Make the most of the year’s best time to sell cruises.
It happens every winter: Just as the end-of-year holidays wind down, Wave Season heats up, with cruise companies unveiling some of their most attractive and exciting deals of the year. And savvy travel agents might just find themselves swimming in profits if they properly leverage the season to get more clients on board.
Running from January through March, Wave Season is an especially important time for travel agencies that rely heavily on the lucrative cruise segment. “As our agency name suggests, cruises remain our specialty and represent about 90 percent of our overall sales,” says Tim Walsh, owner of Cruise Holidays in Hampstead, North Carolina. “The three-month period between January and March is our industry’s Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Our clients are in the height of winter, have just opened a new calendar for the coming year and are looking to fill in the blanks.”
In recent years, this peak booking season has begun to start earlier and end later, according to Walsh. “Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) starts with their ‘Plan A Cruise Month’ in October, which seems to kick things off,” he says. “Families gathering for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays keep the conversation going, and the plethora of Wave Season promotions staring in January fuels the booking frenzy.”
Ready to make the most of this year’s Wave Season? The following insider tips provide valuable guidelines for agencies looking to maximize the profit potential of selling during the Wave Season.
To make the most of limited-time promotions and increased consumer awareness about cruise deals, travel agents need to plan ahead. Spreading the word to current and potential clients that Wave deals are coming builds excitement and encourages travelers to be ready to book the promotions as they become available. With increased demand, it’s also important that agencies have the preparation and resources to accommodate requests in order to maximize bookings and profits.
Sheri Clarke, owner of Picture This Travel in Bowling Green, Kentucky, reveals her strategy for doing so: “We have our annual agency meeting in November, during which we discuss our agent and agency goals for the next year,” she says. “At that meeting, we go over Wave Season and prepare our part-time help to commit to more hours, if needed. We look at the group space we have taken out and make a plan to promote it through various marketing vehicles, such as email, Facebook, website, TV and radio advertising.”
Walsh also uses a variety of tactics to prepare his agency. “I will pick some promotions from the CLIA offerings in October, but my main preparation is to follow the promotions calendar of the engagement marketing program at Travel Leaders Network,” the consortium to which his agency belongs. “As a member, I have access to promotions from 50-plus industry-leading supplier partners, including the leading cruise lines.”
Tap into Client Excitement
Wave Season comes at a particularly convenient time of year—when clients are ready and eager to make travel plans—further increasing the business opportunity for agents.
“The beginning of the year is the time when people start thinking about vacations for the year,” Clarke says. Although it’s a little late for spring break planning, there are still good values to be had on cruises for that time period, and Clarke also encourages clients “to get their summer vacations and Christmas break vacations planned at this time in order to get the best pricing. The specials that cruise lines run do help to motivate them.”
Walsh says that traveler enthusiasm about value and extra amenities can help to drive excitement—and bookings. “Everyone is looking for value today, and travel is no different,” he says. “Cruise lines seem to have settled on a multitude of freebies to sweeten the offers. Complimentary beverage packages, prepaid gratuities, shipboard credits and free WiFi seem to lead the pack. Complimentary specialty dining and shore excursions round out other promotions.”
But even with so many deals on the table, it’s not just about choosing one at face value—agents must determine the value those offers represent for individual customers. As Walsh explains, “We still do the math for clients to help them determine whether the net price is a good value for a given product.”
Walsh also points out that sorting through the multitude of available deals—which is always part of an agent’s role—becomes even more crucial during Wave Season, when travelers can easily become overwhelmed by the increased cruise focus and push to book. “Many of my clients are past cruisers from a variety of lines, and they are already bombarded by offers from the cruise lines directly. The industry has also told us that the average traveler will visit 38 websites before booking. Our job is to help the client digest all of this material and make the right choice for their needs.”
Get the Word Out
The flood of Wave deals and information can pose an extra challenge to travel advisors and travel agencies: How can you stand out from the crowd of offers and reach your buyers effectively?
Clarke has learned over time which techniques are most effective to promote Wave Season and encourage bookings. “We have found that social media is the most cost-effective way to make our past guests, as well as potential guests, aware of Wave Season and the specials that come with it,” she says. “Email is also effective, but you have to be careful not to inundate a client’s inbox. Emailing can become like ringing someone’s doorbell—it’s more intrusive. Social media is more like advertising in a newspaper used to be. It’s a bit more passive for the consumer, but when something catches their eye—a destination, a date, a price point—they will engage.”
Walsh also makes use of social media, as well as other communication channels. “I will post a few offers that I feel are noteworthy on my Facebook business page, as well as send some targeted direct mail and email blasts. I have also recently hosted some river cruise seminars, as that has been a burgeoning and profitable niche for me.”
Qualify, Qualify, Qualify
Even with all the hustle and bustle of Wave Season, no agent should forget basic principles like matching clients to the right product.
“Wave Season does not change our qualifying process,” explains Clarke. “We feel this is one of the most important parts of our job. We are the experts, and often we find that our guests think they want a certain type of cruise or vacation because they saw a TV ad, or their friend told them about a certain cruise. However, our job is to ask questions— and more questions—about what they are looking for, where they have traveled in the past, etc., and then to listen.”
Clarke emphasizes the word “listen” for an important reason. “Typically, we will get a feel for what they are looking for by just allowing the guests to talk about what they want their vacation to look like. With our expertise we can then research, narrow down the choices to two or three to send to the guests, so they can see what’s available, and help them make a choice from our recommendations.”
As with most experienced agencies, Walsh’s company tailors its qualification process based on the individual traveler. “With my repeat clients, most of the time they have already decided on a ship and sail date and are just confirming the current promotions and qualifications,” he explains. “Newcomers during Wave Season get the full ‘who, why, when, what and how’ qualifiers. Many of us have our go-to lines based on many years of experience in both selling and sailing. If you ask enough questions and take the time to really listen to their answers, clients will usually lead you in the right direction.”
Think Beyond Cruises
Wave Season may be a time when some travelers and agents focus on the best cruise deals, but Clarke—whose agency reports less reliance on cruise bookings—notes that the season can be ideal for selling other types of travel, too.
“Lots of suppliers use this same timeframe to promote their products, so we book a lot of all-inclusive vacations, in particular, during Wave Season,” Clarke says. “Wave Season starts our busy season for travel. Because there is so much chatter about cruising, it spawns vacation planning in general, so we get a lot of inquiries for lots of vacation types during this time.”
Regardless of what they’re selling, travel agents shouldn’t let the season’s hectic pace prevent them from following up to close a sale, according to Kevin Kimes, vice president of leisure product management at Travel Leaders Group. “Use tools and solutions to help you, and document each potential sale,” he advises. “Document all quotes you give. Then leave time to follow up on these potential sales. It’s common for us to gravitate toward the next possible sale, but taking the time to follow up and work all prospective sales is often what distinguishes the best professionals in our industry.”