CLIA at the Helm

The Innovative organization behind the travel's industry biggest success

By: Ana Figueroa

The music pulsated. Bold graphics, videos and multi-colored lights flashed against the high-tech backdrop, and the audience roared with applause, at times jumping out of their seats in ovation.

Another big-ticket Vegas act?

No. Another travel agent trade show. But this was no ordinary gathering. It was Cruise3Sixty, the second annual Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) “global travel agent cruise event,” held at the Greater Ft. Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center April 8-11. As anyone there will attest, CLIA put on a show that was motivational, inspirational and educational, with attendance exceeding all expectations (1,600 in total; 1,150 of which were travel agents).

Not bad for an organization not traditionally known for its “wow” factor. Established in 1975, the New York-based CLIA for years was looked upon “as a puppet of the cruise lines,” said Gary Pollard, owner of Ambassador Tours, Inc. in San Francisco, and a member of CLIA’s Travel Agent Advisory Board (TAAB).

But that was then. Now, says Pollard, times have changed.

“I like to use Carnival Cruise Lines as a good analogy for CLIA,” said Pollard. “Back when CLIA began, Carnival was known just as a party-ship line. But Carnival finally grew up. They’ve matured. CLIA is evolving in the same fashion. It’s taken them a while, but they’re getting more respect.”

CLIA’s sheer numbers alone are enough to warrant respect. The largest travel industry association in North America, its 20 cruise-line members represent 97 percent of cruise bookings marketed in North America. With nearly 17,000 travel agency members, it’s also the largest travel agent association in North America.

Although CLIA’s mandate promoting cruise vacations is straightforward on its face, executing that mandate requires as much flexibility as the new Cirque du Soleil performers on Celebrity Cruises. Not only does CLIA simultaneously represent both suppliers (cruise lines) and distributors (travel agents), but those suppliers are in fierce competition with each other, and the distributors are going through their own sea changes when it comes to the way they do business. All this makes for a cruise industry where the stakes are higher than ever before, and certainly one that is larger and more complex than anyone could have imagined back in 1975.

CLIA chairman Andy Stuart, executive vice president of marketing, sales and passenger services for NCL Corporation, sums it up well.

“When you’re serving so many masters, whether those masters are the cruise lines or travel agents, you either fade into oblivion or you do a bloody good job,” Stuart said.

Focus on Agents

CLIA, of course, is well known for its agent training programs, which now offer three different certifications: Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC) Master Cruise Counselor (MCC) and Elite Cruise Counselor (ECC). A new designation, called Luxury Cruise Specialist, will be available in 2007.

“Our biggest audience is the travel agent, and our biggest role is to make sure agents are as well informed as humanly possible so they can spread the good word about cruising,” said Stuart. “My view is that the best training in the travel industry is being conducted by CLIA. We have over 13,000 credited cruise counselors who have gone through some level of training with us.”

In addition to the constantly evolving training programs, CLIA serves as a clearinghouse for extensive market research and other data, all of which are valuable resources for agents, as well as the media and others seeking the latest information about the cruise industry.

At the same time, CLIA also reaches out to consumers, with video news releases, public service announcements and yearly events, such as “World’s Largest Cruise Night.” The latter is one of many innovations produced under the tenure of CLIA president and CEO, Terry L. Dale.

Dale had never been on a cruise ship when he left his position as executive vice president of New York City’s convention and visitor’s bureau to run CLIA in 2003. Ebullient, wiry, with the stage presence and charisma of a TV talk-show host; Dale’s enthusiasm is perfect for inspiring travel agents. And his business savvy has impressed cruise industry bigwigs, as well.

“He’s an absolute dynamo,” said Stuart.

There’s no doubt that Dale, who is fond of expressions such as “thinking upside down and sideways,” is intent on doing things differently. Agents such as Sharon Hathaway, product manager for Automobile Club of Southern California (and a TAAB member), say there’s been a discernable difference in CLIA since Dale came aboard.

“I’ve been in the industry since CLIA was first formed, and I’ve seen a lot of changes just in the last few years,” she said. “They’re doing a much better job at representing the cruise vacation experience as a whole. It’s a big order, but I feel they have gotten on track. They’re taking more proactive steps, year after year.”

For Dale, being proactive is a no-brainer.

“From the time I came to CLIA, I’ve felt an obligation to reflect the kind of innovation that the cruise lines are delivering to consumers,” he said.

One of Dale’s stated goals is to “rethink education and the way CLIA approaches agents.”

Sometimes, Dale’s ideas stir things up. At the recent Cruise3Sixty, Dale masterminded a general session with a “Consumer Town Hall” panel. The panel consisted of ordinary citizens that had never cruised before. Led by CLIA consultant, Dr. Marc Mancini, the group shared its thoughts about cruising, travel agents and the Internet. The results weren’t necessarily pretty, but they did provide an object lesson in the misconceptions about cruising that still abound in the public at large. If there was one message agents heard again and again at the conference, it’s that they are on the front lines when it comes to correcting those misconceptions.

An Expanding Market

The good news is that cruising is still very much in the expansion mode. According to CLIA’s 2006 Market Profile Study, released at Cruise3Sixty, the number of persons expected to cruise this year will increase by 500,000 over last year, to 11.7 million. The shipbuilding boom continues, with 25 new ships on order, totaling 71,000 berths for delivery through 2009, at an investment of more than $14.3 billion.

