It would appear that cruise lines are operating in the dark ages when it comes to selling products on the Internet.
While hotels and airlines have made major strides to sell directly to online customers, cruise-line Web sites fail to provide the most basic tool of e-commerce the ability to buy online.
With online purchasing so pervasive in the travel industry, it seems odd for cruise lines to neglect the online buying game. But there is a reason. The cruise industry relies heavily on travel agents for selling their products, even when it comes to the Internet.
“Online cruise booking is still pretty much a novelty,” said Henry Harteveldt, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. “The main reason is that cruise lines don’t want to disrupt the distribution channel they have with travel agents.”
Travel agents sell at least 90 percent of all cruise vacations, according to the Cruise Line International Association.
Cruises generally cost more than airline tickets or hotel rooms. So, cruise lines are hesitant to start online booking engines, fearing that they will end up alienating their best salespeople travel agents.
“Our guests are going to put down a lot of money for a cruise,” said Casey Zilionis, a sales manager for Crystal Cruises. “So people are going to want to have some sort of live association with an agent. It takes a bit more effort to sell a cruise. A lot of times travel agents have to approach the situation with kid gloves on.”
Even on the Internet, cruise lines depend on travel agents to play a major role in selling their products.
The Los Angeles-based travel agency, All-Travel, recently launched a Web site devoted to selling Crystal Cruises’ products. Crystal hopes the site, www.crystal-cruises-discount.com, will help target a new demographic baby boomers who are more tech savvy than traditional clients and who have a lot of disposable cash.
All-Travel has ten travel agents focused on selling the cruises.
The agents monitor the Web pages people visit. If it appears that help is needed, agents can engage visitors in a live chat through a separate window that pops up on the screen.
“If someone visited four or five different pages and has been on the page for several minutes, they might be looking for something,” said David Van Ness, director of business and Internet development for All-Travel. “We want to avoid someone wanting help and not getting it.”
Internet business accounts for 30 percent of All-Travel’s overall volume. Total sales have increase more than 300 percent over the last year, which the company attributes to online marketing strategies.
“They are being really aggressive,” Zilionis said. “Agents who are not offering products and marketing on the Internet are missing the boat, so to speak. You have to have a web-based product to succeed, at this point.”
Many agencies have been slow to embrace the technology.
Of the agencies working with Crystal, about 20 percent are using the Internet and few are doing it effectively, according to Zilionis.
The mega sites also pose a challenge. They have dominated airline and hotel sales and are increasing their cruise inventory.
Unlike other sites that just promote cruises, Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz allow people to purchase online.
Harteveldt believes that cruise lines may eventually reconsider their online strategies if they see the mega sites moving more vacations.
“In this day and age, if you can’t book online you’re nothing,” he said.