Cruise nights put state on stage, boost sales


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 Best Cruises.

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.

Denali National Park, with Mount McKinley in the background, comes to mind when thinking about Alaska. 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 agent.

• 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 example.

• 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 visitors).

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 room).

Because the show is co-performed by HAL and its performance teams, the number of agents who can put on an "Onstage" night is limited.

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 event.

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 together.

"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 people."

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 rough evening.

"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 competitors.

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.

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