Cracking Down

The Royal Caribbean brands take a stand against card mills

By: Ana Figueroa

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Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises have announced a policy pertaining to so-called “card mills.”

The Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. brands issued a joint statement on Oct. 9 that said in part that the three lines will begin terminating their business relationships with certain travel-related companies that they have concluded are in the “card-mill” business (selling ordinary consumers access to benefits designed for actual travel agents).

The statement noted:

“We have a fundamental concern with the business practices of these companies. We are taking this action in an effort to prevent a growing and troubling trend within the travel industry. As you are likely aware, these ‘card mill’ companies offer normal consumers the ability to become a ‘travel agent’ or ‘travel agency’ or receive ‘travel agent credentials’ with little or no professional training or certification. These normal consumers are also often told they will receive discounted travel pricing and/or other benefits from travel suppliers, such as our brands, which are specifically intended for legitimate, professional travel agents.”

The statement pointed out that the activities of card mills have numerous negative effects: “They can lead to negative consumer experiences with these untrained agents, undermining the integrity and business reputations of accredited and certified travel agents. They can devalue the knowledge, experience and expertise that legitimate, professional travel agents provide their clients every day. They can substantially increase the costs of our operations by causing us to provide costly and valuable benefits to a set of persons or entities for which those benefits were not intended. They can create an environment in which the traditional and full set of services we expect a travel agency to provide to consumers are, in fact, not provided, despite the payment of a full commission in connection with a booking. They can mislead normal consumers with unrealistic expectations of ‘travel-agent-only benefits,’ when, in fact, they are not travel agents.”

The statement went on to encouraged legitimate independent agents to become affiliated with an accredited host agency or to register online at the Web site.

Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president, sales, for Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises, explained that the decision to take a stand against card mills came about for a number of reasons. “We started looking at this some time back, and the timing seemed appropriate right now,” said Ritzenthaler. “What we’re trying to do is to send the clear message that we want to partner with travel agents who are in the business of selling cruises to consumers as a career. That’s why we spend a lot of time and resources to train agents.”

Ritzenthaler acknowledged that there is risk involved in making this kind of change. But, the decision has been met with “overwhelming” support from the agent community and other entities. ASTA described the announcement as “good news to legitimate travel sellers whose businesses depend upon consumer trust and to consumers who look to their travel agent for expert and professional service.”

Jack E. Mannix, president and CEO of Ensemble Travel group, called the decision a “very bold but very important step in addressing the mounting problem of card mills.

“Even though today’s announcement may represent a loss of business for these three cruise brands in the short haul, their commitment to upholding the highest business standards will most certainly be rewarded with an even greater respect from members of the Ensemble Travel Group and other professionals in the travel agency community,” said Mannix.”