Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

One year ago, scores of travel advisors responded to the CDC's request for public input on the resumption of cruising and told it that the cruise shutdown was a threat to their livelihood.

At that point, cruising had been on pause for less than six months. Few would have predicted it'd stay that way for the next 10.

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But it did, and while the health of the travel trade was in doubt, especially for agencies with a strong focus on cruise, it's remarkable that so many agency groups have said that they didn't lose members -- and in some cases are stronger than ever.

How Signature agencies thrived

During Signature Travel Network's virtual 2021 Owners' Meeting, the consortium said that it added 33 members since the same meeting in 2019, for a total of 210 members in the U.S. and 71 abroad. The increase actually translated into portfolio sales growth: Since year's end 2019, Signature's sales of cruise preferred suppliers has increased 54.4%.

There are many reasons for this success, said CEO Alex Sharpe, such as meetings that Signature held to help members secure government assistance; additional training opportunities to address challenges (for example, deciphering international restrictions and ever-changing regulations); and outreach to members about ways to implement and leverage fees.

And while some businesses went into hibernation, Signature added tools for its members, such as an enhanced Signature Cruise Pro Booking Engine, which launched a reporting platform for Future Cruise and Trip Credit reports with a focus on capturing the $300 million-plus future cruise credits on its books.

Signature also never stopped marketing, Sharpe said. Its virtual consumer events drew more than 4,800 people and generated 2,700 bookings with over $35 million in revenue.

Travel agencies mark record sales

Avoya Travel, meanwhile, had its largest single day of sales in its history on June 1, a 21% increase over its previous benchmark set in May 2019. The record day followed two Avoya marketing campaigns: One focusing on travel in 2021 and another encouraging travelers to book for 2022 and 2023.

Avoya also said last month that more than 97% of the independent agencies in its network that sold more than $1 million in 2019 remained affiliated with the host throughout the pandemic. The company launched a Future Travel Credit conversion campaign that used artificial intelligence to help its more than 1,000 members keep their future cruise credits on the books.

Avoya's other initiatives included temporarily waiving monthly fees and renewal fees, offering complimentary access to legal and accounting assistance and maintaining weekly commission payments.

Ensemble agencies also recently reported that many were experiencing sales near 2019 levels, which was the best year on record for many advisors.

Assistance and positive momentum for cruise agents

Suppliers have stepped up, too. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Royal Caribbean Group brands launched the RCL Cares program to educate and help travel advisors navigate the Cares Act, and it established the Pay It Forward program that provides three-year, interest-free loans to agencies. Most recently, it started an instant booking bonus program.

And while it takes a village, another huge factor in advisors' favor is on the client side; specifically, what Expedia Cruises CEO Matthew Eichhorst says is cruisers wanting more "hand-holding" right now.

"Consumers, even repeat cruisers, have more questions," he said, adding that there is also "more interest than ever" in cruise.

"At a time where there's great uncertainty, we just are really, really excited about the future," Eichhorst said.

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