Riding the New Wave

Panelists explore the enormous potential of small-ship cruising


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Selling small ships on the world’s rivers and coasts is a very different process for a very distinct product compared to seagoing cruises, according to panelists at the recent ExecConnect seminar Riding the New Wave. The panel of experts discussing small-ship cruising included Charles Van Elten, director of field sales for AMAWaterways; Susan Shultz, director of sales for American Cruise Lines; Sharon Symons, director of field sales for the Globus Family of Brands (Avalon Waterways); Janice Tully, senior vice president of sales for Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection; and Michele Saegesser, vice president of sales of the Americas for Viking River Cruises.

One of the main distinctions made by the panelists is that in deep-water cruising the ship is offered as a destination in itself, which differs from the purpose of the small ship. However well designed and enhanced with restaurants, lounges and French or full balconies, the small ship is designed to take guests to the destination. Since small ships actually follow the course of human settlement and civilization, they take passengers into the heart of the cities and towns that define the culture of each part of the world they travel.

The executives agreed that the biggest challenge is letting prospective guests know about the availability, functions and features of the small-ship product. They noted that there is great curiosity about the burgeoning small-ship product and advised agents that they are doing themselves, and their clients, a disservice by not capitalizing on this interest. Too often, they said, it is the client who brings the small-ship cruise to the attention of the agent.

CLIA has earmarked river cruises as a segment of strong growth in the cruise industry, with similar characteristics and buying patterns to luxury cruises.

As a consequence of the growing market, the small-ship lines are building at a fast and furious pace, just as deep-water cruising has slowed its growth. River cruising is bringing in new ship designs with double balconies, more alternative dining, pools, more suite configurations, virtual fireplaces and even such features as top-deck herb gardens. The river cruise vessels have long since installed elevators, massage rooms, fitness equipment and outdoor barbecue dining venues. Agents enthusiastically applauded American Cruise Lines’ move to bring out a newbuild for major U.S. rivers next year, tapping a pent-up market that hasn’t had product since the demise of Majestic America-

During the worst economic periods, small-ship cruising — which serves an older, higher-income market and a relatively small guest capacity — was not as heavily impacted as seagoing cruising.

Panelists agreed that 2009 was a year best forgotten, but 2010 was a banner year — in some cases, the best in small-ship cruising history.

Most lines said 2011 is showing promise to be a very strong year, with as much as 92 percent of space filled already in early May. The cruise lines are bringing out their inventory for next year, and customers are booking a year ahead.

Small-ship Selling Features

* Guests can tour the interior of Europe, Asia and America without packing and unpacking. Clients can immediately access the center of each city, as there are no long trips to get to prime features of the destinations. 

* Small-ship cruises offer guests the opportunity to embark and disembark in moments; enjoy open dining; meet other travelers in an intimate setting (generally 140-180 people); and penetrate the local culture through exploration, arts and local food and drink. 

* This is an all-inclusive product, with shore excursions, 24-hour coffee, wines, soft drinks and even bicycles included, depending on the cruise line. 

* The small-ship cruise lines are very strong advocates of the travel agent trade, and in some cases sales are 100 percent by agents. Even in cases such as Uniworld’s, where there was formerly 25 percent direct sales when the company purchased the Travel Corporation, there is now no direct marketing and direct sales are down to 2.3 percent. 

Travel Agent Tools

* All the cruise line representatives invited agents to contact them directly for co-op projects, individual fams, etc. The small-ship lines also offer all kinds of collateral material, generated for and easily customized to agent specifications, including personalized emails for each itinerary. In addition, several companies have made substantial investments into direct mail campaigns with agent names and contact information included.

* Uniworld and AMA are both members of CLIA, which now has a special river cruise component.

* River cruising yields much higher agent commissions; Van Elten commented that the commission check for selling even one stateroom has a comma in it. Full or partial charter represents a big opportunity for agents, with relatively small numbers necessary for river cruising. Group discounts, for instance, accompany as few as five staterooms. The average group commission is $10,000 and the tour conductor ratio is only 9-to-1 for group sales.

* Agent fams are offered individually at agent rates, to consortia, at the end of education programs and by request. Shultz, whose company is unique in selling U.S. product, said agents who have even a little time can contact her to visit ACL’s ships along the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and, next year, in the interior along the Mississippi and other great rivers.

Action Steps

* River cruising is an area ready for agents to become experts and to distinguish themselves by making efficient use of educational materials and by requesting individual fams. 

* Agents were advised to use their relationships proactively, to request co-op funds from panel members and to make serious use of promotional materials. 

* Panelists suggested bringing on new cruisers through special cruises —Christmas markets and theme cruises including wine, music, gardens and more. In addition, panelists highlighted that threats to cruise sales — such as the fear of becoming seasick and the fear of feeling cooped-up for long periods of time — are not issues on river cruises. 

* All the panelists cited failure to follow up as the number-one way to sabotage sales. One panelist quoted a mentor: “Follow up until they buy or die.” 

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