An Interview with Bob Sharak, Executive Vice President of Marketing for CLIA
Bob Sharak, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Distribution for Cruise Lines International Association, Inc. (CLIA), joined the company in 1993 – prior to that Mr. Sharak was one of the first 100 people to start People Express airline, worked for Continental airline, was the director of travel industry marketing for Hertz – and marketing director for the Trump Shuttle.
TRO: As an organization that is affiliated with 26 cruise lines, how does CLIA choose which lines to offer customers?
BS: CLIA is a membership-based industry trade association. The current 26 lines, which represent every type of cruise vacation experience, choose to be members and we represent their all of their interests. Our job is to promote the concept of cruise vacations and all of our lines and to promote the value and services of CLIA travel agents. So, it is the consumer who chooses which line to patronize.
TRO: What makes CLIA different from other similar organizations?
BS: Most trade associations’ primary role is to protect and promote the interests of their members, often through work with government agencies and regulators and legislators. While we are a trade association of the cruise industry, we also put a very strong focus and investment in resources directed to the travel agency distribution system because agents are the primary sellers of cruises. We know the importance of the partnership and lead the travel industry in supporting this channel through training and promotion.
TRO: Please explain your relationship with travel agents, how do you foster these relationships?
BS: Travel agents have been and remain a key to cruise sales. We develop relationships by providing value to the agency member – whether it’s CLIA training, Certification, conferences, marketing tools and support, publicity, etc. We need to be relevant and provide value. We work with our agency members and our travel agency advisory board to develop and vet programs and currently have over 15,000 agency and agent members in the US and Canada.
TRO: What does an agent need to do in order to collaborate with your organization?
BS: Become an agency member of CLIA or if you are a travel agent affiliated with a CLIA member agency, you can also join as an individual travel agent member. This provides access to CLIA training, member discounts, marketing tools, qualification for CLIA Certification, agency and agent locator tools on the CLIA web site and more.
TRO: CLIA recently launched a new certification designation for agency executives. Please explain this certification and why you believe it is important.
BS: Agency owners, managers, training personnel, etc., want to “walk the walk” and show their agents and employees how important training and Certification is. While these individuals may not be front line sellers of travel – they are the role model for their businesses and the new Accredited Cruise Manager category provides great information and training while allowing these leaders to set an example. It was a requested program from the agencycommunity.
TRO: The past year or so has been a hard time for cruise lines. With all of the disasters and mishaps reported in the news, how does CLIA handle the fear clients have about taking a cruise?
BS: The last few years have been challenging and the primary challenge has been the same one facing all businesses and individuals – the economic downturn. And, natural disaster events such as the Iceland volcanic eruption as well as the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand and Japan created additional challenges for cruising and all of travel. The cruise industry responded quickly and very effectively by offering exceptional incentives to consumers and they responded strongly. In addition, the mobility of a cruise ship always provides the opportunity to redeploy if needed. In 2010, CLIA member lines have continued to sail at 103 percent occupancies and many have reported record booking periods. As the economy has begun to recover, so does consumer confidence and we remain bullish on the future sales outlook.
In 2010, CLIA member lines carried nearly 15 million passengers, a record. We forecast 16 million for 2011. In fact, the industry has enjoyed an average annual increase in passengers of 7.5 percent since 1980. And, cruising enjoys the highest rate of repeat business of any type of vacationing and, according to travel agent surveys, cruises are ranked Number One in consumer interest. All this would suggest that the vast majority of vacationers have little fear about taking a cruise.
TRO: Are there any destinations you feel are more popular than others for the cruise industry right now?
BS: Our lines serve the world and over 500 destinations – interms of volume and popularity, the Caribbean remains king. However, there has been a significant increase in deployment in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Baltic, reflecting consumers’ pent up desire to travel abroad and, of course, the remarkable value of a European Cruise. Although a smaller market, the European riverboat product is really increasing in popularity, as is Alaska with the return of capacity to that region. In effect, all destinations served by the cruise industry are popular.
We still have a lot of room to grow with only 3% of North Americans cruising annually and only 1% of Europeans. It remains a relatively untapped market and a real opportunity for the proactive travel seller.
TRO: Where do you like to go when it is time to take a cruise?
BS: Anywhere and everywhere – I am a traveler as well as cruise industry employee. I do enjoy the wide diversity of product from the mega ship to the luxury cruise but the next choice on my cruise bucket list is a European River cruise.
TRO: Anything new on the horizon for CLIA?
BS: While not totally defined yet, we do have an interest in developing the next generation of travel and tourism seller. Working through universities, schools, etc., we want to create some excitement and interest to join our exciting industry.
As the cruise industry has continued to grow – we have contributed as much as $40 billion annually to the US economy alone – it has also been more important to represent and protect the interests of the industry. CLIA plays a very active role in Washington DC and internationally in that respect. As our new president told an audience of agents, cruise line executives and other industry representatives recently at our annual cruise3sixty conference in Fort Lauderdale, it is very important “that we have a seat at the table” with policymakers and regulators.