ONBOARD THE OOSTERDAM -- As temperatures plummeted across the U.S. this month, travel agents on Holland America Line's Oosterdam were sipping Pacifico beer and applying sunblock as the vessel sailed along the Mexican Riviera.

Such is life, at least for one week each year, for an elite contingency known as the Centurions.

The name came from the group once representing HAL's top 100 accounts in the U.S.

The line expanded it to include worldwide partners, and on this trip, its 11th annual Centurions sailing, HAL's 120 top-producing agencies were represented.

Richard Meadows, HAL's executive vice president of sales and marketing, said that each Centurion account did well over $1 million in HAL sales this year.

While I am a bit short of that mark -- with zero sales -- the line invited me to tag along.

After being at a few of these events, from Crystal Cruises' annual gala to NCL's Presidents' Circle events, it is clear to me that there are agencies that are regulars on the top-producing cruise circuit.

Whether it's Brad, Van or Jeff Anderson or someone else, America's Vacation Center is usually represented at a top producers' gig. Ditto Paula and Jeff Kivet of Cruise Value Center in East Brunswick, N.J. Expedia's Koreen McNutt often is in attendance, as well.

So what's the draw? For starters, with HAL, there's the free cruise for two, air included. Agents also get $100 in onboard credit; a night of dining in HAL's alternative restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill, normally priced at $30 a person; and complimentary shore excursions in two of the three ports.

But this is not an all play and no work situation.

At 8:30 a.m. the first Sunday morning of the sailing, a sea day, while most regular cruisers were just stirring, Meadows delivered the state of HAL address in the theater, with all Centurions in attendance.

The agents then heard from HAL's new vice president of sales, Paul Allen, and the woman who replaced him as vice president for Alaska marketing and sales, Linda Springmann.

Despite the steady flow of information from HAL brass onstage, the agents and HAL execs all said that the cruise is about the agents networking with each other and getting face time with the executives, such as Meadows, who made time to host individual meetings with any agent seeking a one-on-one. Many agents said it was in the individual meetings that they could really speak their mind.

"This trip is a real gut-check of how we're doing," Meadows said. "They're not a shy group, and they're incredibly informed."

Noting that every agency model is represented at the event, Meadows said this group represented many of the concerns of the distribution system at large.

Meadows added that the top producers "need a level of access that is extraordinary. 

"If we didn't do it, I just think we'd run the risk of not being in step with what they need."         

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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