There were other bright spots in the Market Profile Study, as well. For example, the average age of all cruise vacationers is down to 49, and cruisers are still much more likely to use a travel agent than land-based vacationers. But with only 17 percent of the public ever experiencing a cruise, there’s a lot of outreach needed to get to the estimated “core market” of 127 million future cruise prospects. Industry leaders, such as Carnival Cruise Lines president and CEO Bob Dickinson, emphasized at Cruise3Sixty that attracting first-time passengers, instead of simply reaching out to past cruise guests, is essential if the industry hopes to keep up its growth rate.

For his part, Dale is determined to develop more programs to help agents reach that untapped cruise market. A yearlong campaign, “CLIA Means Business,” concentrates on business strategies, such as how to use marketing and technology to make agents more productive.

“We have to evolve along with the distribution system. It’s crucial to make sure we’re relevant among all these different distribution channels,” said Dale.

Those channels now include more home-based agents. In fact, 50 percent of CLIA member agents are now home-based, said Robert Sharak, CLIA executive vice president and CMO. Another 33 percent are storefront, and 17 percent are retail, though not storefront.

Debbie Williams of Near and Far Travel is an independent agent of Joystar, working out of her Florida home.

“I really depend on CLIA for education and training, and I thought Cruise3Sixty was wonderful,” said Williams. “It was the first time I was at an event with such a large group of my fellow agents. I was so amazed to see all the industry executives there. It was a real networking opportunity.”

Obviously, that kind of praise is music to Dale’s ears. But there are still some agency owners, managers and top producers who question CLIA’s relevance.

“CLIA presents a good baseline resource ... But, it is only one of many resources that we utilize,” observes Hathaway from the Automobile Club.

Ambassador Tours’ Pollard is a little more blunt.

“Consumers don’t understand where CLIA fits into the picture, so it doesn’t mean anything to them to see the CLIA certifications behind an agent’s name,” he said. “And it doesn’t get me more commissions. So, lots of travel agents still don’t understand how they benefit from CLIA.”

Dale, of course, is hoping to change that kind of attitude.

“If agents join and then don’t take advantage of everything CLIA is doing right now, I think they’re making a mistake,” he said. “Obviously, our goal is to not only grow the membership, but to have an engaged membership of professional agents that continues to improve.”

All Dale promises is that he and the rest of the organization are up to the challenge.

“We will always be looking for more interesting and exciting ideas to engage travel agents in CLIA,” he said.

CLIA at a Glance

Founded: 1975

Membership: 20 cruise lines representing the majority of cruise capacity marketed in North America:

American Cruise Lines
Carnival Cruise Lines
Celebrity Cruises
Costa Cruises
Crystal Cruises
Cunard Line
Disney Cruise Line
Holland America Line
MSC Cruises
Norwegian Coastal Voyage, Inc.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Oceania Cruises
Orient Lines
Princess Cruises
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Royal Caribbean International
Seabourn Cruise Line
Silversea Cruises
Swan Hellenic
Windstar Cruises

Key Personnel:

Terry L. Dale, president and chief executive officer
Robert Sharak, executive vice president and chief marketing officer
Thomas Cogan, director of training
Robert Fuller, director, finance and administration
Brian Major, director of public relations

Function: To promote the benefits of cruising to travel agents and consumers through travel agent training, public relations and promotion. In other words, to raise awareness about the cruise experience.

Contact Information:
Cruise Lines International Association
80 Broad St.
Suite 1800
New York, NY 10004

Sound Bites From Cruise3Sixty

Micky Arison, Chairman and CEO of Carnival Corp.:

“Clearly travel agents have represented 90-plus percent of our business forever, whether you call them Internet, home-based or brick-and-mortar.

It doesn’t matter. They’ve been the key backbone to our distribution. We see that as the way of the future as well. And we’re gong to support whatever way that distribution adjusts.

“The pace that you’re seeing in 2006, 2007 and 2008 will continue in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The reality is the pace of growth I think is very sustainable, and I think most executives in the larger cruise companies feel the same way.”

Gregg Michel, President and COO of Crystal Cruises:

“We’re still planning on building a new ship.

We have a new-ship-building committee. I have met and continue to meet with yards. There definitely is a vision out there for a new ship. Today we have 2,000 berths in the luxury cruise market, and with the baby boomers coming into what we believe is the luxury market, we feel there’s growth to be had there.”

Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises:

“I’ve got huge numbers of e-mails and letters from travel agents saying we need to do a better job in getting out the message about how safe, how environmentally friendly and how secure cruises are. The key to that has always been and continues to be the travel agents themselves. We can do a lot. CLIA has done a great deal ... I think we can continue to do that. But this is more evidence of the importance of travel agents, because they do understand what the business has done, and they can convey just how safe and secure cruise vacations are.”

Bob Dickinson, President and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines:

“There are all kinds of ways to get the cruise business. Viva la difference! If it’s Edna’s Cruise and Pizza Parlor, let’s bring on the business. We don’t care where it comes from. But at the end of the day, you need knowledgeable people that know the product; that are enthusiastic; that love what they’re doing because they’re giving people great vacations.”

Rick Sasso, President and CEO of MSC Cruises:

“If you had asked me 30 years ago if executives in the various cruise lines paid a lot of attention to environment and safety and all those issues, the answer would probably have been no. But if you asked me in the last 10 years, I think the industry has spent not only an enormous amount of money, but the entire executive core of every cruise line spends a great deal of time and professional energy making sure that the ships are the safest on the planet, that cruise ships are the safest place to be on a vacation and that the environment is a priority in every corner in every office in every cruise line.”