If the cruise industry truly wants to speak with one voice, the Cruise Lines International Association needs to hire a CEO who will stick around.
After a couple of years filled with ship-related disasters and scrutiny from lawmakers and press, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) had finally emerged from full-time crisis mode a little more than a year ago.
But then former CEO Christine Duffy announced she was leaving to join Carnival Cruise Line as president in December of 2014. An extensive search led to Coast Guard veteran Thomas Ostebo, who took the helm of the industry group in July. He left a month later for undisclosed personal reasons.
Cindy D’Aoust, who joined CLIA as executive vice president of membership and operations in December 2014, became acting CEO of the global organization after Ostebo’s departure. She had previously been chief operating officer at Meetings Professional International.
Despite the hectic nature of the past year, D’Aoust said she was pleased with progress that CLIA has made and is charging ahead with priorities for the new year.
She spoke to Skift recently at a press event in New York City.
Skift. It’s been five months since your predecessor stepped down. Can you shed any light on the status of a search for a permanent successor? Is it something you’ve been thinking about doing?
Cindy D’Aoust: Christine left in December . I actually stepped into a leadership role back in December. So I just want to comment on the fact that this leadership team has come together and been working together in a very, very strong and positive way for a year.
While Tom was in for a brief period of time, we had a solid team, we focused on objectives based on the direction from our volunteer leaders, so we’ve just continued the forward movement.
With regards to the search, [Royal Caribbean Cruises Chief Operating Officer] Adam Goldstein is our chair and in that role he works with our global executive committee to manage the search process. So with regards to timing, things like that, I would defer to his comments. But there is a desire to make a permanent decision within the next couple of months, so it is an active process.
And yes, I am part of the process. Am I interested? Who wouldn’t want to be part of this great organization and this team? So yes.
Skift: Were there initiatives or priorities that have been on hold as a result of changes in leadership even though you’ve had this team in place? Are there things you haven’t felt like you can do yet because there had been a search before and there’s one going on now? Or has it just been full steam ahead?
D’Aoust: The wonderful thing and I’d say the challenging thing for our team is that we have so much support and confidence from our volunteer leaders.
They really expected and asked us to continue to move forward. It’s not a status quo. And they’ve been there for us, the guidance is there, we know we’re supported, we know that if we need help we have it, I mean we have these incredible experts of the industry. So there really wasn’t any need to slow down or stop. And frankly what we’re doing is building on what Christine and the leaders had started the year before. So the framework was there, the roadmap was there. It’s just continued to move forward.
And we’ve had some great successes. I mean if you look at our travel agent community, we more than doubled the travel agent community this year… All the indications are that the value proposition work that we’re doing for the members is really well received.
Skift: What are the biggest priorities and what do you think are the real opportunities ahead for CLIA?
D’Aoust: So I’d say the number one opportunity that Christine started and we’re really stepping into was not just making the statement ‘one industry, one voice’ but living into that.
So what that means is around the world to make sure that everything from the brand, from the messaging, from the priorities, the work that we do for our members is well aligned. And that we call on our global experts to help, whether it’s a regional situation or something that really could impact the industry or our community in a global manner. And that’s everything from safety, security, health, the travel agent program, developing professional education for the travel agent. So it is living into that promise of one industry, one voice.
Skift. What do you think are the biggest challenges in a year where there hasn’t been anything that would amount to a crisis? CLIA was in a position of really dealing with several different situations over the past couple of years.
D’Aoust: First of all, I would say thank God that there were not any major, major tragic events for us to deal with. And I think like any organization, the challenge is when there’s not a crisis, people can take the work that you do for granted. So I think the challenge for us is to make sure that we are proactively demonstrating the work that we’re doing in all areas.
It’s very easy to continue to focus internally. What we’re trying to do is making sure that we’re not just looking at what we need to deal with now. What are the opportunities going forward, what are the risks going forward so that we’re proactive on behalf of our members. And I think that is the risk: If you are too comfortable, then you’re not living into your potential.
