On the Crown Princess inaugural sailing out of New York last month, Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises senior vice president of customer service and sales, was excited about the new ships restaurants, sanctuary and piazza-style atrium. But the one thing she couldnt stop talking about was Princess Academy, the online training program the cruise line launched in June.

The online school for travel agents is like a college of Princess cruises. Agents take courses and then get quizzed. They can choose electives on topics such as group sales and wedding programs, and as they pass tests they move up. As in college, participants receive credits for completing the program, in this case eight from the Travel Institute. Unlike college, its free. Graduates at the highest level are rewarded with a free Princess cruise.

The travel distribution business is incredibly competitive, said Swartz. The best way for agents to distinguish themselves from the competition is on expertise and with their service. We realized we could be providing better support in helping agents develop that expertise.

Many cruise lines have recently created online training programs. Carnival Cruise Lines introduced Carnival University Online in early May. Crystal unveiled an online learning academy on July 1.

Royal Caribbean International is in the process of putting together an online training certification program. Disney put its College of Disney Knowledge on line this year, which includes a section on cruises.

Small-ship line Cruise West has an online training program and recently introduced a series of webinars with Lisa Haneberg, a consultant on organizational success and development. The series will end this summer.

These programs respond to a travel distribution network that is increasingly dispersed and increasingly tech-savvy.

People want to learn on their own time schedule, said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Carnival. They dont want to go to a class; they want to do it on their lunch break, at home, on the weekends.

Freed said agents brought the idea of creating such a training program to her last fall. With the increase in home-based agents and agents with second jobs, Freed understood that the courses needed to be informative but not too long and basic enough that you dont need an MBA to get through it.

A popular course, she said, is Special Sales: Group and Cruising for Charity, a chapter that offers tips on developing group business, especially fund-raising groups.

The Crystal Cruises Academy is the only program of this type that agents have to pay for. The course is $30, but agents get a $100 bonus on their first booking following completion of the course.

Michael von Wittenau, Crystals director of business development and group sales, said that 72% of the lines customers in 2005 reported switching from premium and mass-market lines. This was Crystals cue that agents needed to be versed on the brands value proposition relative to premium lines and other luxury lines.

The program was introduced to agents at Crystals top earners gala in May.

One Crystal course compared the costs incurred during a day on an unnamed premium cruise line with a day on Crystal. It showed that items such as cocktails in the casino, cappuccinos, laundry, soda and yoga are free on Crystal and extra on the premium line, making the cost of the cruises comparable.

Courses also focus on distinguishing Crystals product from other luxury lines and resorts.

There are great choices in luxury and premium cruising, von Wittenau said. The consumer may not necessarily know the differences. Silversea does an excellent job, but theyre a different type of cruise line than we are.

Like Freed, he pointed to the dispersed agent community.

We do seminars in various cities, but maybe [agents] are out of town or its not on their schedule, von Wittenau said. Maybe that was their one opportunity to see a Crystal presentation. Now they have the option to go in at their leisure.  

The Cruise Lines International Association, which offers a series of comprehensive training programs to agents, supports the lines educational initiatives. 

Our member lines are the best at presenting their own products, and CLIA is the best at showing agents how to book clients on CLIA-member lines, said Terry Dale, CLIAs president and CEO. 

Agents have expressed appreciation for online courses by taking them. Princess said 4,000 agents had taken 22,000 courses a month after the programs launch.

Jeff Sturman, owner of Best Cruises in Edison, N.J., has taken all of the courses available at Princess Academy. Well on his way to achieving Commodore status (and a free cruise), Sturman was so impressed by the quality of the course that he was considering making it mandatory for his staff to take classes or to award them for taking classes.

We know how much we dont know, so were always interested in something like this, he said. Im not aware of a program in a format like this with an organized course of study and some kind of incentive. This is not lip service when talking about commitment to the agency distribution system. 

Jerry Davis, president of Alice Travel in Fairfield, N.J., said he finds the programs worthwhile as a supplement to, not a replacement for, district sales managers personal visits.

I like the DSM in my own office, and I think that for new agents they have great relevance, he said.

Talking to the DSM and being able to answer specific problems and being updated and trained is something we believe in.

Davis has his key vendors come in once a month. He will encourage his staff to take the courses, but he recognized that it may be difficult for them to find the time. But any extra education, he believes, is of value.

The only thing our agents have to offer the supplier is being able to differentiate one product from another, Davis said. The more you learn about that differential and can absorb it, you will be better off to expound upon it to your client.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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