What sells a cruise?

Adam Lawrence finds that the travel agent is still as important as ever
What sells a cruise?

By By Adam Lawrence |

Travel agents were supposed to be killed off by the internet. With everything holidaymakers and business travellers alike needed to book their own trips available online, so the thinking went, what value could the old-fashioned travel agent add?

It’s true that travel agency is a business under pressure. Airlines, for example, now book the overwhelming majority of their seats direct and online – this despite the initial scepticism of executives such as Easyjet founder Stelios Haji-Iannou, who once told me ‘You can’t fill aeroplanes on the internet, the internet is for geeks’, but who soon changed his mind. Price comparison websites put the sort of tools previously reserved for travel professionals at the fingertips of the world.

But in the cruise industry, the travel agency remains king. In the UK, for example, industry research shows that, in 2010, 79 per cent of cruise bookings came through travel agents, while in the US, by a vast distance the world’s largest cruise market, the agency sector remains the dominant source of bookings.

Why should this be so? It is not, after all, as though booking a cruise is an especially complex transaction, as, for example, putting together a travel itinerary involving multiple airlines and hotels might be. Given the clichéd image of the typical cruise passenger, one might think the answer to this question is that those most likely to cruise are least likely to be IT-literate. But this ignores two things; firstly the much wider range of individuals and families who now go cruising, and secondly the spread of internet use across the generations.

Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that third party agents remain key to the sales and marketing efforts of the cruise industry. And thus, for the cruise lines themselves, keeping their agents apprised of the changes in their product offerings is central to sales success. At the ACE UK Cruise Convention in Southampton earlier this year, for example, travel agency delegates surveyed stressed the importance of continuing investment in training and product knowledge, stressing such investment makes a real difference in successfully selling cruise holidays. So if the direct channel has yet to supplant the travel agency, what actual product characteristics induce potential cruisers to make a purchase? The answer, it seems, is one big C word: choice.

This should be no surprise. The cruise industry has worked hard to diversify its product range over the last decade or so, in an attempt to attract more people to cruising, as well as inducing convinced cruisers to go aboard ship more frequently. And the key factor in achieving both these goals is to offer the widest possible range of destinations, dining, onboard and onshore activities, so that there is truly something for everyone within the portfolio.

When the packaged travel industry was in its infancy, in the 1960s and 1970s, the very idea of being able to buy a holiday over the counter gave it novelty value. In northern European markets, for example, the arrival of reasonably-priced jet air travel made sunshine holidays available to a mass market that had previously been restricted to occasional trips to domestic seaside resorts. The idea of tailoring holidays to individual preferences rarely entered the thinking of travellers or travel companies alike.

So it was with cruises. When the cruise industry began to grow in popularity, the glamour of travelling by ship and the ability to see a new port every day or two was enough to fill the vessels. Passengers would troop off the ship and onto the tour buses at each port of call; it was a standardised product offering.

Nowadays, with a more sophisticated marketplace and customers who have seen more and have the world at their fingertips courtesy of the internet, this kind of one size fits all offering just isn’t good enough anymore.

CLIA research backs this up. According to a new survey of travel agents, shipboard lifestyles and choice of shore excursions play important roles when consumers choose a cruise. The survey asked CLIA-member agents to evaluate the importance, according to their knowledge of client preferences, of dining experiences, spa and wellness opportunities, shipboard entertainment, accommodations, and shore excursions. It also asked agents whether cruise lines have made improvements in certain categories and how well cruise experiences compare to those offered in land-based vacations.

In choosing a particular cruise vacation, shipboard accommodations, according to the nearly 900 agents who responded to the CLIA survey based on their experience with clients, were the most important lifestyle attributes of a cruise, followed by cuisine, entertainment, spa/wellness facilities and programs, and shore excursions. In terms of dining experiences, agents said that almost 75 per cent of clients look for added choices of alternative styles of shipboard restaurants, followed by traditional dining room experiences and more casual ‘Lido Deck’ style dining. They also reported that more clients are requesting heart-healthy cuisine, closely followed by diabetic/ sugar-free menus. Significantly, cruise lines seem to have overcome the perception that cruise passengers worry about gaining weight: only ten per cent of agents said their clients expressed that concern more than occasionally.

Workout facilities and adults-only (or kids-free) facilities top the list of spa and wellness interests, according to agents. Other wellness features in order of importance to clients are saunas and hot tubs, spa services, running tracks and group exercise programs, and beauty salons. The majority of respondents said that shipboard spa and wellness facilities compared favourably to those on land and almost 75 per cent of cruisers believe that these facilities have improved in the last three years.

Almost 80 per cent of agents said that shipboard entertainment has improved during the same period, with Broadway style shows, Las Vegas style revues and famous name acts ranking at the top of consumers’ preference lists. Seventy five per cent of respondents said that cruise ship entertainment compares favourably to landbased vacations.

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the Autumn/ Winter 2011 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. You can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.

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