My fellow TAs, this is a cry for help. My 30-year-long love affair with cruises is in jeopardy. ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ as BB King says. The change has been so gradual as to be almost un-detected, previously misdiagnosed as Creeping Laziness.
I recently sat down for some remedial therapy with my Grief Counselor*, digging deep for answers. Emotions ran high and we went through several boxes of tissue…but here is what emerged:
Over the last decade or so there have been parallel developments that have posed a huge challenge for cruise agents:
- Increasing complexity of costs (due to un-bundling of a formerly all-inclusive product)
- Mass-marketization of the product (more and much larger mega-ships)
- Growth of non-commissionable fees (NCFs) as a percentage of the total cost – the end result being we work harder for a smaller piece of the pie. (There are a few exceptions, such as the new Great American Steamboat Company with no NCFs at all – paying full commission on the entire fare.)
On-board revenue generating options are certainly a boon to cruise lines – and undoubtedly help keep base fares low – but agents do not share in this additional revenue – even though the money is being spent by loyal clientele that we directed to the cruise line.
Sure, we can steer clients to agent friendly ancillary suppliers like Shoretrips.com – earning an extra bit of commission here and there – often securing a better product at a lower price in the process. But, until some agent friendly entrepreneur opens an on-board Olive Garden franchise – there’s not much we can do about commission on dining surcharges.
And, in spite of what cruise line execs say, customer poaching is another problem – in the form of direct solicitation. (Why do they always implement the ‘Homer Simpson’ defense when confronted with the evidence? “Doh! Some idiot in the office screwed up.”)
Then there is the long delayed but looming specter of cruise booking automation. What will that look like and how will it impact our business? It appears that those developments are following the airline model, lagging about a decade behind.
Online travel buyers are already becoming more trusting and accustomed to complex online purchases without live agent assistance, especially if enticed by a lower price – going beyond simply researching possibilities, then calling an agent to complete the purchase.
Following the lead of the airlines, cruise lines are beginning to put strong incentives in place to accelerate this trend – soon the cheapest fares will only be found online. I believe the Split Red Funnel crowd has already gone this route with certain discounted fare buckets, such as military.
It’s just a matter of time until we see huge advertising campaigns touting ‘opaque’ fares and TV spots featuring William Shatner haranguing a beleaguered online cruise shopper to show some real chutzpah and bid lower. Look for discounted rate channels such as “name-your-own-price” or “just-get-me-on-a-ship” fares dominating mass-market ad campaigns – from the likes of mega-discounters such as Orbitz and Priceline.
How to regain “That Loving Feeling”
So, before we slash our wrists and jump off an 18th deck balcony of the Walmart of the Seas – let’s look at more constructive options.
We can always continue to move upscale – focusing on high end customers who appreciate and are willing to pay for great service. This has proven to be a profitable strategy for us with air – where live agents now handle only international first and business class fares, usually booked via consolidators offering net or commissionable fares. Hyper cost conscious ‘bottom feeders’ and ‘tire kickers’ are directed to a branded but fully automated booking site. Budget minded customers needing agent assistance pay a ‘plan-to-go’ fee to offset labor costs not covered by reduced commission amounts.
As with air, it is just a matter of deciding what your time is worth, planning strategy and implementing procedures accordingly.
To replicate the successful air booking strategy for cruise sales, we are currently evaluating ‘custom branding’ possibilities and/or partnerships for online cruise booking engines.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas and solutions.
(*Our Aussie Shepherd, she’s a very good listener.)