Thursday, June 16, 2011

Luxury Travel Agents and Their Consortiums: Do They Make A Difference to Your Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal or Regent Seven Seas Cruise?

Preface:

I.  Goldring Travel clients have a "cancellation after deposit rate" of less than 2%...and most of those are as a result of extraneous personal issues.  In contrast, Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises recently spoke at a conference and stated that Regent Seven Seas Cruises has a 25% cancellation after deposit rate. To me that is horrific. And it means that when you add in those people that are taking their "ordered" Regent cruise because they were hesitant to cancel because of the upfront $200 penalty or embarrassment, etc., probably close to 40% of the people that book actually don't want to take that cruise.

II.  In more than 75% of the cases, a new Goldring Travel client goes on a different cruise, ship and/or cruiseline than the one he/she "ordered" when first contacting me. That is a pretty remarkable statistic and we will explore if it is a result of pushing a new client onto, say, a Seabourn cruise they really do not want to take or making sure the client goes on the cruise they truly desire.  (Short answer:  See the less than 2% cancellation rate noted above.)

Here We Go:

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about what it is that makes one's luxury cruise more of a individual and personal experience.  There are many elements that come into play, but for some folks all that seems to be overshadowed by brand loyalty to a particular luxury cruise line.  Why?  What is that all about?  Is that a good thing?

As we approach the Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Quest, I wonder what is it that makes the Maiden Voyage special?  They days of the "new" innovations seem to be coming to an end, for over the past few years it seems every possible new bell and whistle has been put onto this ship or that.  And, to be sure, I am very confident that whether it be a two story indoor/outdoor spa or a putting green, the number of guests that sail on the Seabourn Quest, Sojourn or Odyssey because of those specific things are nil.

The short answer is "It is the sum of the parts that matters"; not the particular parts.  It is not the spa or the putting green, per se, that makes the cruise special, but rather knowing it is there if and when it is desired that matters.  The same goes for the alternative restaurants, the marina (should one want to kayak or just have bragging rights). The fact is that while I can sell a Royal Caribbean cruise because of all of the "stuff" (rock climbing, Flo-Rider, ice skating, etc.), I have never sold a luxury cruise because of it.  In fact, I don't think I have every heard a single luxury client tell me, "We ate at every alternative dining venue during our cruise" or "That lens cleaning thing by the pool made me book another cruise."

Ironically, on the Pre-Inaugural cruise on the Seabourn Quest almost two weeks ago (has it been that long?) Seabourn gave me a Penthouse Suite to enjoy over the short three day journey.  While it was very nice (and probably would be extremely welcome if I was on a 10 day cruise), I found it had very little to do with my overall Seabourn Experience. I mean I was so busy taking in everything that just sitting in the living room didn't happen...other than for about an hour watching the French Open tennis.  Alas, it was not the "stuff" that made my Seabourn cruise a luxury experience, it was the people and the service.

While dining with Rick Meadows, Seabourn's president and John Delaney, Seabourn's Senior Vice President, were very nice nods of appreciation, what stood out for me...I mean really stood out for me...was my Seabourn Odyssey stewardess, Tracey, from the 2010 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise, making an effort to find me to say hello; the bar waiter that came to the hot tub on the bow, fully prepared to offer me sunscreen and a glass of champagne within two hours of the Seabourn Quest's being "open for business"; before I even sit for my breakfast I hear, "Double espresso coming up!"; and, of course, being the recipient of a truly "over the top" Indian feast prepared and presented by Chef Rajat then enjoying it with Chef Bjoern and Shannon in the spa villa at sunset as we sail away from Le Lavandou, France.

Each one of these moments really have nothing to with the ship, but the people and, more importantly than the actual service they provided, the knowledge, care, and pride...and even friendship...the staff have in supplying them.  And I have received many emails thanking me for assuring them Seabourn has remained
"Seabourn" despite the new management and the move to Seattle.

Now, let's take a step back: 

You are not yet on that blissful cruise.  You are sitting at home or in your office dreaming about going on that cruise or, possibly, thinking about taking a luxury cruise for the first time.  What is it that gets you on the cruise?  Is the experience you have before setting foot on the ship as good as when you are on it?  Are you filled with questions that go unanswered or do you feel like you have a handle on what it is you will be expecting (whether it is your first time with wonderment or your tenth...when you just want to know your spa appointments are in order.)

This is where a luxury travel agent better earn his/her keep.  There is not a single client, new or  old, that I do not "qualify" for the cruise they are considering.  What is it you are really looking for?  It is a remarkable thing, but many times people come to me thinking they want X, but they really want Y.  The reason:  Somebody told them they want X or an advertisement for Y sounded like what they thought they wanted; or, as I say, "They drank the Kool-Aid" (they believe the marketing of their friend, message board poster or cruise line).

