Sending up signals?July 24th, 2010 . by John Frenaye
Over the past year, have you noticed that cruise suppliers are becoming less and less of a “partner?” Are you getting a sense of déjà vu with flashbacks to the mid 90s? Over the past month, the cruise lines have taken a beating from agents on several recent changes. Are the cruise lines headed the way of the airlines? Is the criticism fair and just? Consider the following and decide.
Travel Market Report published an article where two cruise line executives got a little defensive when questioned on the ever increasing non-commissionable fees (NCFs) and the move to a direct to consumer model. Royal Caribbean’s Vicki Freed, a longtime advocate of the travel agent, simply said “It is what it is. It is the portion of a cruise fare on which we don’t pay commission.” And on the move to direct to consumer marketing, Justin French a managing director for Carnival Cruise Lines said direct marketing was necessary for Carnival, as the line is trying to reach cruise “rookies.” Both positions seem to be pretty firm, and if you read between the lines, French is telling us that Carnival believes that we are not doing a good enough job; and Freed is saying that the NCF portion of our compensation should not be a concern or ours.
Travel Market Report followed up with Freed based on the flurry of comments they received and the tone did not seem to get any more agent friendly. When specifically asked to define the NCFs, Freed claimed the industry had already defined it (this agent must have missed the memo) and suggested we move on and alluded to how the agents all focused on Delta when they eliminated commissions. Freed dodged several other bullets and when asked what it takes to increase earnings in today’s cruise marketplace. But, she did say that you must be a significant player and earn a back end override to offset the NCFs. She highlighted America’s Vacation Center and Vacations to Go… as examples. Most agents today, even the superstars, are not on the level of those two agencies. From there, Freed continued to highlight her dedication to the agent community and the different ways that Royal Caribbean will work with agents including one on one mentoring. There is no doubt that Vicki Freed is a friend of agents and has been for many, many years. I simply suspect that we are operating in a “new normal”, her hands may be somewhat tied.
In a recent interview with Lyn Cathey at Travel Research Online, Carnival’s Joni Rein attempted to explain the new policies recently implemented by the line and to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding them. While she would not comment on the percentage of direct sales, she did say that travel agent sales accounted for the majority of the line’s revenue. Joni did take responsibility for the communications effort from Carnival and gave herself a “D”. Perhaps it is this lack of clear communication that has ruffled the feathers of the community.
Last weekend, I discovered that my consumer booking link to Carnival was not working. When you clicked on the link, it took you to a Carnival “page not found” page and then encouraged you to go to Carnival’s home page and continue your surfing. Was this a glitch? Or was this an attempt to gain some direct business from several thousand websites who have installed this link hoping to grow their Carnival business? I asked other agents in the TRO Community and many indicated (to their surprise as well) that their links were not working either. BookCCL.com now seems to be devoid of any mention of a consumer booking link for agents. Knowing that Carnival is a little touchy lately on phone calls, I used the online form to send a message to the “Internet Marketing Department”. The response—“we’re having trouble, your message did not go through.” I emailed my BDM and she told me to call E-Services Solutions. E-Services Solutions does not answer the phone and you are forced to leave a message with a promise to respond within 48 hours. As of now, it has been 114 hours and no response. The only conclusion I can draw is that Carnival has discontinued the program and disabled all of the links. I cannot locate a memo or announcement. I’ll give Carnival an “F” on this communication! Boy, I hope no one used that link from my site to book a full charter. Guess I will never know!
In the TMR piece, Freed said, “The more agents talk about shifting their business to all inclusive land vacations, the more they signal to cruise line that the lines had better figure out another way to build their business. Is that really what you want?”
Based on the actions of several cruise lines over the past year, I suggest that the cruise lines may be doing a bit of signaling themselves.