Skift: CLIA has these couple of roles: speaking for the industry and advocating on behalf of the industry and then there’s travel agent education and involvement. What do you think needs to be done in terms of working with travel agents and building either those relationships or building the numbers or helping them be more effective at their jobs?
D’Aoust: Last year right as I joined, CLIA had redefined the value proposition for the agent and agency program. It was very well received, as I mentioned. Our membership more than doubled. So I think the opportunity and the challenge is as you look at the cruise industry and how it’s evolving, there are more options and products, new destinations, there are new experiences that cruisers want. The cruise lines are providing that.
Our goal is, number one, that we’re promoting the cruise industry so that people who have not cruised understand that the cruise ships have moved from a method of transportation to actual destinations. But also to give our travel agents the education beyond just the product, how to build their business, how to really help people have the greatest experience and how to work through all the different options there are.
So our commitment to the travel agents is to make them the most successful that they can be. And most of that work is done through education.
Skift: CLIA expanded globally. The cruise industry obviously is expanding globally in a big way. How complicated does it make what CLIA does that so many North American cruise lines are adding capacity to Asia, where the industry is still growing, and Australia and other parts of the world?
D’Aoust: It’s what we deal with every day. As a global organization, certainly there is not one size that fits all for every market. So when we look at our four areas of value, whether it’s advocacy, education, promotion, we do the same thing. We have the opportunity to do the same work in any market. But there are different priorities. If you look at Asia, we still need to help and work with the cruise lines to develop infrastructure. And even if you take North Asia versus Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia is already a developed market that’s sourced, where when we look at North Asia we’ll be focused on how to develop their sourcing.
It really is working with the experts at the cruise lines to understand where CLIA’s value is best delivered in that market. And it is different. If you look at Europe, Europe is second to North America as far as maturity of the market, but even within Europe, Netherlands is different than Germany, Germany is different than UK. UK is a very, very strong market, not only as a destination, travel agent program. So it’s understanding what does the market look like and how does CLIA help grow that market.
Skift: I know that one of the biggest struggles for the industry has been working with travel agents in China, especially where they’re moving so much capacity and since that’s the way cruises are sold typically. Do you have much of a presence with agents in China at this point or is that something you’re working on moving forward?
D’Aoust: The model of travel agents in China is still really emerging. And the way we will work to develop that is working through the government. Because particularly in North Asia, if you’re going to be working in China, North Asia, everything is done through the relationships with the government. We have those relationships, our cruise line executives do as well. So we have the model; we’re very, very anxious to get that deployed. So that is exactly one of the priorities that we’re working on in 2016.
Skift: When it comes to the DIY travel bookers, millennials who are digital natives, who are used to doing everything themselves online, how do you really communicate both to travel agents and to the potential cruisers themselves that a [travel agent] is a relevant, useful service or tool?
D’Aoust: I actually love that question….Statistics show that 70 percent of all cruise bookings are done by travel agents, so certainly we wouldn’t consider them to be irrelevant.
And myself, I’ve been in the industry for 25 years — and I have a lot of great resources. I personally would never book a cruise without a travel agent.
And I say that because to have the most successful experience, there are so many options. Whether it’s the itinerary, it’s the ship, it’s the destination. Why are you going? To have an expert that not only knows the products but then they’re trained on what are the best travel modes to get there, the properties, the shore excursions, the extensions. The sheer combination of options makes it really ludicrous not to work with an expert. You don’t pay more and yet what you get is that expertise.
It’s funny, I’ve spoken particularly to millennials and folks who are very very tech savvy and certainly can you do it, are the tools out there? Absolutely. But it’s not about the tools, it’s the knowledge of the destination, it’s the layout of the ship, understanding where the room is, understanding do you want the balcony, what are you going to be doing while you’re there, do you want downtime? Do you need to be connected, are you taking your family, are you taking your grandmother, is it a family reunion?
It’s really looking at the objective of the trip and then having somebody that understands and is an expert in all those areas to help you.
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Photo credit: Holland America Line's MS Westerdam docked at the Grand Turk cruise port in Turks and Caicos. Phil Comeau / Flickr