Within a single month, Norwegian Cruise Line has succeeded in upsetting travel agents to the point of where many are asking if they really are NCL’s partners (and forget partners FIRST).
If you are not holding speculative/promotional group space with NCL right now, you may not be aware of the latest “Partners first! (maybe not)” moment. Earlier in November, an email went out to travel professionals holding group space. The email advised that due to existing promotions, individual cruise fares had increased dramatically on sailings when compared to group prices held by travel agencies. With any other cruise line that would be a whoo-hoo! moment for travel agents holding space. However, NCL decided to make it more of a boo-hoo moment for agents. The email was sent out to agents advising that NCL would be increasing previously locked-in group fares on speculative group space effective November 23, for all groups between March 1 and August 31, 2016.
Cruise lines maintain the right to recall space early, and it is included in the group contracts. However, the whole purpose of blocking group space is to lock in prices and hedge our bets that we will have attractive pricing as the sail dates get closer and individual prices increase. Case in point, several months ago Celebrity Cruise Line introduced their Go BIG Go BETTER Go BEST promotion. It’s been very popular, and individual cruise fares have increased accordingly. However, Celebrity did not renege on group prices locked in. Instead, agencies could take advantage of the new promotion and combine it with their amazing group prices. I had a group where the Concierge Class rooms were $1,375 per person less than current individual prices. If a client did the Go BEST promotion, paying to have all four amenities included, they still paid less than the individual cruise fare with only one amenity included (Go BIG). Celebrity honored their group contracts. Norwegian, however? Not so much. To say travel agents are fuming may be the understatement of the year. Many agents have sworn off working with NCL any further, simply because they can’t trust that NCL will honor tomorrow what they may say today. Some travel agents are reporting that after the adjustments were made, their group prices are only $1 to $5 less per person compared to existing individual prices.
The other NCL stumble was an email sent out 24 hours before they were going to switch Margaritaville (on the newest ship, Norwegian Escape) from complimentary to a la carte pricing. Passenger responses have been mixed, ranging from “I was going to eat there anyway, so who cares” to “I’m a parrot-head and that’s bait and switch.” Again, some passengers are swearing to never sail NCL. On the travel agent side, a lot of the anger isn’t the change itself, but the short notice in which it was announced. It’s one thing to give us a head’s up of a few weeks, so we can advise clients whose sailings are coming up soon. But 24 hours’ notice is not enough time, especially when some clients were already in mid-travel to get to the embarkation port.
The reason given was that because the restaurant had been so busy in the past two sailings (the first two full-revenue sailings), lines were long with some passengers waiting hours before getting seated. So in a matter of two weeks, the corporate decision was made to charge fees (a la carte, not a flat surcharge) to try and thin out the crowds wanting to eat there. This harkens back to earlier this year when they had the knee-jerk reaction to forbid passengers from taking food back to their rooms. This decision as well was made hastily, after only two revenue sailings, without putting some time into the decision-making, and without asking for feedback from clients or passengers. The overall reaction from many is that NCL was just looking for a way to increase revenue, and charging for a seemingly popular restaurant looked like low hanging fruit. And just like the group price increases, it seriously questions the motive behind both decisions. With the Margaritaville decision, regardless of why they made the change, they did not give their so-called “partners” sufficient warning to be able to advise clients before they sailed.
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations, she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (888) 221-1209.