Monday, June 30, 2008

Travel Agents and Yacht Brokers

During the American Superyacht Forum I spoke on a panel addressing the issue of yacht brokers/agents who are so focused on booking a charter or making a sale that they actually undercut and weaken the very market they are serving. The parallels to travel agents is undeniable.

Two concepts quickly took center stage: 1. If your agent doesn't know what he/she is talking about the experience is destined to conflict and disappointment; and, 2. While there is dishonesty in the business, the majority of the time the problem stems from ignorance or lack of education.

Education: Taking the second point first, during the conference it was noted that of hundreds of delegates, only 5 or 6 were yacht brokers and, further, that many more were offered the opportunity to be part of the panel, but declined. This resulted in sort of a "preaching to the choir" situation. Clearly if the agents are not present they cannot learn anything from the conference. (And, of course, those that did attend felt like they were under attack, though in reality they were the ones to be complimented.)

There are essentially three ways to gain the experience one needs to be a good agent. The first is traditional education through written or online courses, seminars and general reading. I am a big proponent of these sorts of things. Personally, if there is a course I try to take it regardless of it is Regent, Crystal, Celebrity, Holland America or NCL. What many agents to not understand that it is not only the "product" they may choose to focus on that they need to know, a working knowledge of the "other" products is essential so that one can truly compare and contrast.

The second is seminars. These tend to be more in depth and allow the agent to ask questions and receive feedback. Recently I attended a three day session held by Seabourn for its top "Pinnacle Club" agents. This opportunity provided me with information not only as to a specific product, but as to the philosophy moving forward. This sort of information just isn't possible to provide in a book. Examples: Ports for 2010 and how they are chosen; Development of onboard services on the new Seabourn Odyssey; Marketing Strategies not yet releases to the public. Celebrity also provides in depth full day seminars which provide a wealth of information on both Celebrity and Azamara. While I do try to attend the short 2-3 hour seminars, they usually are of little use (especially if you take advantage of the online courses) as more time can be spent eating and giving out door prizes then actually learning about the product.

The third is experience. Experience, especially in the travel business is vital...and this is not about experience booking. In order to sell properly, you need to be on the ship. While 3-4 hour ship inspections are a great way to begin to understand the product, there is nothing like actually being on the ship for a cruise. An agent needs to experience first hand what the service is like, how a ship flows, how the cabins/suites function, what the food is like in real world conditions, what the entertainment is, how tours are operated, tendering, upkeep and maintenance, etc.

As an example, two years ago I inspected the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. My first impression was "This is a shopping mall. Get me off the ship!" But I endured my ship inspection and luncheon, learned a bit about where Royal Caribbean was going and said, at least I am not blind when I sell cruises on these ships. Well, this year I am finding a surprising increase in bookings on Royal Caribbean and it, in part, encouraged me to take seven day cruise on the Mariner of the Seas in August. (To be sure, I could not see doing it in a standard cabin, so I have booked a Grand Suite for the four of us...and to see if it works as well as Celebrity for a family of four.)

"I Don't Know...But I Will Find Out" - It is impossible for an agent to know everything. But with proper education and experience, an agent can understand quicker not only that a guess or assumption can be a bad thing leading to disappointment or, worse, a client's feeling that you lied to them to make a sale. For some reason many take what I believe is a counter-intuitive approach of "If I tell my client I don't know something they will think I am not worthy of their business." To the contrary, most clients appreciate an agent saying, "Let me get back to you on that. I need to find that out". Of course that is only valuable if the agent, in fact, gets right back to them. In short, I have a philosophy of "If I say I don't know something, it is a learning opportunity."

Putting this together, as an example, I have a Seabourn client that wanted to have a economically priced "girl's vacation". The client's immediate thought was Carnival; having been on a prior Carnival cruise. I could have said, "OK", booked and been done. Instead I suggested, instead, a cruise on a smaller Royal Caribbean ship I had experience with, but rather than with a few cabins here and there, I suggested a suite overlooking the stern (for three women) and outside cabins for those not able or willing to pay the premium; giving them essentially a private lounge and sun deck where the women could all be together with a bit of luxury...and at only a slightly higher cost than the conventional option.

The result was the following note: You really nailed it when you got us that great deck. We made great use out of it...All in all, I was really pleasantly surprised by the boat. Of course, it is not a Seabourn, but then, we didn't pay for a Seabourn [cruise]. Having only been on one Carnival cruise...I would put this many notches above that. The boat was a bit older, but then, the rooms were bigger...The caliber of the people was several notches above Carnival, and we had an excellent crew. So ---- I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it -- for what it is. Thanks for your help."

So today I start out with a wonderful note from a happy client (Seabourn and Royal Caribbean...for those doubters out there!!) and will follow that with work on a yacht charter litigation where the yacht and crew were clearly inappropriate for the charterer/client.