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Travel agents who partner with Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection and Virgin Voyages, new high-end cruise lines launching their first ships in 2020, will have an opportunity to broaden their client base for cruises, according to the CEOs of both lines.
The executives also say that agents will be an important part of their distribution channels. Ritz-Carlton rolled out a travel trade web portal with commission and incentive booking details earlier this year, while Virgin is in the process of formulating its plans.
How the two lines are reaching out to travel agents reflects their particular corporate brands. For Virgin, this includes such characteristically quirky touches as calling its agent partners First Mates (passengers are called Sailors).
“The captain’s right-hand man is the first mate, and we see travel agents as a big part of our success,” said Tom McAlpin, Virgin Voyages CEO.
While no specifics have yet been announced, McAlpin said the line will be introducing a dedicated web portal for travel advisors, firstmates.com, during the next few months.
“We will be competitive with other cruise lines in terms of our commission structure and incentives,” he said. “However, we are looking to do things differently, we’re trying to create something that’s a win-win for everybody.”
Agents will have the option of selling the cruises in tandem with Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays, he added.
“Agents will be able to combine a cruise with a land tour and air service — all packaged up in Virgin style,” McAlpin said.
Part of Virgin’s strategy in working with travel advisors is pinpointing and reaching out to those with clients best suited for its product — a mid-sized, adults-only ship with an innovative approach to design and onboard experiences.
“We’re selling luxury, but it’s luxury in a fun, Virgin kind of way,” McAlpin said. “We want to find agents who have the kind of clientele that likes luxury with a twist. And we have a small sales team, so we can’t be in front of everybody.”
Virgin Voyages recently drew 75 travel advisors to an event in New York City earlier this month previewing its non-traditional approach to shipboard food and beverage, including the absence of a main dining room and all-you-can-eat buffets.
Jennifer Waldron, a travel consultant with Big Sky Travel Source, a storefront agency in Oklahoma City, was among those at the event impressed by the new cruise line.
“Our agency is really excited about Virgin Voyages, especially about the adults-only concept and the fact that they’re going to Cuba,” she said. “Both of these are huge selling points for us.”
Waldron is also impressed that Virgin reached out to her agency, despites its relatively small size.
“They contacted us early on, perhaps because we’re known for our use of social media,” she said. “I think they will be good partners for us.”
Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection has outlined its commission structure on its web portal for agents. The site also includes archived webinars and other product information and sales tips.
Commissions will start at 10 percent for up to $100,000 in gross revenue, rising incrementally to 16 percent for $700,000 or more. Pre- and post-cruise programs are commissionable at five percent, while shore excursions are non-commissionable.
Along with individual cabin sales, Ritz-Carlton is actively encouraging travel advisors to maximize their revenue by selling to groups, including full-ship charters. The three ships in its fleet will have just 149 suites, a size that is conducive for charters, according to CEO Douglas Prothero.
“A single charter would automatically put an agency into our top commission tier,” he said. “Also, the ships will have an air wall system that can reduce the number of suites to 106, creating some that are larger, if the group prefers that.”
In seeking prospective agents, Ritz-Carlton took the unusual step of consulting with members of its hotel loyalty program.
“Prior to going on sale, we went to our own database and asked those guests to give us the names of their travel professionals, so we could get them in the loop,” Prothero said.
The widespread network of its parent company, Marriott International, is proving to be a useful resource for travel agency connections, he added.
“We’re going to events with the broader Marriott sales team, so we end up at events where you don’t normally find cruise lines,” Prothero said. “This is giving us reach beyond the typical cruise agent sources.”
Expanding the Cruise Base
Both Virgin and Ritz say that travel agents will be able to sell their cruise products to clients already familiar with their respective brands, including those who don’t normally take cruises.
“Agents are telling us that they’re getting interest from people who are new to cruising, but intrigued with the idea of a yacht product associated with Ritz-Carlton,” Prothero said. “We’re also encouraging agents to look not just at Ritz-Carlton customers, but to those who like luxury cruising and want to try something new.”
Among those who see this opportunity is Robert Romano of Fugazi Travel, a San Francisco-based agency with a luxury focus.
“The size of the Ritz-Carlton yachts and the fact that the staterooms are designed more like hotel rooms will appeal to our style of client,” he said. “They don’t like big ships or big hotels. I also anticipate interest from people who don’t normally take cruises. They might see this as kind of boutique hotel that moves around.”
McAlpin is also confident that agents will be able to sell Virgin Voyages to their non-cruise clientele.
“Some people who won’t go on a cruise will be willing to try us,” he said. “Agents who understand the type of client who would take a Virgin cruise will be able to sell it.”
Waldron agrees, emphasizing that it will be important to qualify the client.
“We like the edgy nature of Virgin, but it’s for a certain demographic and not for everyone,” she said. “It’s not necessarily related to age, but to whether or not they like to try new things.”