(A follow-up to the Sept 27th ‘Soundings’ article on profiting from private theme cruise charters)
This year is the 10th anniversary for the consistently sold out Smooth Jazz Cruise, a creation of Michael Lazaroff, CEO of Entertainment Cruise Productions – St Louis, MO. Success-with-legs such as this made us curious to see for ourselves what kind of secret sauce was holding it all together year after year. So, we sailed on the second of the two Smooth Jazz Cruises in January. A full ship charter on Holland America’s Westerdam, the 7-day itinerary from Ft Lauderdale included Cozumel, Belize and Key West.
Here’s the abbreviated recipe. Lazaroff masterfully orchestrates the convergence of a ship full of dedicated music lovers with a dozen or more of their musical heroes – for 7 days of (almost continuous) concerts and socializing – all in the quality lifestyle environment of a premium cruise line.
The Experience –
Using great restraint not to over-hype the issue, I must confess this was one of my best cruise experiences ever – without a doubt the best for entertainment. (Note that you are hearing this from someone seriously jaded by decades of cruising – first 12 years as a cruise ship entertainer – then 25 years as a travel agent – interspersed with occasional trips as a full fare paying civilian passenger).
What were the standouts and distinctions from an ordinary cruise?
- First and foremost, the quality of the performances (expected)
- Secondly, the congeniality and accessibility of the artists, including the headliners – never once seeing evidence of standoffishness or reluctance to mingle with guests. (unexpected)
- The state-of-the-art quality of the sound for all shows, even poolside (all unexpectedly top shelf – a couple of notches above typical cruise line offerings, even in the premium category – ECP brings on board their own sound equipment with accompanying engineers)
- The length and frequency of the shows – often two hours or more for the nightly main shows. Headliners not featured in any one night’s main show would frequently appear concurrently in smaller venues throughout the ship. (unexpected)
ECP brings aboard their own cruise staff, including cruise director. How Lazaroff convinces ‘name’ performers to host what are traditionally cruise staff duties – such as ping pong tournaments, water polo contests and the ubiquitous bingo – I’ll never know. But when ship’s comedian, Alonzo Bodden, calls bingo, it becomes a not-to-be-missed show in itself. As you can imagine, this results in a huge turnout for these events, generating a sense of family and camaraderie between artist and fans.
And Bodden is one funny dude! He is the comedian of choice for most ECP cruises due to his close friendship with many of the performers – as well as his brilliance in working in an improvisational style. (Example – In a chance encounter with Bodden one afternoon on the sports deck, he immediately agreed to a one-on-one interview. Once settled into a corner table in the Lido with my camcorder capturing the action, Bodden quickly turned the occasion into hilarious freewheeling group discussion by inviting all other headliners within shouting distance to put down their food trays and join in – video clips coming soon.)
The Business Opportunity –
Lazaroff has succeeded in creating a perfect storm of loyalty that is almost fanatical. We met many couples who were on their 4th, 5th or even 6th ECP cruise – some having never taken any other type of cruise. Amazingly, 60% of the 1900 passengers on our cruise were repeaters.
Given expansion plans – such as the new Time Life partnership – ECP is reaching out to travel agents with some pretty compelling offers. It could be that Lazaroff is looking at the agent community to help fill these new departures. Or, maybe it is just his DNA. Lazaroff’s mother, Anita Berry, was a travel agent.
In addition to the Smooth Jazz Cruise, there are many new theme variations – including the (traditional) Jazz Cruise, Soul Train Cruise, Malt Shop Memories, Celtic Thunder and the Country Music Cruise.
Base commission for agents starts at 10% with lowered thresholds to reach 15% on many sailings.
Commissions are paid one week prior to sailing date.
To qualify for commissions, you must first register with ECP’s Worldwide Travel Agent Network (WTAN – free of charge). The TA registration section of the ECPCruises.com website reads “WTAN members are afforded special pricing, special terms and conditions and information ahead of the public and are provided selling materials geared for their specific use.”
In an interview during the January 20th cruise, Lazaroff emphasized that marketing co-op funds are available for qualified agencies.
Brochures, banner ads and other marketing materials specifically designed for travel agent promotions are available for download. Recordings of past webinars and PowerPoint presentations are also available for review.
Future commissions are protected if an agency client rebooks while on board (given the high repeat percentages, a highly likely scenario).
Full details on joining WTAN, as well as availability of future theme charters, featured artists, itineraries, etc. can be found at ECPCruises.com.
Now to get back to editing all of that interview material…that’s gonna be a hoot!