“We are a little broken. Life is scary. The waters aren’t always calm and you may not know what to do,” says Drew Daly. “But just keep swimming.”
It’s all about having a plan, the World Travel Holdings (WTH) senior vice president told attendees at the Dream Vacations/Cruise One annual conference onboard Celebrity Apex in November. And clearly, the WTH team that manages the franchising brands has been working on theirs.
In their first live conference in two years, they gathered 800 franchisees and travel advisors aboard one of the first US sailings of the beautiful Celebrity Apex for a week of ship inspections, education and general fun. The agenda included soothing concerns about the phasing out of the Cruises Inc. brand (going well, it seems), a little background on how the company is doing (seeing strong sales and rolling out a new recruitment program for independent contractors), bonding among agency owners and the WTH executives, and introducing some new faces to the fold (welcome, David Johnson and Linnore Gonzales).
“You need to be active. If you are sitting at home, that’s not enough,” said Daly. “You have to sell fun. We’re on a path forward, and we’re going to get there together.”
From the executive teams at WTH and Celebrity, the message was clear: The cruise industry needs travel advisors to spread the word that cruises are both safe and fun. “From a business standpoint, the past two years have reminded us that your customers need you now more than ever. The consumer wants the advice, comfort, and professionalism that comes with a top-notch travel advisor handling their vacation,” said WTH co-CEO Brad Tolkin, adding that sales at the WTH brands including travel advisors are growing more quickly than those coming through direct channels. (And don’t forget, he noted, that “FCCs are the greatest opportunity this challenge has brought us.”)
Even the captain got in on the fun, defining why traveling by ship is better than traveling by air: “When the seas are rough, we don’t ask you to be seated and fasten your seat belt. You can drink as much as you like. And if we ever have to abandon ship,we don’t give you a parachute; we give you a life jacket.”
At WTH, the week was “probably our best week in cruise sales since February 2020. It’s been building steadily,” Tolkin told me. And non-cruise sales are up double digits since Q2 across all divisions, “because basically they are not regulated, there’s no CDC and there’s a sort of general acceptance out there that the virus doesn’t exist when traveling to all these places.” (Note: We spoke in November, on the very day the word “omicron” entered the travel lexicon.)
Interestingly, one number is standing out: “For the first time in the history of our company, 40% of our cruise sales are departing in the next 100 days. It’s building rapidly right now as the result of two things: One, [the industry has] proven to the travel advisor that cruising is very safe. And two, prices in Q4 and Q1 2022 are very depressed, so people can get the full experience at very attractive rates.”
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, WTH wisely chose to delay its budgeting process for 2022—and the omicron outbreak just days later underscored just how smart a move that was. “For the first 18 months [of the pandemic] our budget was just cash. We didn’t care about profitability, because there was no profitability. Now we have goals again, and we’ll go pencils down in late December of January,” Tolkin said.
The new recruitment program, through which WTH will absorb the expenses of marketing and recruiting independent contractors for its franchisees, was an idea that came to fruition during the downtime brought on by the pandemic. “We’re staying in the hosted business, but in a different way,” he said, in which new recruits will be partnered with existing franchises rather than working for WTH.
In the past, a handful of Cruises Inc. ICs would become franchisees each year, and every year the WTH team would suggest that the others follow suit, as the model would increase their revenues. Now, “with rare exceptions, they are thanking us for pushing them [to become franchises]. No major Cruises Inc. member has left the family, as we knew would be the case, because we do a great job taking care of them.”
Indeed, agreed Daly, WTH in 2020 signed 200 new franchisees, and saw growth within existing agencies as well. “We are definitely attracting people who want to be in their own business, who don’t want to work for someone else, and we are seeing some impressive engagement from them. We’ve always had a headwind of attracting a younger demographic. In the franchising space 70% are brand new to the industry. And now people are coming in with a significant book of business—and they are hitting it out of the park right away.”
As we go to press with the omicron virus in Africa on everyone’s lips, I did a quick Facebook poll of how travel advisors think it will affect their business. Here are the results:
- 58 votes – So far, so good. Knock on wood.
- 35 – Many travelers are calling looking for reassurance but none are canceling.
- 15 – Travelers who were about to book are hesitating.
- 11 – Travelers to Africa are canceling.
- 2 – Travelers are canceling short-term bookings.
- 2 – Few travelers are canceling trips outside of Africa.
- 1 – Travelers to Africa are not canceling.
- 1 – Travelers booked to Africa are going elsewhere.
- 1 – Cruise travelers are canceling for fear of border closings.
- 1 – Travelers are canceling 6+ months out.
Here’s hoping it proves to be weak and passes quickly.
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.