RCCL: Producers account for price difference

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WINTER PARK, Fla.-- Norma Akins' client logged on to Cruise 411.com and found a rate of $5,249.66 for back-to-back South America cruises on Celebrity's Infinity for early 2004, about $1,000 cheaper than the booking she had already prepared for him.

"You'd be a fool to buy it from me at that price," said Akins, manager of A & A Discount Cruise & Travel here.

Akins confirmed the rate by going to Cruise411.com and booking one of her agents on the same cruise on the same deck in the same category of cabin. She can't touch the Cruise411.com price even by rebating her entire commission, which comes to $747.28, according to the invoices.

Piqued, Akins complained to Celebrity and to her consortium, Vacation.com, and even solicited an opinion from her lawyer about unfair practices.

"The [Celebrity] reservationists will tell you, 'Key accounts get better rates. You're not a key account,'"Akins said.

Creating a "level playing field" between mega-agencies like online giants Travelocity and Expedia, and smaller traditional agents has been a hot topic since Carnival president Bob Dickinson said the cruise line was going to provide equal pricing across the distribution system.

Celebrity and Royal Caribbean International's President Jack Williams told Wall Street analysts in a conference call recently that Royal Caribbean Cruises is "not going to have to change our pricing strategy because we do not provide preferential pricing in the industry now."

But RCCL does provide better fares on select sailings to Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises' several hundred top producers, called "key accounts."

Travel agents who hold key accounts with RCCL said the discounts, called Key Account Fares, can range from $25 to $100 per person.

Lisa Bauer, the senior vice president of North America sales, said Key Account Fares match current group rates, and they are offered to top producers to drive their FIT business away from the group market.

"Because they had the resources, they would go in and tie up all the group space. Then other agencies wouldn't be able to book groups," Bauer said.

Key Account Fares "are not select agent pricing," she said.

"The preferential pricing everyone's talking about is: We have distressed inventory, and we're going to [give it only to] agency A, B and C."

A $25 per person discount on a cabin doesn't seem like much.

But one key account holder said, "There are people who will move their booking for a $10 margin. So when you're talking about a $25 difference, people will move a booking."

"It's a privilege for booking Royal Caribbean," said Jeff Kivet, the owner of Cruise Value Centers in East Brunswick, N.J., which is a key account. "I think it's working out beautifully."

Nonkey account holders, however, said they were confused by Royal Caribbean's public comments about pricing, especially when res agents at the line told them select fares were available for key accounts only.

Donna Gussow, Darlington Travel Center, Glen Mills, Pa., said she called Royal Caribbean to ask why her host agency was selling the same cruise for $25 per person less.

"Royal Caribbean told me key accounts get better pricing," Gussow said. "Sometimes I rebate my commission on the sale," she added. "But it's not right when they're getting [lower] prices and a higher commission."

According to a Cruise411 spokesman, the company keeps costs low through online booking and then rebates some of its commissions.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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