Rob Huffman can easily state that his career in the travel industry began more than 30 years ago while attending the University of Tennessee. But truthfully, his travel bug began as a youth, growing up in the industry as the son of travel agency owners, who were as passionate about travel as he is.
Most of Huffman’s career in travel has been spent within the cruise segment. Joining Carnival Cruise Lines in 1993 as a business development director, Huffman spent 15 years focused on sales, training and marketing efforts in various territories. In 2009, Huffman was named to the position of regional vice president of sales – southeastern region, overseeing a team of 12 business development managers and directors in nine southeastern U.S. states. In short order, his responsibilities expanded to include a team of 20 business development managers and directors, covering 18 states across the southern and central U.S and Caribbean.
In late 2017, Huffman joined The Scenic Group as Vice President Sales, USA. The Scenic Group is comprised of Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, Emerald Waterways and Scenic Eclipse. With Scenic as a relative newcomer to the US market, the prospect of being in the earlier stages of the company’s growth is both exciting and daunting – as the US is the world’s most competitive market. Taking advantage of his industry knowledge and contacts, he is working with his team to promote this luxury brand and getting the word out to the true sales people, the travel agent community, and is already seeing very positive results.
The Scenic brands offer award winning cruise experiences ranging from deluxe river cruise experiences with Emerald Waterways, to the 5-star, truly all-inclusive experience of the Scenic Rivers and the 2018 launch of the world’s first luxury, discovery yacht, Scenic Eclipse. His team incudes Business Development Managers, a Director of Key Accounts and Group Sales Managers, all of whom are responsible for driving sales and providing marketing assistance to travel professionals across North America with a specific focus on travel agent trainings and dedicated consumer presentations.
Prior to entering the cruise industry, Huffman served as the manager of Uniglobe H&H Travel in Memphis, Tenn., for five years. Huffman is based in Charlotte, N.C. and twice served as supplier representative on the board of directors of Travel Agents of the Carolinas, comprised of top travel agents in the region.
Travel Research Online (TRO): Your parents were travel agency owners, and you’ve been in the
travel industry for over 30 years – primarily in the cruise industry. What drew you to the
cruising industries as a profession?
Rob Huffman (RH): I was managing a travel agency in Memphis in the late 80’s, early 90’s and attended a conference in Miami. One of the keynote speakers at the event was Bob Dickinson, president of Carnival Cruise Lines at the time. I walked out of Bob’s presentation as if someone had actually taken a baseball bat and hit me upside the head! Bob was phenomenal in many ways, but his ability to effectively communicate and position cruising, and more importantly sales, in such a logical manner to travel professionals had such a lasting impact and impression. I know it did for me, both personally and professionally. It was at that time I realized I wanted to be a part of the cruise industry and, shortly thereafter, was hired by Carnival. I spent the next 20 years with Carnival and consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with and for some of the greatest minds in our industry, many of whom continue to positively impact the cruise industry today.
TRO: You’ve been with The Scenic Group (Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, Emerald Waterways and Scenic Eclipse) since late 2017. How are you settling into the seat of VP of Sales, USA?
RH: Quite nicely, thank you. It is a very exciting time to be part of The Scenic Group! I am simply amazed with the overall diversity and uniqueness of our brands and the phenomenal experience they provide our guests.
Of course, having an abundance of material to work with makes it that much more motivating to be part of this organization. There are several exciting things taking place as we continue to expand and innovate our river fleet. And, of course, we are really excited about the launch of Scenic Eclipse – the world’s first luxury, discovery yacht, in a short few months. More importantly, our valued travel partners have been extremely receptive and welcoming. We look forward to building upon the momentum we have created in past years to do even greater things in the US market. We have a fantastic group of veteran business development managers, all of whom are eager and willing to work closely with our travel partners across the country. Make no mistake, we undeniably want the business and are willing to do all we can to cultivate a meaningful, mutually beneficial and lasting relationship with our partners.
TRO: The Scenic Group; which includes Scenic Luxury Cruises, Scenic Eclipse and Emerald Waterways is fairly new to the cruise market compared to other companies. How are you, and your team, overcoming this challenge?
RH: It is no secret that our number one challenge in the US market is brand recognition. Many of our partners and guests understand we are relatively new to the US market, but many find it surprising when they learn we have been providing our guests with exceptional luxury cruise and tour vacations for over 30 years. Today we are proud to offer our guests cruise or tour options on all seven continents.
At every opportunity, we will continue to share the story of our journey. From our beginnings in the mid 1980’s as a tour company in Australia, to the launch of Scenic Luxury River Cruises in 2008, followed by the entry of our deluxe brand, Emerald Waterways in 2014 and, of course, the excitement surrounding the debut of Scenic Eclipse very soon. We truly have a storied history of providing our guests with extraordinary experiences and we are committed to continuing to do the same in the US market.
TRO: Scenic has won multiple awards including: Best River Cruise Line from Cruise Critic, Best River Cruise Line from British Travel Awards, and Favorite River Cruise Line from Globe Travel. What do attribute these markers of success to?
RH: We are obviously proud and honored by the awards and recognition our brands have received. These awards are an absolute testament to each of the respective brands and certainly to the amazing experiences we provide our guests. Much of our success can be attributed to the many incredible people “behind the scenes”. Our staff and crew, both shipboard and shore side, play a crucial role in the overall success and delivery of the product and experience. This recognition only makes us strive to work harder in continuing to exceed the expectations of both our guests and valued travel partners.
