by LAURA DEL ROSSO

SAN FRANCISCO -- Travel agents who question whether the cruise industry is overbuilding should not worry, said Lee Robinson, vice president of field sales for Princess Cruises.

"Cruise lines aren't stupid," Robinson told delegates at the 34th annual ARTA Conference.

"We haven't invested billions of dollars in our industry's future if we didn't believe, and if research didn't bear out that we are well positioned for a bright future."

The top three cruise lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess -- have more than 46,000 lower berths. With the addition of 20,000 by the end of 1998, they will carry nearly 66,000 lower berths.

However, Robinson added, those figures do not take into account ships that will be retiring, sold or moved into new markets.

"If you take all these factors into account, the actual net growth of the cruise industry is only 7% to 10% per year."

The cruise industry is not a "boom or bust industry" like hotels, which has cycles in its business, he said.

Cruise lines have experienced only ongoing growth, with periods of surges.

And, Robinson said, there is nothing but growth ahead, particularly as the economy strengthens and the baby boomers enter their prime earning years.

"We are about to enter an era of dramatic prosperity -- a great boom and upswing in the economy.

"You should be preparing for the coming boom which will last until around 2007, according to economic indicators."

Robinson said economist Harry Dent has tracked how a generation affects the nation's economy as it ages, and he found startling similarities in one particular generation's impact.

The last generation, which lived through World War II and raised the baby-boom generation, spawned a spending wave in the 1950s and 1960s and an innovation wave that brought society the jet engine, television and such home appliances as automatic washers and dryers.

"Think about the effects of the baby boom generation. This generation, born in the '40s, '50s and '60s -- and about 70 million strong -- currently comprises more than three-quarters of our work force, where income and spending power is created.

"As it approaches its peak, it will have a dramatic impact on the economy, creating the greatest boom in our history."

Robinson recommended travel agencies take four steps to prepare themselves for the coming boom:

* Establish goals, both short and long term, that are in harmony with one another and challenging.

If an agent has sold 75 cruises this year, he or she should set a goal of 125 next year and incorporate this into their business plan.

* Establish a prospecting program, the most crucial element in selling success.

"When you are not providing superior customer service, you should devote attention and energy to business development and prospecting," the executive said.

* Focus on providing superior customer service.

* Agents must accept that they are salespeople.

"Our [cruise] industry spends over $250 million each year to drive customers through your doors," Robinson said.

"Your role is to close the sale. You need only be excellent salespeople," he added.

"The cruise lines are going to generate bookings -- what we need is someone to take that potential cruise sale, close it and service it."

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