BELLEVUE, Wash. -- This spring, 700 agents graduated from a specialist program designed by the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance (NCMA) to highlight small-ship and niche cruising.

Those agents now are the first of the NCMA's "army," according to Larry Dessler, the organization's newly named executive director.

"I believe in the distribution system," Dessler said, "and that's my No. 1 goal, to provide for this 'army.' And I'm providing them with weapons that will enable them to be successful."

Those "weapons" include discount and bonus commission coupons, special offers and, in the future, collateral and sales aids, and, of course, the education gleaned from the training course.

The NCMA includes American Canadian Caribbean Line, Peter Deilmann Cruises, American West Steamboat Co., Norwegian Coastal Voyage, Cruise West, Star Clippers, MSC Cruises, RiverBarge Excursion Lines and Captain Cook Cruises.

Galapagos cruise company Canodros, which operates the Galapagos Explorer II, is the newest member of the NCMA, Dessler said.

The organization's message: With prices higher than a standard Caribbean fare, niche cruising not only is a profitable sell, it's a product that can differentiate a travel seller from Web retailers or its rival down the block.

However, that message often is overshadowed by those of the major cruise lines, which have millions of dollars of marketing muscle.

In contrast, Dessler said the NCMA's marketing budget is about $100,000 this year.

"When you're standing in the shadows of the mainstream cruise industry, it's hard to be seen," he said. "And when you're on a panel, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. We have an important job to do and limited resources. But that's the reason this organization was created."

Dessler, who previously worked with Holland America Line and now runs his own consulting firm, has been with the NCMA since mid-February.

He said he is focusing most of his energy on travel agents, and that the training manual -- created by Marc Mancini, a professor of travel at West Los Angeles College -- along with the course exam has been a major component of that focus.

The group has mailed and distributed thousands of sales manuals, Dessler said, and the NCMA began directing interested agents to the program on line.

The NCMA's Web site, www.nichecruise.com, contains a link to the training materials. Agents are instructed to return to the site to take the exam.

If they pass, agents get a graduation certificate -- and access to those sales weapons.

"This is an area where an agent can literally get a credential and find a way to stand apart from the Travelocitys and the Expedias," Dessler said.

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