As travel professionals, we are continually looking for ways to differentiate ourselves from online travel agencies (OTAs) or clients booking direct with suppliers. If all we do is take a client’s request and book it, we become order takers, no different than the client booking direct or turning to an OTA to book their cruise. Many travel professionals do take the extra steps to qualify clients and ensure that the cruise they are requesting is a good fit for the client. But how else do you differentiate yourself?
One way to stand out is by advising your clients about the pitfalls of onboard spending accounts. My first experience with this was early in my career as I was flying home from Orlando. I was sitting next to a couple that did nothing but complain about the Disney cruise they just completed. It finally boiled down to their stateroom account: They got the bill tucked under the door on the final night, and they were in shock. Their pre-teen son had racked up $1,200 in arcade charges. Apparently he was everyone’s new best friend, as he was using his Key To The World card (his room key) to buy everyone arcade credits. The parents were livid that they ended up stuck with the bill. No one had advised them in advance that their son would automatically have charging privileges, or how they could go about removing those charging privileges completely from his card. They also were not advised that they could (or should) go to Guest Services periodically during the cruise to ask for an updated print out of their stateroom charges. Had they done so, they could have nipped the issue in the early stages, before it ballooned to $1,200.
Of course, onboard spending is the true bread and butter for the mass market cruise lines. They hang their profits on alcohol and soda sales, casino profits, spa appointments, specialty dining surcharges, excursions, and souvenirs sold in the onboard shops. Last year I was on a pre-inaugural cruise of Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. During the sailing Michael Bayley, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, and Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s Senior Vice President, Sales, Trade Support, and Service, held Q&A sessions with travel partners onboard the ship. Mr. Bayley feigned a heart attack at one point, when he asked how many travel agents in the room booked their clients on third party excursions. The number of hands that went up were way more than he wanted to see. Bluntly, we’re cutting into one of their larger profit margins; excursions.
So how do we help clients to survive the onboard experience, without it turning into a spending spree out of control?
First is to educate them on what is NOT included in their cruise fare.
Second, discuss how they can mitigate some of those expenses by making savvy purchases in advance. If your client knows they will be drinking a fair amount of alcohol during the cruise, discuss the beverage packages that the various cruise lines offer. This may or may not save them some money, but having it pre-purchased definitely helps to stave off the sticker shock at the end of the cruise when those multiple Mai Tais at $8 to $10 a piece all add up. They can pre-purchase (and pay in full for) alcohol and soda packages before boarding, as well as excursions (through the cruise line, or third party), do specialty dining reservations (paying those surcharges pre-boarding as well), and in some cases schedule spa appointments and pay for them in advance as well. By prepaying for as much as possible, it helps clients to budget more realistically for their cruise, and prevents the debarkation blues brought on by the sight of a six page long final stateroom account bill. About the only thing they cannot purchase are their souvenirs in the ship’s stores.
Third, when kids are involved, give parents step-by-step instructions on how they can remove charging privileges from the kids’ room key cards. Strongly urge them to remove charging privileges from the room key cards of all kids that they don’t want charging expenses, even the baby’s room key card (yes, even babies are issued room key cards).
Fourth, explain in detail how they can review their stateroom accounts throughout the cruise. Most cruise lines now offer the capability of pulling up your stateroom account on your room TV. For those that don’t, you can go to Guest Services at any time during the cruise and ask for an updated print out of your stateroom account. If a teenager was originally given charging privileges and the parents decide on day three that he/she is abusing that privilege, they can go to Guest Services to cut off their charging privileges. There is no need to wait until the last night of the cruise to find out that one of your “sweetums” bought smoothies for every kid onboard the ship. Nowadays, with the ease of checking your account status throughout the cruise, there’s no excuse to cry foul and try to get the charges reversed.
If you really want to stand out and distinguish yourself from OTAs or direct supplier booking websites, help your clients to understand their full cruise experience, help them budget and pre-purchase all that they possible can, and finally, help them understand how the onboard account system works and the tools they can use to keep it within reason.
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel (www.shipsntripstravel.com) located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations (www.kickbuttvacations.com), 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.