River cruise lines give tips on selling groups

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T1122SCENICLARIVE_HR_C [Credit: Scenic]
River cruise lines posited that group bookings are a win-win. Pictured, a group toast on a Scenic river ship. Photo Credit: Scenic

MIAMI BEACH -- Travel advisors who sell an AmaWaterways voyage earn an average commission of more than $1,500, vice president of sales Alex Pinelo said last week during a session about selling river cruises at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld.

So, it stands to reason that if booking individual clients on river cruises is a lucrative endeavor, then booking groups is an especially gainful proposition. And the river cruise lines would like nothing better than to see advisors sell more groups.

"All of us love groups, right?" said American Queen Voyages vice president of sales Joe Jiffo. "They're the base of getting our product sold out."

Alumni groups is a particularly successful niche at American Queen Voyages, Jiffo said. The line also targets wine groups for cruises in the Pacific Northwest, where excursions to wineries in Oregon's Willamette Valley are part of the itinerary. Jiffo said bourbon-enthusiast groups on cruises through Kentucky also are popular.

American Queen Voyages will assist advisors with creating marketing materials for groups they create, or advisors who belong to a consortium or host agency can sell into a group that has already been created and earn extra commission points, Jiffo said. The latter is a new program implemented this year.

American Queen's usual policy is to offer one free cruise fare for every 12 guests booked in a group -- known as the tour conductor (TC) credit in the cruise industry, but the line is offering one TC per six guests through the end of the year "because we love groups and want to get more of your business," Jiffo said.

Marilyn Conroy, Riviera River Cruises' executive vice president of sales and marketing for North America, has a simple and economical method for selling groups and compiling TCs: the "classic pied piper, or 'come along with me.'"

Conroy told a story about when she and a travel advisor approached the commodore of a Texas yacht club and asked him where he'd like to sail for free. "He picked out the cruise, and we promoted it to members of the yacht club."

She said a live presentation to yacht club members and a flyer printout cost just $200. The final result was 85 booked guests who will be cruising on July 4.

"Not only do guests get to travel with the big cheese, but they will be traveling with each other, which presumably they like," Conroy said.

Avalon Waterways has a program called Sweet Rewards, in which the travel advisor is the so-called pied piper. Vice president of sales Paula Hayes says an advisor can book a fam rate of $829 for a seven-night cruise for the advisor and a companion.

"You're locked in," Hayes said. "You don't have any obligations to promote a group; you just know you're going."

However, if the advisor does promote a cruise that they're taking, it can be a powerful, persuasive message.

"There's never been a better time to talk to clients about you going because they're going to feel so safe traveling with you," Hayes said. "It's a great way to get out there and connect with your customers."

"And the minute you get to four couples, or eight people, now you're qualifying as a group," Hayes continued. "Now you're talking about getting a TC, and it all started with a no-risk decision to just book yourself."

In addition to Pinelo, Jiffo, Conroy and Hayes, the CruiseWorld session on selling river cruises included Richard Hickey, Scenic Group's senior director of national accounts. The session was moderated by two travel advisors: Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations in Bothell, Wash., and Stephen Scott, CEO and Founder of Travel Hub 365 in Chicago.

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