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Building stellar client relationships

Today it’s not just about finding clients, but keeping them. Having done sales over the years myself, I know it can be challenging. It really gets back to what’s at the core of any successful business, especially travel. We need to build a relationship with our potential clients, focusing on them and their needs. After that first sale comes in, the ongoing relationship building has to continue. It doesn’t end after that first sale. Getting these clients to rely on us, view us as the travel experts, and use our expertise is really at the core of building that stellar relationship. We need to keep ourselves in the picture.

Keeping in the Picture – Our Clients’ Picture

Today people vary on how they liked to be reached – the growth of mobile devices is part of the reason. A great scenario: how many people actually go to movie theaters today to watch a movie? Or do they wait until it comes out on a DVD and then rent it?

Even if people wait to watch a movie at home rather than see it in the theater, they still know about that film, look at reviews, and have probably followed the trailers.

We need to do the same with our clients. Keeping in touch with them using that personal touch is also where that booking can actually occur. Just last week I got a call from a couple that I’ve known for a while – I’ve kept in touch with them. They reached out to me because now they’re in the process of lining up vacation time in 2017 and have a trip in mind. In our phone calls, this couple told me, “Well you’re the travel expert, Cindy, and why we want your help with this trip.”

Working with Partnerships

When it comes to partnerships, we do need to build strong relationships with preferred suppliers who fit our clientele and their travel needs. But we also want to make sure that when dealing with these suppliers, they are treating us like partners, not competitors. More travel suppliers, including cruise lines, are now refocusing on that – building positive partnerships.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Focus

Always an innovator, Norwegian Cruise Line is well known when it comes to creating new experiences for cruise guests. “Freestyle cruising,” which really revolutionized the cruising experience for guests, is just one. Besides changing the cruising experience for guests, Norwegian Cruise Line also launched their innovative “Partners First” program about 5 years ago as a way to build a strong ongoing partnership with travel agent professionals.

More on “Partners First” from Alex, Pinelo, Vice President, Norwegian Cruise Line             

Alex Pinelo

Alex Pinelo, Vice President, Key Accounts, Norwegian Cruise Line

While talking recently with Alex Pinelo, Vice President, Key Accounts, Norwegian Cruise Line, he provided more on how their “Partners First” came about.

Alex explained, “Norwegian Cruise Line has embraced travel partners for the entirety of the 50 years we have been in business.  The Partners First initiative is simply a reminder to the trade of how much we value their business and how every decision at every level of our organization is made through the filter of, ‘How will this affect travel partners?’  Most recently we launched the best affinity group program in the industry, giving travel partners the most lucrative tour conductor options in the business – 2 for 14 or 1 for 14.  If they choose the 1 for 14 option, travel partners may also select 2 options from a menu of value-add items, including prepaid service charges, dining package, beverage package, etc.  And… the choices can be made on a per cabin basis, giving group members ultimate flexibility in choosing their onboard amenities.  This program is the latest, and I would add, a very valuable Partners First initiative, which gives agents a very significant tool to use in developing group business.”

More on Norwegian’s New Independent Travel Professional Channel

Norwegian Cruise Line also recently launched their new program, the Independent Travel Professional Channel (ITP) led by Clark Reber, who’s Director. I asked Alex to explain a bit more about this new program, along with the reasons behind their launching it.

Alex said, “Because of the explosive growth of the home-based travel partner community, we made the decision earlier this year to devote resources to further develop the channel.  In talking with industry veterans prior to launching the program, what we learned was that when agents join a host agency they seemingly become invisible to suppliers.  Our goal is to eliminate that invisibility and to reach out to home-based professionals in a way that is meaningful and inclusive for them.”

Alex then mentioned, “We will continue to work closely with each host to determine which approach is best for their business model.  Clark Reber is leading the way with the initiative and we’ve already launched our first-ever Home-Based Symposium at Sea aboard Norwegian Escape, a monthly newsletter, and putting together an Independent Travel Professional Advisory Board.  This is another initiative that supports ‘Partners First’. There’s much more to come, so stay tuned!”

