Agents get brand-building advice from Frank Del Rio

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Frank Del Rio called the launch of Oceania Cruises "the biggest risk of my life."
Frank Del Rio called the launch of Oceania Cruises "the biggest risk of my life." Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio can speak with authority about building brands, and that was his topic in an address to agents during Vacation.com's annual conference at the Diplomat Resort and Spa.

He told agents the story of starting Oceania Cruises and how he built it into a “powerhouse brand.”

In 2001, Del Rio was, as he put it, “unceremoniously fired” from Renaissance Cruises, where he had worked since 1993. The cruise line tried a new direct-to-consumer business model that failed, Del Rio said, and shortly after 9/11, declared bankruptcy. Its eight R-class ships were left idle in Tahiti and France. (Today, four of those R-class ships sail for Oceania: the Regatta, Insignia, Nautica and Sirena).

Del Rio got to work, and took what he calls the “biggest risk of my life.” He mortgaged his house, used all his savings, borrowed money from family and started a new cruise company, Oceania Cruises.

In a country in an economic recession that had just begun combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I embarked on my journey to build a brand,” he said. Del Rio started knocking on investors’ doors with Jason Montague, today the president of Oceania, who worked for six months without a paycheck to get the business off the ground.

A few months got them $14 million, just enough to get started, but they needed something special, a “secret sauce,” Del Rio said, to set them apart from competitors. That was food.

Today, Oceania is a cruise line that has been sold twice, most recently for billions of dollars. It remains known for its culinary excellence with celebrated chef Jacques Pepin as its executive culinary director.

“In my nearly 25 years in this business, I learned very early what it means to build a brand, and how critical it is to stay focused on what that brand represents, and what that brand means to its intended customer base,” Del Rio said.

A catchy name does not build a brand, Del Rio said. Creating an exceptional product or service is key.

To keep a brand relevant, one must tell the brand’s story over and over again to its target market. For instance, Del Rio said, Regent Seven Seas Cruises constantly refers to its upcoming new ship, the Explorer, as “the most luxurious ship ever built.” Frequency and repetition are brand-building keys, he said.

Message consistency is also important, including consistent logos, colors and taglines, Del Rio said, again mentioning the Explorer’s tagline of “the most luxurious ship ever built.”

The CEO advised agents to sell value over price, have passion and invest in their brand. They should differentiate themselves and narrow the brands they represent so they can be true experts, he said.

Social media is a powerful way to market a brand, and agents should be aware of that, Del Rio said, citing a statistic that the average person spends 50 minutes of day on Facebook alone.

He also said in a world of information overload, agents should position themselves as experts, which will earn them steady, repeat customers.

“Customers are desperate for an expert who can cut through the clutter and provide real answers and real solutions, and once you have that client under your spell, that’s just the beginning,” he said. “Fostering and investing in the relationship that you establish with your clients will pay huge, lifelong dividends. Think of it as a never-ending annuity — it’s the power of the brand.”

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