Thursday, January 28, 2010

Does Your Travel Agent Need to Love Your Cruise Line Or Love To Provide Excellent Service?

"Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard!"

is the slogan of my travel agency:  Goldring Travel.  When I developed that saying I, honestly, had the upscale cruising market and the treatment I received on The Yachts of Seabourn, Radisson Seven Seas and Celebrity Cruise Lines in mind; not the "in your face, drink-of-the-day, inch of gold, reach into the sucker's pocket" kind of cruise lines. 

My premise is that service is to be intuitive with the server spending enough time (with enough prior training and experience) to pick up on those slight hints that allow for the "How did he know that?  I didn't even know I wanted it, but I guess I did!" Experience.

As a travel agent you find yourself dealing with all kinds of people.  There are the ones that book five cruises, but take only one of them.  And the ones that inquire about ten options and book none.  The ones that go on the same cruise year after year...but only at the absolute rock bottom price.  The ones that are emotionally attached to a particular cruise line or ship.  The ones that know it all.  And, of course, there are the ones that say, "Tell me what the best cruise is."  and the first time cruisers who believe that feigning great knowledge will assure they will not be ripped off by the questionable tactics of this unknown travel agent (because they "have heard stories about sleazy travel agents").

While there are many variations on these themes, each style of client has another factor:  They are each individuals.  In fact, more times than not they come in pairs (couples) or sets (families), so there are actually many different personalities that have to be respected, considered and appropriately treated.

How does a travel agent do this AND also assure the client is actually purchasing the cruise they truly "desire" as opposed, at times, to the one they "think" they want?  The fact is books have been written on the subject and courses are regularly given by CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association).  While I am not going to turn this article into a training manual, the actual point is that the vast majority of travel agents are nothing more than "order takers" and all those courses are intended to teach them not to be.

Why?  Because it is far easier to take an order than to spend hours developing personal relationships and discussing what the client wants, is concerned about, and quite importantly, is emotional about.  A person tells the agent, "I want this cruise." or "Put me on the cheapest cruise" or "I heard Cruise Line X is the best, so book that or nothing."  If it is "OK, I will take your order" the travel agent will get the cruise booked...and it might get paid in full...but there is no loyalty; especially because the travel agent hasn't done anything to assure the client isn't disappointed or merely shopping for price.  Yes, it is a commission...but only a one time commission.

There is the other kind of "order taker"; the one that I find truly offensive.  They try to brainwash prospective clients into believing Cruise Line X provides the best service or food.  If the client buys into the argument, then they can't really compare what is being offered to any other standard.  Great for the travel agent, but possibly not so great for the client (unless getting less for your dollar/pound/euro and not knowing it is OK with you).  Why would a travel agent be so myopic in their approach?

As a travel agent that has been (falsely) accused of same, there can be economic factors that cause an agent to do that (be it greater commissions, free cruises, etc.) or it is easier (great knowledge of a product equals less work) and therefore more efficient.  There is also the "follow the leader" marketing aspect where the travel agent "causes" a group of people to band together and then throws out some cruises that the group "has" to go on...because that is what they do.  (To be sure the cruise lines are well aware of these groups, so they make sure they are well tended to...which can, of course, be a benefit to the client if that style of cruising is what they like.)

But in the end, the good travel agent provides both objective and subjective advice.  As you all know, I believe Seabourn Cruise Line provides the best overall luxury cruise experience and that Celebrity Cruises provides "The Best Bang For The Buck In The Business"...and I consistently give you and my clients the objective bases for same.  Similarly, I have great words for Regent Seven Seas ships, but have great issue with the service and cuisine it provides (and which even many of my critics now admit).  That is not because I want to push another line or have a grudge with Regent, but because of objective facts.  Its sister line, Oceania Cruises, in comparison receives raves from me...based on objective standards.

So with that, what happens when a client "loves" a cruise line and the travel agent doesn't.  Objectively, should it matter?  I think you know my answer:  Absolutely Not! 

What should matter is whether the client receives all that he/she is entitled to (or more).  Is the service the best possible?  Have all discounts and promotions been provided?  Have any prior issues and present concerns been addressed?  Has the travel agent spent the appropriate amount of time making sure the cruise is the one the client truly "desires"?  Remember, your travel agent doesn't take the cruise with you.  The travel agent's criticisms of cuisine or service are not those of your cruise and, frankly, are irrelevant if you are happy with what you are receiving (or are willing to say to yourself, "Geez, Eric told me about this problem.") 

When you step onto that ship, you are the cruise line's guest.  If there is a problem once onboard, you want the cruise line to fix it.  (But truth be told, you also want your travel agent to be available and effective if the problem isn't resolved to your satisfaction...and to get it addressed while you are on the cruise; not afterwards.)

If the travel agent does all of that for the client, then: Subjectively, does it matter?  Are you ready for the answer???  Absolutely...for some people.

It is because it is what the client desires.  Just like chocolate and vanilla, there are different types of clients and different types of travel agents.  Sometimes it isn't about the quality of the product or service, it is about whether you enjoy that particular flavor.  Understanding and respecting that, by the way, is the difference between a travel agent and a good travel agent.