Seeking the Spotlight

Niche cruise lines hire industry veteran to run marketing organization

By: Theresa Norton Masek

The Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance, a group of nine lesser-known companies, has hired an industry veteran to help gain the attention of travel agents.

Larry Dessler, who held various management positions with Holland America Line, from 1987 to 1998, was hired Feb. 19 as the part-time executive director of the three-year-old organization.

“The NCMA was formed so that the small niche cruise lines could get a voice in front of the travel agent distribution system to provide a vehicle to be seen and heard,” Dessler said. “It’s hard to be seen when the lights shining from the podium are the big boys, so we’ve had to create a presence that’s based on our combined strength.”

When the alliance started, management and communications were handled by Steve Hirshan, the vice president of marketing and sales for MSC Italian Cruises.

“As his company has grown, it became more difficult for him to give the alliance the attention it needed,” Dessler said. “It became increasingly clear they had to bring someone in.”

In recent years, Dessler ran a consulting company called Dessler & Associates, in Seattle; among his clients are Holland America Line, Uniworld and the tour operator Far and Wide.

“With NCMA, I will be primarily responsible for executing plans developed in conjunction with the executive committee and moving the organization forward,” Dessler said.

“I will be a spokesperson for the media, as well as continue to make inroads into the distribution system to provide useful support.”

One area targeted for growth is the Niche Cruise Specialist program. The educational certification program so far includes a sales manual/workbook that agents study before taking an exam. Those that pass are awarded the certification.

“It is up and off the ground,” Dessler said. “It already has close to 900 travel agents that have gone through the training and taken the final exam. The number is so big that we are still entering the data into the database, and once that’s complete, we will be able to recognize them with a certificate; and a way to provide them with special offers.”

The training program and exam are available on the NCMA Web site: The program was developed by instructor, speaker and author Marc Mancini.

“Our Web site is being updated as we speak,” Dessler said. “We have designs for it to be much more effective, we hope within the next six months. We hope to incorporate onto the Web site a travel agent referral system. We’ll provide agents with basic information about our members and have links to the members’ Web sites. There will be no booking engine at all, either for agents or consumers.”

Also on Dessler’s to-do list is participation at trade shows and other agent events.

“Niche cruising is a segment of the market where knowledge rules,” Dessler said. “Travel agents who have that knowledge will be able to convert more of their clients to cruise purchases. You won’t have to go back and redo the deal a week later, after the customer had a chance to price-shop.”

That’s because there’s less competition among the specialized, small-ship operators.

“Travel agents who have given information on this side of the market won’t have to worry as much about the agency down the street or a Web site that’s going to undercut them,” Dessler said.

“There’s much less price comparison and rebating activity. Go on any Internet site and you won’t see any headlines about specials on sailing the Norwegian coast up to the Arctic Circle.”

Contact NCMA at: c/o Dessler & Associates, 12920 NE 32nd Place, Bellevue, WA 98005. E-mail: nichecruise@aol. com

The Niche Cruise Lines

American Canadian Caribbean Line: 800-556-7450

American West Steamboat Co.: 800-434-1232

Captain Cook Cruises: 866-331-3365

Cruise West: 800-426-7702

MSC Italian Cruises: 800-666-9333

Peter Deilmann Cruise: 800-348-8287

Norwegian Coastal Voyage: 800-323-7436

RiverBarge Excursion Line: 888-282-1945

Star Clippers: 800-442-0551