NCL Launches Year-Round Houston Service

Upgrades to reservations system and NCF incentives also offered

By: Theresa Norton Masek

HOUSTON Norwegian Cruise Line launched the Norwegian Sea’s new year-round “Texaribbean” service from here with two important announcements for travel agents.

NCL is installing a new reservations system and is again offering agents the chance for payment on the non-commissionable portion of fares.

The announcements were made to trade press aboard the Sea for an overnight cruise from Houston for 1,500 travel agents.

The Sea underwent a renovation earlier this year. “Basically, every public area on the ship was refurbished,” said Andy Stuart, executive vice president of marketing, sales and passenger services. “The ship looks completely different.”

The Norwegian Sea was built in 1988, before features like private balconies became commonplace on cruise ships. The 42,276-ton vessel accommodates 1,518 passengers.

NCL was the first to launch Houston-based cruises in 1997, but left the port to explore other destinations.

“So far, it looks like it’s been a good decision to return,” Stuart said. “The customers are coming, and we’re raising more prices than we’re lowering.”

About half of the passengers are from the Texas drive market, he said.

“Californians are coming in droves here because the Caribbean is popular,” Stuart said. The flight to Houston is much shorter than one-stop or red-eye flights to South Florida homeports.

The Norwegian Sea departs Houston every Saturday and calls at Cozumel, Cancun, Belize City and Roatan, Honduras.

Meanwhile, NCL's new res system, called Freestyle Connect, updates the line’s 1984-era technology, Stuart said.

“We believe this is the leading technology in the cruise industry today,” he said. “It will allow us better customer relationship management.”

While the platform has been installed, it will take time before the system is fully operational, expected with the April 1 voyages.

However, one immediate change agents will notice is in the groups area.

“It now allows passenger-level accounting” rather than simply at the total group level, Stuart said, so that payments can be applied to an individual rather than the entire group.

“This is a huge change for travel agents and their relationship with NCL,” Stuart said.

Another immediate change is that res agents who have been trained in the new system will ask for more information about passengers during the initial contact.

Information such as residence and age will help the res agent come up with the best price for the client, since there might be special rates for a certain geographical area.

Freestyle Connect will also be operational for 23 hours a day, seven days a week, closing daily between 1 and 2 a.m. Eastern time (10 to 11 p.m. Pacific time). The former system shut down between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Eastern time.

Eventually, agents and passengers will be able to also book additional amenities on the system, such as shore excursions, bottles of wine, romance packages and tailored air schedules.

“We will have one-stop shopping,” Stuart said.

Agents can choose to have the final confirmation sent by e-mail instead of fax. The final confirmation will list every item purchased.

NCL’s system does not and will not have a consumer booking engine, Stuart vowed. There will be glitches as the system becomes fully operational, he said, but added that “we believe this is the leading technology in the cruise industry today. ... There is no limitation to this system.”

Stuart also announced the continuation of the incentive program for payment on non-commissionable fares (NCFs).

The 2004 program sets simpler production goals for agents to qualify for the 10 percent on NCFs.

For example, agents who increased NCL bookings by 100 percent in 2003 will only need a 20 percent increase in 2004.

Those who increased NCL business by 25 to 49 percent in 2003 will need a 45 percent increase in 2004.

The incentive is once again based on the number of passengers sailed, rather than revenue, because NCL wants the goals to be within reach regardless of the pricing environment.