Travel agents are still an essential part of the cruise ship booking process.
With the holidays over, many people all over North America are gazing out their windows at the icy weather beyond with one thought in mind: Get me out of here.
That’s why Monday marks the start of the three-month-long high season in the cruise industry.
The industry as a whole generates about $40 billion a year in the U.S. economy, and it has continued to grow over the long term.
At Royal Caribbean‘s Wichita contact center, the frequency of calls shifts into high gear on Monday, becoming more or less nonstop. While the callers are looking to get away, there will be no scheduled vacations for the staff until April.
But the center, in the big tropical-colored aqua and yellow buildings at 4729 S. Palisade, near 47th South and Broadway, is different from five years ago.
For a decade after it opened in 1998 it was Royal Caribbean’s second contact center, after Miami, and as the company grew, the number of employees in Wichita peaked at close to 700.
In 2008, the company built a new contact center in Springfield, Ore. The company switched the Wichita call center to its smaller Celebrity Cruises brand and began to shift business to its new center.
Today there are 325 employees in Wichita, almost all of whom are dedicated to Celebrity Cruises. Celebrity’s 11 ships offer higher-end, more adult-oriented service than the Royal Caribbean branded ships. Celebrity cruises tend to be longer, the entertainment and food better, the level of service higher, the destinations more varied — and the travelers older and better heeled.
Europe is the most common destination, ahead of the Caribbean. Alaska is third. But the company also cruises to the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, New England and Canada, Bermuda, South America, Australia and Asia, as well as through the Panama Canal.
The majority of employees at the call center deal with agents at online or large traditional travel agencies, rather than individuals.
During the three-month high season, the center averages 10,000 calls a day and will book 50,000 trips.
The cruise industry is still suffering from overcapacity, which means good deals, said Vincent Alesia, director of trade support and service for Celebrity.
“This is really a good opportunity to book a cruise,” Alesia said. “Even if there aren’t big discounts, there are lot of amenities thrown in. There’s great value.”
Amy Currier is very good at her job, winning the center’s employee-of-the-year award for 2012.
She is a member of the company’s star desk, which handles the best accounts.
She deals almost exclusively with a limited number of large travel agencies, mostly online.
Last week, her days were relatively leisurely, with a minute or so between calls. But that will change as of Monday.
“There’s no down time during high season,” she said.
Her days involve solving problems for agents, which can take anywhere from a minute to three hours.
As the calls come in, she effortlessly toggles between the many screens on the company’s reservation system, finding a key bit of information or extending a reservation.
In one call, a travel agent said that he had booked a trip across the Pacific but that the Royal Caribbean reservation system wouldn’t allow him to use the company’s popular 1-2-3-Go promotion.
A quick check by Currier revealed that that particular cruise was a repositioning trip, moving a ship to a seasonal base in Asia, rather than a regular cruise. The promotion didn’t apply.
She relayed the bad news to the agent.
“Oof, OK,” the agent said, then paused. “I’ll have to go back to the client and tell them this.”
Currier was smooth, responsive and always polite. The agents she deals with are usually the same.
“At least in theory,” she said.
She likes the variety of the jobs, she said. There’s always some new little wrinkle to deal with.
She’s not the only one. Turnover at the center is about 1 percent per year, Alesia said.
One of the biggest reasons, he said, is that the company treats its employees well. They are given a cruise after a year of working to familiarize them with the business. After that, cruises are available at deep discounts.
There is a gym in the basement, and the company runs a variety of events and activities to keep employees’ energy levels up.
Morale among the staff is good, Alesia said.
“Think about what they are selling,” he said. “We’re selling someone’s dream.”
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