TRO: How do you think the cruise industry has changed since your beginnings in 1993?
RH: It just might be easier to list some of the things that have not changed since I began in 1993. Primarily, the continued growth and the amazing popularity of cruising remains quite robust. The vast array of itineraries, the number of ships, the size of the ships, the amazing new features and hardware that lines offer their guests today, the technology, and so much more. Cruising has never been more popular. We have seen unprecedented growth over the past few decades and, as the industry continues to evolve, my opinion is that the fundamental change lies within the differentiation from one brand to the other. We are seeing increased focus on cruise lines actively striving to differentiate themselves, even within the same segment of the industry – contemporary, premium, luxury, etc. – in an effort to increase focus and highlight the features their respective brands offer their guests. Ironically, we are seeing the river segment of the industry follow a similar path. We have experienced tremendous growth over the past 10 years and the popularity of river cruising has simply never been stronger. We are now working to differentiate ourselves from one another by actively promoting and focusing on those areas that we believe set us apart from our friendly competitors. As the river segment of the industry continues to evolve, we will continue to see increased focus on what truly distinguishes one line from another.
TRO: The Scenic Group works with travel agents by providing them a full spectrum of online services (online booking and registration, sales support, brochures, help with travel documents, travel protections, and more). How important is the bond between suppliers and travel agents to The Scenic Group?
RH: Quite bluntly, there is nothing more important – NOTHING. As you’ve mentioned previously, I myself was raised in the travel industry as my parents were travel agency owners. Everything we have enjoyed in life is a result of my parent’s hard work and dedication to travel. From a professional perspective, my career has been exclusively dedicated to travel, so I know firsthand just how important the support and dedication from the travel agency community is to the success of any travel product. Our travel partners are unequivocally the single most important factor in determining the long-term success of The Scenic Group in the US market. Our number one goal as a company, and certainly my single highest priority, is to proactively and effectively engage with our travel partners to ensure we provide the proper education and training on the brands, focusing on what truly sets us apart from our competitors. Additionally, we are committed to providing the necessary tools needed to successfully market, promote and sell The Scenic Group brands on a daily, and more importantly, profitable basis for the trade.
TRO: Scenic is has planned to launch the world’s first luxury, discovery yacht, Scenic Eclipse, on August 31st. What does this new ship bring to the table?
RH: It really is quite difficult to put into words exactly just how much excitement is surrounding the launch of the Scenic Eclipse. Frankly, the excitement and anticipation from our travel agent partners is truly tangible…we hear this on a regular basis and actually see it every day in the way of new bookings. I could speak to the spectacular nature of the ship itself with a maximum capacity of 228 guests, with 114 all-veranda suites, ranging in size from 345 square feet to over 2600 square feet, or the 10 different dining options ranging from Asian fusion to French fine dining and everything in between. We could even talk about the 6000 ft. spa, the 1:1 guest to staff ratio or the fact just like our Scenic Rivers, the Scenic Eclipse will be TRULY all-inclusive. But ultimately, the Scenic Eclipse is the epitome of Luxury meeting Discovery. Our guests will enjoy unparalleled expedition experiences with itineraries ranging from the Arctic to Antarctica, the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, South America to the Falkland Islands and beyond. With two 7-seat helicopters, a 7-seat submarine (rated to depths of 300m), as well as kayaks and zodiacs, offering our guests expeditions to places few people have visited before…there’s simply nothing in the industry that compares. The options and experiences are simply endless. Additionally, with a dedication to preserving the environment using technology such as an anchor-less GPS positioning system, the highest passenger ship ice rating at Polar Class 6 (Ice Class 1A Super) and an experienced expedition team, the Scenic Eclipse will be unlike anything the industry has seen before. We are not only looking forward to her launch but also to having a sister vessel join the fleet in 2020.
TRO: I would imagine you travel quite a bit, for your job and for leisure. What are your favorite destinations you’ve been to? Are there any that you’d like to visit in the future?
RH: How fortunate are we to work in such a fun and exciting industry, having the opportunity to travel and see this amazing world? Every day I am so very grateful to be in this business and cherish the opportunity to travel with my family.
Having been raised in the industry, I learned from a very young age to appreciate good food and wine – like most travel agents do! When it is just my wife and I, we enjoy France, especially the Bordeaux region. The beautiful landscape, chateaus and, of course, incredible wine. We also have a number of places very high on our wish list, including the polar regions (on Scenic Eclipse, of course), China, Russia and Egypt.
TRO: Does The Scenic Group have any developments that our readers should keep an eye out for in the future?
RH: As much as I would like to give away our secrets and garner even more attention, I just cannot do so. That said, if you take a close look at the history and the track record of Glen Moroney, our chairman and owner, you will see that he has (and will continue to) introduce more innovations than any other brand. Whether on the rivers with the first walkout balconies, six dining options, butlers, truly all-inclusive, Tailormade GPS systems, electric-assist bicycles, all-season sun lounges with a window that lowers at the push of a button and more – or the oceans with the world’s first Discovery Yacht, Glen enjoys surprising the industry. And we are confident that he will continue to do so. So be sure to stay tuned…there is most certainly more to come!