This might be the best time in history for travel advisors to sell cruises, but it's also the most complex. Those who take time to know the growing array of cruise choices and focus on the high end of the market are the most likely to succeed.
With passenger demand, capacity, and product diversity skyrocketing, the cruise industry holds more sales potential for travel advisors than ever before, but only for those who hone their skills and direct their energy toward the higher end of the market.
Experts say selling cruises is steadily growing more complex, requiring knowledge of the widening array of new ships and cruise lines, strong supplier relationships, and strategies for maximizing earnings in an environment where non-commissionable charges can exceed the basic cruise fare.
A record number of people are taking cruises, according to the Cruise Lines International Association’s 2019 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook, which projects that 30 million passengers will take a cruise in 2019, up from 28.2 million last year. The organization also reports that eight out of 10 of its certified travel advisors expect to see their cruise sales grow this year.
“There are more choices and opportunities for travel advisors than ever before,” said Betsy Butzlaff, vice president of cruise sales for Virtuoso. Butzlaff cited a report from Cruise Industry News that a record 24 new ships will debut this year and the fact that Virgin Voyages and Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection are entering the marketplace.
The outlook is especially bright for advisors focusing on the upper end of the market, according to Butzlaff, who said the luxury-focused consortium has seen its cruise sales grow steadily since 2016.
“Luxury cruising is a very important segment of Virtuoso’s total sales,” she said. “For 2018 versus 2017, we were up 20 percent and for 2019 compared to 2018 we are up again by 20 percent.”
Veteran cruise specialist Craig Satterfield, who goes by the moniker Cruise Scholar, told Skift there is good reason for travel advisors in today’s marketplace to focus on luxury cruises, including river cruises, where pricing is usually all-inclusive.
Selling mass-market cruises, which tend to come with low basic fares and a lot of non-commissionable add-ons, may not be worth the effort, said Satterfield, whose book Confessions of a Cruise Scholar includes sales advice for travel advisors.
“Just selling Carnival cruises could make you go broke,” he said. “The mass-market cruise lines expect you to spend time explaining the perks and benefits of the drinks package, the dining package, and other things that you won’t earn a commission on. A $1,000 cruise might end up costing the client $1,600, but you only get a commission on the $1,000.”
Satterfield recommended that advisors encourage clients to spring for higher-end cruises, a practice he himself has followed during his 35-year career.
“I often started people out with certain cruise lines and then got them to move up,” he said. “It ensures that your efforts are rewarded for the work you are putting in. At the same time, there’s been tremendous growth in the number of luxury and explorational cruises to choose from — and demand is growing right along with them.”
Satterfield makes it a practice to suggest cruise alternatives to clients who may not be aware of all the options available.
“For example, if a client asks for a Caribbean cruise on Carnival, I might suggest they consider Windstar or something different,” he said. “I was able to steer one client toward a cruise in Japan that visits all the little islands, something he had no idea was possible. It’s important to research and stay ahead of your regular travelers. You don’t want to be an order taker.”
Amanda Klimak, president of Largay Travel in Waterbury, Connecticut, is also finding that demand for luxury cruise experiences is booming, so much so that finding availability has become a challenge.
“Ship occupancies are high these days, especially on river cruises during peak season, and it’s the top-end cabins and suites that sell out first,” she said. “We are now recommending that clients who want these accommodations book at least a year in advance.”
On the positive side, the opportunities for advisors to interest clients in cruising has never been greater, Klimak added.
“With so many new ships, there are alternatives out there for everyone, including those who don’t want megaships,” she said. “We’re seeing Baby Boomers and others really wanting to try the smaller, boutique vessels. There are great choices for people who are active and want a nontraditional cruise experience.”
Even in an era where the dreaded NCFs (non-commissionable fees) have become the norm on many cruises, there are still strategies for maximizing earnings, according to both Klimak and Satterfield.
In cases where the shore excursions are not commissionable, they recommend offering clients customized alternatives or excursions from companies that do pay commissions.
“We encourage our advisors to offer clients one or two alternatives in the ports,” Klimak said. “Clients don’t always know there are alternatives to the ship’s excursions, and they often welcome them. Sometimes they don’t want to do what everyone else is doing, or they have something special in mind that they want to do in port. It really opens the door for earnings.”
Along with alternative shore excursions, advisors can boost their cruise earnings by getting creative with pre- and post-cruise experiences, Satterfield said.
“There’s so much you can do with this, including hotel packages and private transportation to and from the ship,” he said. “I had a client who wanted to spend time in Paris after a cruise that ended in London. So we had a private car pick them up at the ship and drive them through the Chunnel — it was all commissionable and they really enjoyed it.”
Knowledge is King
With the proliferation of new cruise offerings, the need for product training and good working relationships with cruise line business development managers is crucial, Klimak said.
“Education is really key to matching your customer with the right cruise,” she said. “When you are taking a training class with a supplier, that’s the time to find out who the customer is for the product.”
Enlisting the help of a business development manager is equally valuable, both in terms of education and customer service, Klimak said.
“Your relationship with the business development manager is everything,” she said. “When you’re trying to close the sale, they can really help you educate the client. And if something goes wrong, that relationship can be key to getting things resolved.
When it comes to cruise training, nothing beats firsthand experience, Satterfield said.
“Good professionals are out there in the trenches — going to Cruise 360, going to the ships, visiting the ports, and meeting with the cruise reps,” he said. “The advisors who are successful are the ones who get out there and experience cruising for themselves.”
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Photo credit: Pictured is the $1.35 billion Symphony of the Seas on its maiden voyage in April 2018. With so many non-commissionable parts of a cruise booking, it is becoming increasingly difficult for travel advisors to make money from cruises. Daniel Perez Garcia-Santos / Getty Images