Why the human element is still essential when managing cruise ships

Dickson Chin from Wallem Ship Agency explains the value of ship agents and how their role may change in the future

Why the human element is still essential when managing cruise ships
Wallem Ship Agency helps cruise lines deliver more intimate and expert guest experiences through its ship agent services

Cruising is a complex business with many moving parts. Delivering the exceptional experiences that customers have become accustomed to requires that cruise lines, shipowners, ship operators, crew members, shore excursion providers, travel agents, port authorities and ship agents work together. According to Dickson Chin, managing director at Wallem Ship Agency, the role of ship agents is to provide and coordinate services to visiting ships. But this is beginning to change. 

“We have seen the role of cruise agents in particular evolve over time,” he says. “Some have ventured into offering shore excursions or transportation services and even have their own docking and porter services. Others, including Wallem, have kept to the core port agency services, acting on behalf of owners or principals with their interests in mind.”

However, current activities in the maritime industry may impact the role of the ship agent. “Digitalisation is driving change,” says Chin. “What you see on the quayside is only part of the work of an agent. The need to integrate electronically with the principal’s systems for port finances and with the local authorities for declarations and customs immigration quarantine submissions has been a key focus within Wallem.”

Despite the potential changes, Chin believes the key quality of a good ship agent is one who goes above and beyond. In doing so, they can become precious assets to the cruise lines they serve. 

“Anyone can be a port agent, but a good port agent is hard to come by,” he explains. “My recommendation to clients is to look beyond what an agent can do outside the port and on the day of the ship call. Being able to plan multiple services so that they run smoothly is expected, but the ability to anticipate issues and see them from the ship’s perspective is another matter entirely. This is the mark of an exceptional agent and one who is definitely worth holding onto!”

“There are also those agents who have a voice with local government authorities, who can steer regulations and drive cruise developments in their respective markets – and these are invaluable to cruise lines.”

With the challenges of Covid-19, one might assume that cruise operators would choose to integrate the services of these third-party providers into their own offerings, to reduce costs. However, the situation is quite often the opposite, particularly as operators work to deliver more personalised, intimate and in-depth cruise experiences. 

“We have, in fact, seen more cruise lines reverting to locally appointed agents as they seek out the truly expert and best-in-class agents in each destination country,” says Chin. “In addition, governments require a responsible party that they can track locally, which has significantly increased the responsibility and accountability of an agent. Our role remains essential, especially with local authorities.”

Chin also highlights the issues that would face the cruise industry if manned services from agents were no longer available. 

“The inevitable result would be that cruise ships are left to manage their own service requirements in port and at sea,” says Chin. “The human element remains paramount when attending to cruise ships: what happens when a lost guest misses the ship with all their belongings still onboard? Or, worse still, when there are fatalities on board? It is often in emergency situations that the true value of a port agent is appreciated.”

And despite the swift move the industry is undergoing towards digitalisation, Chin believes there is still a space for manned port services. 

“The business model for these services still exists, even in the new digital era,” he explains. “For example, due to the number of people onboard these ships, there will be requests for shore medical assistance, and when English is not the first language of the destination, manned service is needed.

“Until we see the complete switch to electronic bills of lading and the industry embracing online services and declarations, manned port services will be required.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry ReviewAll information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.   

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Elly Yates-Roberts
By Elly Yates-Roberts
12 January 2022