Emphasizing Value not the Price – A Successful Strategy

When it comes to the sales aspect, Alex explains, “In every sales presentation we emphasize value over price.  That’s the conversation every agent should be having with their clients, because there is simply no better value for your vacation dollar than cruising.  Later this year we will be celebrating our 50th anniversary, which is an exciting moment, for us to reflect and commemorate our first fifty years. But, unfortunately, for many of those years, we and the rest of the cruise industry have been training consumers and agents alike to wait until the last minute to wait for the best price, which created problems for everyone.”

Alex further notes, “In 2015, we made a strategic decision (which turned out to be incredibly successful) to add value to the clients cruise purchase by including value-add options such as prepaid service charges, dining packages, drink packages, Wi-Fi, and even ‘friends and family sail free’ on select sailings.  The promotion, called ‘Free at Sea’, gives travel partners the tool they need to shift the conversation away from price to value.  And we are paying travel agents more commissions than ever in the history of our company!  The ‘Free at Sea’ promotion is truly a win/win proposition for Norwegian and for our travel partners – we are sailing with full ships at a higher price and travel partners are making more money than ever when they sell Norwegian.”

Alex also brought up another terrific point. He said, “Travel partners are as much teachers as they are travel counselors.  When travel partners show clients how to maximize their vacation investment versus simply selling on price, they become teachers, and it’s in this realm that they gain clients’ respect, create repeat and more referral business and, quite literally, create clients for life.”

Tips on Building Great Relationships with Clients

Alex and I then talked a bit more about success tips he’s seen successful travel agent professionals use to create a stellar customer relationship with their clients. He explained, “This is hard, but it works – travel partners need to contact their clients while they are enjoying their vacation.  A quick text message to a client, inquiring as to how the vacation is going, shows interest and, if things are not going well, gives the agent a chance to recover any issues before the client returns.  This is a terrific way to add value, and I guarantee no OTA will be contacting its customers while they are experiencing their vacation!  Agents need to step beyond simple follow-up and engage their clients while they are experiencing the vacation they sold them.  Again, another contributor to creating clients for life.”

He went on to provide more about the “Cruise Next” program. Alex notes, “At Norwegian we have a program called ‘Cruise Next’, which allows clients to pay a reduced deposit while on their cruise and earn $100 shipboard credit, while also providing credit for the booking to the client’s travel partner.  The deposit can be used on any future sailing for up to 4 years.  Savvy agents encourage clients to purchase Cruise Next before they even leave home.”

More about Norwegian’s “Triangle of Happiness” philosophy

Norwegian Cruise Line is well known for their “Triangle of Happiness,” and it comes up during webinars as well as seminars. When I asked Alex to explain a bit more about this, he mentioned, “The philosophy really came about as we launched our Free at Sea program, meaning that customers were pleased with the value of their vacation, the cruise line was pleased with higher pricing and less last-minute discounting, and travel partners were pleased with the higher commissions that resulted.”

Alex went on to explain, “This also extends to Norwegian Edge, our $400 million investment in our ships, our destinations, and our culinary experience.  We are investing to ultimately bring the entire fleet to the standard of a new ship, meaning that when a client steps aboard a Norwegian ship, no matter when it entered service, it will look and feel like new – as if it just came out of the shipyard.  We are elevating our product delivery across the entire fleet to give clients the best possible experience they can have on a contemporary cruise product.  This means more repeat business and referrals for travel agents and, ultimately, higher commissions.”

Adding Value, Keeping Connected and In the Picture

Continuing to add value to our clients is critical, but also keeping connected with them is a tremendous way to let our clients know we are there for them. We need to make sure that we’re in their picture when they are ready to travel again, don’t we?

Cindy Bertram has  15+ years of cruise and travel industry expertise in marketing, sales, training, diverse content creation, as well as areas of social media, including blogging. She handles projects through her own company, Cindy’s Inside Cruise and Travel Track, LCC, in addition to working in small business consulting. A diverse writer who’s nationally published, Cindy has presented workshops at travel and cruise conferences, along with being the opening speaker for PR NEWS’ Writing Boot Camp Chicago November 2014. Passionate about having a positive impact, her short story, “A Cruise and a Promise,” was included in Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul (published 2002.)    She can be reached at cindybert@att.net  

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