Viking cruise line stands out on noncommissionable fees

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The Viking Star in Istanbul last month.
The Viking Star in Istanbul last month.

Newly launched Viking Ocean Cruises is the first cruise line in several years to not include noncommissionable fees (NCFs) as part of the cruise commission structure.

The line made its official debut on May 17 with the naming of its first ship, the Viking Star, in Bergen, Norway.

From the start, Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen has made “no nickel and diming” one of the cornerstones of the new line. For passengers, that translates into benefits like unlimited free Internet access and complimentary wine and beer with lunch and dinner.

For agents, it means the line items that other cruise lines designate as “noncommissionable,” such as port charges and taxes, are included in the amount on which commissions are calculated. Viking is hoping that this will help distinguish it from other lines in the small-ship, upper-premium category. Several agents said that the policy is welcome, and that if their clients are otherwise qualified for Viking, they would recommend it as a good business move.

“They have to have what my client needs,” said Amal Mulham, senior travel consultant for Carole’s Travel Service, Tinley Park, Ill. “I’m not going to send them there for that sole purpose, but if they’re doing a good job all around — great ship, great service — but they’re not going to penalize me for selling excursions and if they’re going to pay me on [port charges and fees], then I’ll say, ‘Hey, go on Viking.’”

Most NCFs range from 7% to 15% of the cruise cost, according to a 2014 ASTA study. Eliminating them puts more money in travel agents’ pockets. “It’s obviously a good thing, and I don’t know anybody who would complain about that,” said Howard Moses, president of the Cruise and Vacation Authority in Atlanta. “It kind of harkens back to the good old days when those fees weren’t separated out.”

NCFs date to the late 1990s when an agreement with Florida’s attorney general led cruise lines to stop lumping port charges in with taxes and fees in their fare advertisements. Rather than pay commission on the port charge amount, cruise lines created NCFs, according to the ASTA study. Some agents said that the no-NCF policy could tip the balance for Viking if several cruise lines are in the running.

“Obviously, it depends on what the client wants,” said Patti Rossetti, owner of ASAP Travel, in Jupiter, Fla. “I’m in business to make money, so if that’s going to fit my client and I prosper for the better, absolutely it’s a tie-breaker.”

Rossetti said her agency has one client booked on the Viking Star so far. “They were regular Viking River Cruise passengers and they’re going to try the ocean experience,” she said. Rossetti and other agents said clients seem to be hanging back a bit, waiting to see how the ocean product pans out.

“We’ve not had a lot of interest in it, honestly,” said Moses. “My sense from chatting with people is they’re still waiting to see how it shakes out and … what’s being posted about the quality and the experience of the ship before they’re really willing to commit.”

Viking Ocean is brand new and has just one ship, which limits the amount of customer feedback available, said Mulham. A second 930-passenger ship, Viking Sea, is due out next spring. Delivery of a third ship, Viking Sky, was recently postponed to June 2017 because of shipyard delays in building an unrelated vessel. To minimize the impact on bookings already made, Viking said it has redeployed five cruises each from June to September 2016 scheduled on Viking Sea and Viking Sky.

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