Chris Austin: Explora Journeys' Trade Policies to Help Ensure Trade Longevity

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of an update on the new luxury lifestyle brand, Explora Journeys, owned by MSC Group. For Part 1, visit here

Explora Journeys, a new luxury lifestyle European brand, is proud of its European roots. Parent company, MSC Group, is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. “But we’re not just building a brand for Europeans,” emphasizes Chris Austin, the brand’s chief sales officer. “We’re building a brand that is highly desired by people from all over the world." In addition, for the new brand to achieve success, Austin firmly believes that means “putting the travel advisor’s health and longevity front and center.” 

Based on pre-launch reservations and interest, look for 55 percent or so of the brand’s guests to originate from the U.S. and Canada. English will be the primary language spoken aboard by “hosts” (crew members) but they'll also speak multiple other languages.

Explora Journeys' guests will mix and mingle with an international clientele aboard. "We’re going to clearly source guests from North America, Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia"—the English speaking areas of the globe—"but then also Brazil, Mexico, eastern Europe, South Africa and Japan,” Austin explains. 

Preferred Partnerships

What can travel advisors expect? Commissions start at 15 percent and rise to 18 percent for preferred partners. Currently, Virtuoso, Travel Leaders Group and Travel Savers are among the preferred partners. That said, "everybody is of equal importance,” says Austin, who adds more preferred partners—even small agencies—would be welcome. “You don’t have to be the ‘big boy.’”

“They can still get 18 percent if announced as preferred,” he emphasizes. Advisors also receive 10 percent commission for "add-ons," such as pre-and post-cruise hotel stays, transfers, overland trips, longer pre- and post-experiences and destination experiences.

Another trade-friendly policy? If guests need to cancel their reservation, if they're "inside" the period where cancellation penalties do apply, the line will retain 50 percent of that fare. But it will, in turn, pay travel agency commission on those funds that it retains.”   

Last fall, Explora Journeys also set up a “By Appointment Service” exclusively for travel advisors. In four clicks, the advisor can set up an appointment with an Explora Journeys customer experience representative. That’s immediately confirmed with a personalized message to introduce the advisor’s dedicated Ambassador. Then, the travel advisor’s phone will ring at the appointed time of their chosen appointment—eliminating any on-hold time—and he or she will have 30 minutes to ask questions and discuss client needs.

Aft portion of Explora I, the first new ship of Explora Journeys
The aft portion of Explora I, the first of four new luxury lifestyle ships for Explora Journeys. (Photo by Explora Journeys)

Explora I’s schedules are now publicly available for sale. Explora II’s schedules are being finalized this coming spring. As that happens, once again (as was done for Explora I) advisors will be able to use the "By Appointment Service" to "wait-list” their clients—without obligation—on the yet unpublished journeys.

"One of the values of that,” emphasizes Austin, is that “you don’t just get in first, you’re guaranteed the price." So, if fares later rise, the wait-listed client will still only pay the originally quoted fare.  

Explora Journey’s Online Travel Advisor Center opened on December 8. Reservations now can be made by advisors directly through that system.  

Speaking about trade commission and assuring that travel advisors have longevity in the travel industry, “it’s a portfolio of policies,” says Austin. “I don’t believe ever in creating one golden arrow. We have to make sure that every arrow is pointing at the target.”

In particular, Explora Journeys has innovated with “rolling commission.” For example, the line requires a 25 percent advance deposit from guests, and it will pay 15 to 18 percent commission (the level depends on "preferred" status or not) to advisors immediately after those deposit funds are received. This also happens at final payment too. So, advisors don’t wait until after guests sail to receive their commission, and there are no NCFs (non-commissionable charges).

As a preferred partners, "if you’re booking a $10,000 journey, you know your commission as a travel agent is $1,800 dollars,” Austin emphasizes. “And that’s paid when you put the 25 percent deposit down. It's also paid on final payment."

With the brand's "Early Booking" option, too, travel advisors can offer a 10 percent saving on the fare if the client pays 100 percent of that at the time of booking. The advisor then will receive 100 percent of the commission soon after—rather than waiting until mid-2023 for payment.

Many cruise lines like to say they’re easy to do business with, Austin notes, but he prefers this philosophy: “We’re joyful. If business is joyful, you’re going to get more of it." 