I pause:  One of the biggest obstacles to my doing my job, as a luxury travel agent, is a first time client's fear of looking unknowledgable...sort of like looking at wine list and being intimated so you order Château Whatever with confidence or buying wine by the label; and then just hope it is a good as it sounds or looks on the outside. My job is to, in part, make you comfortable enough to drop your guard and do something simple:  Talk to Me. I mean they came to Goldring Travel because they wanted the benefit of my expertise, not because they want me to take their "order"; didn't they?
In "qualifying" a client I find out if you really care that there are 450 or less guests (some people don't, but think they are "supposed to"), what matters in their accommodations from size to amenities, how they dine, what their cultural interests are, if they have special needs that can be appropriately met, etc. There is, without question, a long list of things that I cull from the conversations I have...rather than the "order" I take.

Let's add one thing to the mix:  Most, if not all, luxury travel agents are members of a travel consortium such as Virtuoso, Signature or Ensemble Travel Group (of which I am a member).  By being a member of these consortiums (which do have a significant cost) travel agencies not only get some special deals with their "preferred" cruise lines, they are able to offer added amenities such as shore excursions or onboard credits, hotel upgrades and/or meals and amenities, etc.  To me it is a very interesting mix of concepts.  Do I book someone with a "preferred" supplier to better line my pockets?  Do I use the added amenities to sweeten a deal or to persuade a deal?

This, of course, raises the question of:  Do these added benefits really matter?  I have come to the conclusion that they most definitely matter, but in the vast majority of the cases not as to the cruise or hotel selected, but more as "the sugar in the coffee", to wit:  It gives my clients a little something extra
to remember me.  Why do I say this?  For two reasons: 

1.  Because despite all the emails sent out by my consortium on my behalf (I assure it is only a couple a month!) and the mailings of magazines and promotions (but I make sure they do not fill your mail boxes with junk!) I can count on my fingers the number of people who have said, "I am calling/emailing about that promotion." and,

2.  Because on a $7,000 or $70,000 vacation, my clients are not going to be swayed to book somewhere other than where they desire (after "qualification") because of a $300 amenity, a shore excursion or free breakfast/internet.  [If you are buying a $1,000 cruise it might make a significant difference, but that is not the luxury market.]

OK, so now we have the cruise line, the ship and the cruise and hotel selected. Most travel agents now consider this a "done deal", but not a good luxury travel agent.  I need to make sure that my clients get the most out of each port...whatever that means.  As readers of my blog most of you know that I am a huge fan of actually wandering the port you visit as opposed to hopping on a cruise ship bus and running off to some other place.  So there needs to be a decision as to whether that port is "one of those ports" and, if so, how to see it (and if not, what to do). 

And if there is one thing that drives me crazy it is seeing the following on an itinerary, "Private Sedan - Half Day - $1,000".  I can hire you a bus for half a day at that price and you tell the driver where to go.  I want to see, and review, where that $1,000 half day private tour is taking my clients...not field the complaints after they come back and say, "You know, Eric, for $1,000 I expected more than a 1 hour drive-by, 45 minute lunch and 1 hour of shopping".  A luxury travel agent needs to assure his/her clients see what they want to see and that they see it with appropriate exclusivity.

Consortiums can be a big assist for travel agents here because they have vetted private tour operators in many ports so that they can assure their clients of a high quality and relevant land experience.  Let's face it even with  extensive travel experience, it is impossible for even a luxury travel agent to know everything about every port and to have a personal contact there.  But again, just because a consortium's operator is used, it does not mean the luxury travel agent's job is done.  There may be a number of different things of interest in a port from culinary to cultural, from religious to sun worship, and more, so the luxury travel agent must make sure the tour provided is the right one.  [BTW, remember that in most of the ports there are only a limited number of quality tour operators, so don't think for a second that Ensemble or Virtuoso is going to have "the" best one, because the best one is probably going to be associated with both!]

So, what does this all mean to you, the luxury cruise traveler?  It means you may be drawn to a particular cruise because of marketing, you may believe that a Virtuoso or Ensemble logo means status or quality, but in the end it comes down the actual luxury travel agent...and that, not unlike visiting a lawyer for the first time, you get the expertise of that agent; not the agent's associate.

Travel Consortiums by themselves (Virtuoso, Ensemble or Signature, as examples) do not make a difference in your travel experience.  How a luxury travel agent uses the tools provided by the travel consortium most certainly does.  And, as I have shown, it can either be a good thing or a not so good thing.  So, in the end, it is the Luxury Travel Agent, not the travel agency or the consortium, that makes the difference.

It is Personal.