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Hitting the Mark with Expedition Cruises

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Tips for planning the ultimate expedition cruise adventure for your clients

A decade ago, when river cruising began to show dramatic growth, travel advisors who were quick to educate themselves earned substantial rewards that continue to this day. Now another such opportunity is knocking: Expedition cruising is coming of age. The rapid growth in this sector has moved it from a phenomenon to a long-term trend, one that calls for a targeted approach to sales and marketing and an understanding of the features that ensure outstanding expedition cruises for your clients.

Expedition cruises are generally defined as cruises to remote areas with a focus on authentic interaction between visitors and local people, ecology and culture. Passenger numbers are small, and guests spend a high percentage of their time off the ship, with very strong enrichment as the core of the travel experience.

How hot is expedition cruising today? The trend is so on point that the world’s largest annual gathering of the cruise industry, Seatrade Cruise Global in Miami, announced a new brand, Seatrade Cruise Expedition, to be launched in 2020. The new brand is designed to foster communication, learning and new opportunities for those involved in the growing expedition cruise sector. CLIA, too, ranked expeditions among its top cruise trends for 2019, with the organization’s first-ever forum dedicated to this sector held in October 2019.

Here’s a look at some of the factors making expedition cruising so popular today and how travel advisors can tap into this growing market.

Best in Class
From Forbes to Skift, access is being identified as the new luxury. And collecting memories has emerged as a strong consumer preference, with cultural immersion ranking high, according to UBS’s list of travel trends this year. “Now, instead of watching, people want to participate—plow the rice fields, plant trees, cook local food, get to know the destinations firsthand, rather than riding in a bus to look at them,” says Alyse Cori, owner of Travelwize in Sonoma, California.  

Expedition cruises are specifically designed to meet client preferences just like these, making them appealing to an increasingly broad spectrum of travelers. However, before advisors move from selling traditional cruising to expedition cruises, they need to understand that while the two styles share some similarities, they also have important differences. “Successful cruising does not equal successful expedition cruising,” warns Heidi Hoehn, CTC, general manager of Travelstore in Pasadena, California. “It really is a specialty.” Travel advisors who have had success in expedition cruising place a premium on working with suppliers experienced in this niche for best-in-class itineraries, guides and other fine points that add up to successful expeditions.  

The choice of destination is always going to be a decision-driver, but travel advisors also recommend taking a careful look at the planned experiences in each destination: how the cruise will bring their clients into close touch with the best-known hallmarks of a locale, as well as take them to areas beyond the norm and foster genuine immersion in local life.

Timing, too, can make a huge difference in providing clients with the best possible experience. When is the best time of year to visit any given destination? Suppliers with thoughtful itineraries will ensure that cruises are timed to follow animal migration patterns, arrive during local festivals or celebrations, take advantage of prime weather conditions and maximize other factors that provide the kind of excitement that leads to repeat bookings and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Travel advisors also stress the importance of selecting expedition cruises that feature seasoned specialists with the proven ability to immerse the traveler in extraordinary places. Guests form vital relationships with team leaders, interpreters and guides, who not only give lectures and lead them to the destination’s key features, but sail and eat with them, interacting informally.

Hoehn notes that the staff must be experts who can communicate with travelers of varying backgrounds, and the best guides generate passionate loyalty from guests. “Once travelers find quality guides, they will follow them anywhere,” she says.

A dedicated expedition traveler herself, Cori agrees that expert leaders are vital in determining the quality of the expedition. “They have to be extremely knowledgeable—local is wonderful, because they can speak to the details of daily life, or someone who has become a real expert,” she says. “And beyond their knowledge, they must be personable and able to interact easily with people who have different levels of education and understanding.”

Hoehn also considers the ratio of onboard experts to guests. “On some cruises you may find 300 guests and two experts,” she says. “Or there could be 78 people and six experts. It makes a real difference.”

In addition to exceptional staff, Cori looks for a stable expedition cruise company that has demonstrated financial security and has a track record of pleasing clients. “You want your clients to be in the best hands, so you look for a solid reputation,” she says.

Selling Strategies

With low passenger numbers, expert interpreters and special equipment aboard the ships, expedition cruising is a high-end product. Successful travel advisors emphasize that an all-inclusive cruise that allows everyone to experience the destination fully and requires no nickel and diming is important for guest satisfaction. Initially, this may cause sticker shock. “You have to educate the clients about what they are getting for their money,” Cori notes. ”You can’t base the sale on price.”

Lena Brown, a cruise specialist with Largay Travel in Las Vegas, Nevada, points out, “Now, with all the luxury expedition ships, clients can have both first-class comforts and exotic destinations—but even with the less luxurious small ships, I tell them they are gaining personal input and the flexibility to follow whatever interests them.”

Skilled expedition cruise advisors are unanimous in the importance of sharing their own expeditions when approaching their clients. “I’m one of those experience junkies, and it is contagious with clients,” Cori says. Likewise, Hoehn’s motto is: “We’ve been where you want to go.”

Brown finds that taking expedition cruises herself and sharing them extensively with clients is at the heart of her business. First, she prepares them for her own trips, letting them know she may be out of Internet range for a number of days. She tells them exactly where she will be going and why, then keeps a journal of the trip and shares it, with images, on social media. In the past month she has had three leads from people who commented on pictures from Facebook alone.

“Often my clients don’t even know they want to go to a particular place—they have never associated these exotic destinations with their own lives—and then they get excited,” Brown says. “They know if I can do it, they can too.”

She adds: “Sharing experiences with clients lets them know it’s obtainable. I call them when I get back and I make some images from the trip into note cards. I send them brochures along with their documents for current trips with the note that it’s an idea for their next adventure.”

Brown also sees crossover between land and cruise travel, most recently with teachers who went to Peru and visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu. When they returned, she told them about her own Amazon expedition cruise experiences—the impetus for another trip for the same group, who went back to Peru for a completely different experience in the country.

For Cori, prospective expedition cruisers are often highly educated and adventurous clients. “People who like river or other small-ship cruising, or those who might not have considered cruising before but love unusual destinations are all good possibilities,” she says. “It has to be someone who has the time and financial resources, and it’s likely to be a more independent traveler. There’s always strong appeal for solo travelers, who like the community on smaller ships. But the biggest indicator of an expedition cruise sale is that the person wants to learn.”

Other indicators for Brown are that her expedition cruisers are mostly FIT clients, not group travelers, and as they age, they are looking for trip experiences where they can be comfortable but still explore. “Many clients have done adventure-style travel on land, and I tell them, ‘Here’s what you have done before; now look at this,’ ” she says.

Veteran travel advisors warn the ramp-up in expedition cruise sales might take some time. ”You may not see immediate results,” Cori notes. “Some people may call after two or three years.” Hoehn agrees: “I have been planting seeds for years with some clients, and often milestones are the excuse to actually go. The more excuses we can give them, the better.” She keeps the concept of expedition cruising top of mind by asking clients where they are going for a 60th birthday, a wedding anniversary or a trip with grandchildren as a way to introduce or reinforce the idea.

Selling the first expedition cruise to clients may take time—but booking clients on additional sailings is another story. “The traveler goes home changed—they take a piece of the experience back and do life a little differently, with more understanding,” says Brown. “And they develop an appetite for it. Once someone has experienced expedition travel, there is no turning back—they’re on to the next adventure.”

   

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