John Stoll, Crystal Cruises' director of
land programs, spends half the year traveling the world looking for
the most unique African safaris, the best guides for private tours
of the Catacombs in Rome and ways to visit India's Taj Mahal while
beating the heat and the lines.
Whether it's the
Internet or the Discovery Channel effect, passenger expectations
and demands have increased dramatically when it comes to shore
excursions, making Stoll's position more central to the cruise
lines as they, and private tour operators, scramble to offer the
most unique, exciting and hottest tours the seven continents
"Our guests are
more likely to look for a more specialized, boutique experience
which caters to a specific interest without the large crowds,"
Stoll said. "This is very different than 20 years ago, when tours
were more basic and geared for large groups."
among his staff hundreds of people in ports around the world that
he communicates with every day about new developments and
opportunities. His travel includes site inspections and research on
Stoll's counterpart at Regent Seven Seas Cruises, said that due to
customers' changing tastes and expectations, Regent is thinking
about renaming excursions "shore experiences."
"People do their
own research and have more knowledge before they start, so we need
to be that much ahead of them," he said. "Guests are much more
discerning and much more intelligent. It makes our job very
challenging, in a good way."
Regent, he said,
is the only cruise line with an onboard concierge that specifically
arranges customized, small-group excursions.
"It might be a
sumo wrestling match in Tokyo or taking a Yangtze River cruise, "
he said. "Ground operators tell us that other cruise lines ask them
what we are doing because they know that we push the
Directors of land
programs are not only competing with each other but with a host of
private shore-excursion companies that pay commissions to travel
"More and more,
savvy agencies have relationships with destination specialists
around the world," said Susan Reder, president of Altour/Classic
Cruise and Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif. "We sell our expertise.
If the client wants that personal and private service, they're very
grateful we can provide that service for them."
Reder said an
advantage of being a member of the Signature Travel Network is that
it constantly adds to an already plentiful selection of tour
operators that are certified, insured companies with solid
Jerry Davis of
Alice Travel in Fairfield, N.J., an Ensemble Travel member,
"It's a wonderful
addition to the amenities [Ensemble on Location offers]
because tours on the cruise lines are becoming increasingly
expensive," he said. "And you get people who don't want to be with
The Ensemble on
Location program puts clients on unique, individualized
agents often use Boutique Escapes, an Ontario-based company that
offers private, customized excursions in Europe and South America
and nowhere else.
"If we haven't
been there, we don't do it," said Boutique Escapes co-owner Sandy
Velikonja. "[Other operators] can say a hotel is in central Rome,
but I can say that it's five minutes from the top of the Spanish
Steps or 10 minutes to the Trevi Fountain or, for the kids, right
near the Hard Rock Cafe."
She added that
travel agents look better using her because they are able to give
more information, and as a private company specializing in these
tours, she pampers her clients.
"Our phone is on
24/7," she said. "They can call us anytime. We offer a lot of
hand-holding for high-end clients. We're going to call and see how
their day is going. We're touching base so they know someone is
following what's going on."
The cruise lines
responded that the financial model of shore excursions won't allow
them to pay commissions. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that
private tours will return in time for the ship's embarkation. The
cruise line will wait for its own tour. Cruise lines also argue
there's no guarantee of safety.
Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity's vice president of onboard revenue and
entertainment, recalled the bus plunge in Chile last March that
killed 12 Celebrity passengers who used an unlicensed, uninsured
operator rather than a Celebrity tour. Booking outside the cruise
line, she said, is not worth the risk of accident or tragedy.
"It's such a
small issue relative to what they earn commission on," she said.
"They really should take advantage of what we offer, and their
customers should, as well. We spend a lot of time and attention
picking the right people at the destinations."
To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].