was whether I had been on a Viking Ocean ship.

But it surprises me when I speak to agents that some still aren't aware of, or interested in, Viking. I think one problem is that it isn't true luxury, so it may not be sold by luxury agents, and it is still small so it may not fit the business model of some high-volume shops.

That still leaves plenty of opportunity for agents working in-between those two extremes, though.

Alas, even Viking has its limits when it comes to building agent awareness. Marnell said it has no plans to repeat the Million Dollar Voyage sweepstakes next year.

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