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They are prosperous and honored by the cruise lines and consortia. These travel agents are the stellar cruise sellers, the ones whose customers pass their names along emphatically to friends who then tell other friends. So how, exactly, do these top agents do it?
The message from very successful agents, cruise line executives and consortia is the same: the key factors in phenomenal success are branding; constant, ongoing education; and adaptability. While everyone agrees that agents must intimately know the product they have chosen to sell, that is only the beginning.
“It used to be that product knowledge was the key to an agent’s value,” said Scott Koepf, vice president of sales for Avoya Travel. “We had a secret source consumers didn’t — the GDS — and it gave agents lock and key to specialized knowledge. But now it takes much more.”
Agents need to think from the perspective of their clients.
Branding is Crucial
“You’re always answering the question, ‘Why should I do business with you?’ Most agents cannot tell you what they do that would inspire a client to tell 10 other people about them,” said Koepf.
Being able to define your difference is usually the last thing that the starting agent thinks of, but it should be the first, according to Joni Rein, vice president of worldwide sales for Carnival Cruise Lines. Rein suggests that agents distinguish themselves with a specialty.
“If I were just starting out, I would focus on multigenerational family vacations,” she said.
“That’s narrow and deep and you can build other vacations from it. Older clients will move to luxury, girlfriends’ getaways and so on.”
This process of defining your strategy is a distinction in itself, according to Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line executive of global sales and passenger services.
“Agents who can sum up their marketing strategies in one sentence produce far better than agents with a vague plan,” he said. “They create a unique experience so they can’t be comparison shopped and they figure out how to make price the second question, not the first.”
Vickie Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of sales and trade support and services, suggests a technique.
“If clients ask you to book something they saw based on price, tell them you can certainly do that and much more. Put that issue aside while you ask them qualifying questions,” she said. “You have to diagnose like a doctor before you prescribe.”
Bob Dickinson, former president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines and now consultant to Carnival Corp., urges agents to treat all customers as prospects, no matter how many times they have done business with you. His view is supported by Tom Baker, co-owner of CruiseCenter in Houston, and recognized by Conde Nast Traveler as a top Cruise Specialist, who says the cardinal sin of agents is making assumptions.
Mark Kammerer, senior vice president of marketing and North America sales for Holland America Line, believes agents who move to the next level know it’s a privilege to help people get the most from their precious discretionary time. Baker embraces this philosophy to ensure his clients exceptional value. For shore trips, he uses ShoreExcursionsGroup.com, led by former cruise line executives, and develops his own relationships on the ground.
“In Italian ports where clients are charged [exorbitant prices] for a private tour driver, I can get them a good one for [about $120] a day, and my clients are riding in a Mercedes,” Kammerer said.
Sue Ratliff, owner of Sea World Cruises and Tours in Athens, Texas, also feels strongly that intimate knowledge of the product is key to her success. Ratliff has received Avoya’s Best of the Best and President’s Circle honors, and she certainly goes the extra mile: She once made a booking in a hospital on the verge of surgery.
Much in-depth knowledge is available to agents from the suppliers.
“Cruise lines invest a huge amount of money in tools,” Stuart said. “If you look at the data, those who complete their training are much more profitable.”
Sunni Drisgill, cruise specialist for BTS Cruise Center in Baltimore, Md., certainly has found this to be true. Drisgill, who has served on CLIA’s advisory board, has more than 100 certificates of completion for educational resources.
American Express Pacesetter Diane Bower, owner of the The Diane Bower Agency in Charlotte, N.C., is legendary among Avoya agents for closing a Seabourn sale on horseback; she is also meticulous in researching.
“A lot of people have dealt with agents who didn’t have in-depth knowledge. I can tell them which taxi driver will pick them up. I tell them what I have experienced in ports — they want to do what you do,” said Bower.
Recently, she surprised her customers at a recommended restaurant in Europe, meeting them face-to-face for the first time.
“It’s all part of relationship-building,” she added. “Without relationships, we have nothing.”
Baker noted that relationship-building is not just with the client.
“Strengthen your relationships with your district sales manager and with cruise line executives so you can go to bat for your clients when they need it,” he said.
Baker cites a Celebrity cruise where his clients were sailing with friends who hadn’t realized their Aqua-class dining room was different from the main dining room. Baker contacted Dondra Ritzenthaler, Celebrity Cruises senior vice president of sales, trade support and services, who made arrangements for them to be together.
Selling to New Cruisers
Bob Dickinson pointed out that there is tremendous potential for income among new cruisers.
“There are at least 75 million people who could cruise in terms of time and money, but haven’t,” he said. “That’s the target. The repeat market is already sold. Non-cruisers don’t know how good cruising is.”
Los Angeles-based Jason Coleman, owner of Jason Coleman, Inc., couldn’t agree more.
“I am not focused on the repeat cruiser — that doesn’t do anything for the larger industry,” he said. “The repeat cruiser is low-hanging fruit, and I don’t really see much in the way of sales involved.”
Coleman creates theme group cruises and develops ongoing relationships with participants. He does a lot of online advertising and works with publicists in Los Angeles to promote his theme sailings. On a recent soap opera reunion, Coleman had a publicist recruit the stars. The vast majority of fans who come on board because of their interest in meeting the stars had never cruised, and once they experienced cruising, the myths and obstacles go by the wayside.
Coleman’s approach is unusual, but Ritzenthaler notes that there are very different models among stellar agents.
“You own your own destiny,” she said. “If you’re willing to work harder and smarter, there’s no reason you can’t be wildly successful. I see it all the time.”