Wave Season is dead, Mara Hargarther is happy to report.
With an eye on her agency's cash flow and the piles of future cruise credits on her desk, Hargarther this month decided there's no reason to wait until January to launch an all-out push to sell cruises.
So Hargarther asked her cruise partners for some co-op advertising, prepared a mailing of 10,000 postcards highlighting getaways on the high seas and started calling clients to encourage them to spend the holiday season at sea.
A big thumbs-up
Travel advisors are applauding Royal Caribbean's 274-day world cruise on the Serenade of the Seas, which is expected to sell out quickly.
"We sold over $1 million worth of cruises in September," she said. "The cruise ships are there, ready to go. They are following the [capacity reduction] protocols, and guests are getting spoiled by [fully staffed] crew. So I'm calling my clients now and suggesting they go on a cruise for the holidays this year."
It's that kind of thinking that makes Hargarther's agency in Ponte Vedra, Fla., the No. 2 franchise at Dream Vacations. She and her ICs have sold $7 million worth of cruises so far this year, and she has long-standing personal relationships with the cruise lines. So when she called her suppliers to ask if they'd like to partner on those postcards, "they were all in," she said.
The cards are going out to past clients who don't have cruises booked and include "an exclusive offer from each participating cruise line. We plan to get that mailing out the last week of November, before Wave season."
Most of Hargarther's cruise partners are offering an amenity of some kind "or something attractive no one else is doing," holding prices steady but adding value for booking right now.
Hargarther is doing email blasts ("Celebrity and Royal Caribbean have been fabulous"). And last month, she and her staff started picking up the phone for the kind of one-to-one conversations that often turn into bookings.
Throughout Covid, she said, "We have tried to stay away from being in front of people with our marketing, but now we are finding that calling them is a really good use of our time. They are so happy to hear from us. They want to know what's happening with travel, how it's going. And that's a conversation best had over the telephone."
When to spend marketing dollars?
Gary E. Smith, co-owner of TravelPerks in Eugene, Ore., also plans to get a jump-start on Wave season this year, but not until late November.
Gary E. Smith
Smith and his staff of full-time employees had planned to start marketing cruises in October, but didn't "have enough cash flow to do a lot of marketing right now," he said. "We had planned to start in October, but the world, industry and cash flow don't justify a lot of marketing right now."
After "a couple of great months" in June and July, Smith said, August and September were bad, and October is looking worse.
Still, Smith is planning a big marketing push in November and in preparation has hired back five full-time travel advisors and begun a training program.
We're not yet anywhere close to cash-flow positive. December to April will really be key.
"Everything hinges on what 2022 and beyond look like," he said. "We're not yet anywhere close to cash-flow positive. December to April will really be key."
Wave has never been a big focus for Smith, he said. His agency was growing by about 30% per year for the 10 years before Covid, and every month was a good month, each often better than the last.
His sales had reached $10.3 million in 2019, and he was expecting $13 million for 2020; now he is projecting about $7 million and hoping to grow another $2 million to $3 million in 2022.
For now, he said, "my job is to make sure my employees earn a living and I don't lose my shirt."
He let go two in-house marketing specialists and outsourced their positions, but nonetheless expanded his advertising budget. "I put too much time into my agency to be timid now," he said. "We will come out swinging in December."
Relying on consortia marketing
At the independent-contractor level, Catherine Adde is relying solely on the marketing materials her consortium and her host agency, TravelStore, provide, while listening carefully to her clients.
Signature Travel Network marketing.
When one customer's trip to England was canceled during Covid, Adde noted in the file that the customer said, "One day I'll book a Uniworld cruise with you." So when Signature Travel Network, her agency's consortium, held an online cruise night, she invited the client to log in.
"She declined at first, but I asked permission to register her anyway so she could watch it at her convenience and take advantage of any special offers," Adde said.
Next thing she knew, the client called to say she was excited about the offers and that she and her husband want to sign up for a River Duchess cruise. "And since she usually travels with friends, I made up a flyer for her to send around so they could join her," Adde said.
Within two weeks she had a group of 20.
"Sometimes the best form of marketing is to be a good listener through the noise of canceling and rebooking and follow up with clients even when you are busy putting out fires," she said.
Signature's director of cruise partnerships, Julie Howard, said that people are starting to market cruises earlier this year. "I don't think anyone is waiting. Everyone is eager to get the business back on the books by getting future cruise credits applied and focusing on new bookings to get a jump-start on 2022 and beyond."
The world is waking up again, and it's time to book.
Signature for the past few months has been running a series of virtual consumer events targeting FCC holders and new-to-brand guests as well as including special offers like prepaid gratuities. They have generated $50 million in revenue.
"These events have been so well-received because you can touch people in every state. They create inspiration and excitement for consumers to plan their next dream vacation, and they really create a demand for booking now," Howard said.
Meanwhile, Adde also is counting on the fall issue of TravelStore's magazine, with the theme "Here are some great offers, and the time is now."
"The world is waking up again, and it's time to book," Adde said. "We've all been trepidatious, but many of our advisors are traveling right now, using social media to say, 'Hey, here I am, it's not crowded and I do feel safe.' The imagery is just so powerful."