EDISON, N.J. -- Jeff Sturman, owner of Best Cruises here, invited a
hundred or so people to a banquet hall one evening for coffee --
and a sales pitch about vacationing in Alaska. He's hoping about
40% of his guests will book a Holland America Lines cruise with
Last month, after another one of his cruise nights, he was
hoping they'd book an Alaska-bound Princess cruise.
Sturman throws an Alaska-themed cruise night once every two
months during the prime Alaska sales season, which runs from
September through February.
Over the eight years Sturman has been offering Alaska nights,
his technique has improved, he said, as have the technology -- and
the interest in Alaska vacations.
"At this point, it's Alaska specifically," Sturman said about
Best Cruises' themed sales parties. "For some older people who are
reticent to cruise, this is the way to see Alaska," he said. "The
wife's dragging the husband, but once they come [to the cruise
night], they're hooked."
Tania Hancock, the tourism sales manager for the Anchorage
Convention and Visitors Bureau, said they've seen a strong increase
in agent interest in the past two years.
"We've made a great effort to tell travel agents about the
support we have for Alaska cruise nights on the phone and by e-mail
when they contact us for assistance," Hancock said.
Paul Allen, Holland America line's vice president of Alaska sales
and marketing, said he expanded HAL's "Onstage Alaska" marketing
tool by about 50 shows this year and added another show team.
"We've been doing them for 20 years," Allen said. "In recent
times there has been a strong interest. It's been growing. But it's
a complex destination, especially when you start talking about
cruise tours," Allen said. "We've been trying to explain Alaska for
quite some time."
Cruise lines are involved with agent theme nights, executives
said, usually at the district sales manager level. An agent who is
interested in throwing an event should contact his or her local
sales rep, who can help the agent put together a suitable package;
design and mail invitations; and help out at the event by giving a
sales pitch or answering questions about Alaska.
Here's the way an agent who wants to work with Princess Cruises
should go about setting up an Alaska night, said John Molinaro,
Princess' vice president of sales:
• The agent contacts the district sales manager or inside sales
• The sales manager sits down with the agent and selects an
itinerary the agent thinks would appeal to his clients. A cruise
plus a five-day stay at a Princess lodge in Denali National Park,
for example, would be a longer itinerary that might appeal to
clients with time and money to spare. ("When you look at a cruise
tour brochure, it can be a bit intimidating," Molinaro said.)
• The sales manager and the agent agree on incentives the agency
can offer to Alaska-night clients: a reduced deposit, for
• The agent blocks some space on those itineraries and the DSM
sits back down with the agent and builds the cruise night: when,
where, how many prospective clients to invite, what types of
mailings to set up, what kinds of refreshments to have, what kinds
of things to say in the presentation and, most importantly, how to
close the sale.
Molinaro said Princess' themed nights -- of which he estimated
there are about 700 in the first quarter -- usually are run by the
agent, although the sales manager is there to help.
"They might run a series of eight or nine cruise nights in their
territory where they'll do it on their own," he said. "But some
agents will leave it up to us, which is fine."
Sturman is one of those do-it-yourself agents.
"I need my independence on these things," he said.
But for other agents, HAL offers its focused cruise-night
program, "Onstage Alaska," a road show that the line puts on about
350 times a year.
The "Onstage Alaska" package comes with its own performance team
from Holland America (one duo, for example, does a song and chatter
routine; another group portrays different types of Alaska
HAL's collateral materials for the Onstage program give
step-by-step suggestions for the evening: Have all guests sign an
entry form for a door prize; keep staff members at the door to open
and close it quietly for latecomers; close the sale with a specific
pitch; and make it "succinct."
The materials come with "minimum facility requirements," which
include a video screen and a stage platform.
They also include a diagram on how to set the scene (curved
seating rows, booking and refreshment tables in the rear of the
Because the show is co-performed by HAL and its performance
teams, the number of agents who can put on an "Onstage" night is
DSMs often nominate agencies that have strong sales ideas and
are likely to be able to drum up enough interest at the show to
generate at least 80 to 100 attendees, Allen said.
He estimated about 50% of an "Onstage Alaska" audience book a
cruise tour, which is what HAL promotes with its pitch.
Meanwhile, about two years ago, the Anchorage Convention and
Visitors Bureau stepped up its cruise-night participation and
launched its first cruise marketing program.
For agents hosting an Alaska show, the ACVB will send collateral
kits, posters and a nine-minute video that can be shown at the
And for whom it considers "top producers"; i.e., agents who send
at least 500 clients who stay at least one night in Anchorage, an
ACVB representative will participate in the cruise show.
Patrick Mitchell, associate vice president of sales at Royal
Caribbean Cruises, stressed creativity when putting a program
"The events are as varied as our agency partners," he said.
"We've helped create successful cruise-day events with thousands of
people as well as terrific small-agency programs for 20
One tactic, he said, is to invite group leaders who are experts
in Alaskan art, nature or history to cruise nights.
"It's a question of getting the agents engaged and excited about
creating a special event," he said.
But cruise lines stressed that if agents throwing cruise nights
are not totally familiar with the 49th state, they're in for a
"The agent really has to have crammed for that evening,"
Molinaro said. "Clients expect the person in the suit from Princess
to know what he's talking about. But they're looking for expertise
in the agent. If you can't answer that question, they'll move on to
the next agency."
Allen suggested agents "inhale" the brochures of the company
they're promoting as well as the brochures of that company's main
Sturman of Best Cruises has been to Alaska six times, and
everyone on his staff has been to Alaska at least once.
"That expertise is exuded in the presentation," he said.