Sales Team Growth

Explora Journeys is building an experienced luxury sales team. Certainly, Austin is well-known to many luxury travel advisors from his former stint as a senior Seabourn sales executive. Previously, he also headed up the luxury portfolio of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

Six veteran luxury cruise sales team members also recently joined the brand, among them Helen Beck, who previously served as Crystal’s former vice president of international sales and marketing. She’s now Explora Journeys’ head of global sales excellence.

Expecting that the new luxury brand will be a strong competitor is Tom Baker, president and partner, CruiseCenter in Houston, TX. But Baker says the prime mission must be this: "The key for their success in the North American market is to separate themselves from MSC Cruises," a sister brand with much larger ships and a very different onboard experience.

Both brands are owned by MSC Group. "Obviously, our sister brand is MSC Cruises, but we’re the luxury lifestyle brand of the MSC Group and that’s an important point," Austin notes. 

Still, Austin describes MSC Cruises’ ships as "beautiful," in particular citing the new MSC Seashore, now sailing from PortMiami, FL, as “a stunning ship." He also believes the sister brand's ship-within-a-ship complex, the MSC Yacht Club, delivers an excellent guest experience.

But that aside, he emphasizes that "Explora Journeys is being designed and clearly differentiated as a new luxury lifestyle brand.” 

He does envision that some MSC Yacht Club guests will cross over  to experience Explora Journeys. The key, Austin says, is to ask “why” guests are traveling? Are they traveling as a couple, solo, with their family or an extended family? For example, at times he believes that a couple who frequently vacations with Explora Journeys may opt for MSC Yacht Club and a bigger MSC Cruises ship if taking a multi-generational trip such as a family reunion.  

Inclusive Fares

What elements are included within Explora Journey's fare? Austin describes the product as "all-inclusive." Gratuities and Wi-Fi are just a few examples of the many included items.

On the Wi-Fi side, Austin tells Luxury Travel Advisor that the brand doesn't plan to offer a higher Internet bandwidth option that guests pay for as "we're not going to nickel and dime guests."

Also, there won’t be any restaurant cover charges. House wines, cocktails and other beverages are included in fares, too. That said, if guests desire to desire a bottle of high-end champagne, a special wine from the onboard wine cellar, or alternatively, an “over the top” optional cut of beef in a restaurant, those items are available at an extra charge. 

When guests go ashore, if the town center is located away from the ship's docking point, Explora Journeys will provide complimentary shuttle service, subject to availability by destination. 

Not included in fares, though, are destination experiences (aka shore excursions). Why? The brand's focus group research revealed that luxury travelers don't want those included within the fare. That's because many desire to explore on their own independently, set up their own tours, book a private car and driver/guide for the day or even.visit friends who live in those overseas ports of call. 

But if guests do purchase those destination experiences, there's a trade perk. “For the travel advisor, we’ll be paying commission on any of those destination experiences that are booked in advance and paid for before the guest’s embarkation,” says Austin.

Drawing First-Timers

Aerial rendering of Explora I, the new ship for Explora Journeys
This rendering of Explora Journeys' new Explora I provides a bird's eye view from above the ship. (Photo by Explora Journeys)

While every guest will be “new-to-brand,” Austin says the brand is also very focused on attracting “new-to-cruise” guests, too—although he’d describe them as “new to ocean experiences” or “new to journeys.” Of course, “we will definitely welcome those loyalists who love cruising,” too, he adds.

Overall, Austin believes there is a great opportunity right now to create and nurture a new differentiator brand, “a brand that’s vibrant, one that’s cosmopolitan, one that has a relaxed European luxury at sea.”

Ken Heit, owner/president, Luxury Cruise and Tour Inc., affiliated with Frosch Travel, part of the Signature Travel Network, says Explora Journeys is “unique in its approach, given that it’s luxury exploration billed as casual elegance.”

Acknowledging that Explora Journeys is creating “an incredible amount of curiosity,” Austin is deeply appreciative of the support received thus far from the travel advisor community.

Looking ahead, “as we build the fleet, we’ll be able to take our guests—those new to us and those repeat guests—to further destinations around the world and open up even more itineraries,” Austin says. That, in turn, could mean additional fleet growth.

“We actually do have two options for two additional ships,” he adds. So, if Explora Journeys decides in the future to exercise those options (and there’s no decision as yet on that front), those ships would launch in 2027 and 2028.

Austin's view? “That is a significant commitment and it tells people that our future is going to be very, very bright." 

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