Cruise Sales: What Agencies Are Saying About Coronavirus' Affect on Cruising

Cruise ships docked in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands
St. Thomas // Photo by sorincolac/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Let's just say last week was a challenging one for cruise sellers. Luxury Travel Advisor asked several consortia, host or franchise organization groups how they'd characterize the week, what they've been doing to assist their cruise-selling travel advisors and what were they suggesting advisors do in lieu of cruise sales in terms of education, training or other approaches during a "down market."

Here's feedback from a trio of executives...

Most Challenging Week Ever 

"This [past] week has been the most challenging that our travel advisors and industry have ever faced," Alex Sharpe, president and CEO, Signature Travel Network, told Luxury Travel Advisor last week. Sharpe said that one news commentator called coronavirus (COVID-19) an "epidemiological mushroom cloud," and he believes that aptly describes this past week.

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One factor is different than past crises, though, he believes: "Unlike past crises, we anticipate a rapid rebound as soon as this one major health challenge abates."

What are Signature's travel advisors doing, besides spending a huge amount of time on the phone aiding customers in cancelling and rebooking other cruises? It's all about building trust, says Sharpe. That can help advisors build a successful future.

Alex Sharpe

"Our advisors are focused on forging and continuing great relationships with their customers by helping them make the best decision today so that they have their trust in the months and years to come," Sharpe says.

This week and next, he expects that advisors will focus totally on service to their clients. "The sales will come later," he stresses.

During the past two weeks, Signature has advanced its override earnings to members, waived marketing costs for spring and is looking for other ways to assist members in maintaining cash flow as advisors weather the storm.

"We are providing them with the most up-to-the minute information from U.S. and international government sources, supplier changes to cancellation and booking policies and specific country policy changes," he noted, adding that Signature's staff is also in close contact with supplier partners.

The goal is to work well together to everyone's mutual goal of "the full resumption of cruise travel when feasible," he stressed. 

Signature is providing members with tools to help advisors communicate with clients and their staffs, and in planning their agency operations for the next few months. 

All Hands on Deck

Characterizing the week as "all hands on deck," Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner at Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, told Luxury Travel Advisor on Saturday that "in times like these, it's best to use a travel advisor to help navigate conflicting headlines and travel policy changes."

She says Cruise Planners offers travel advisors customizable print and digital marketing collateral to send to their clients. Most importantly, "we have not stopped any of our marketing efforts," stresses Garcia. "Instead we are focusing on summer and fall travel as well as the 2021 new year."

Cruise360 Executives Michelle Fee Vicky Garcia Cruise Executives Editorial Use Only Copyright Susan J Young

Garcia, shown far right in the photo above at a Cruise Planners conference, urges advisors to proactively remind clients "there are many vacation options suitable for them—whether it’s a stay-cation, close to home travel or local National Park tours.

"Our intention is to provide the latest information regarding travel and guide our franchise owners based on their clients' needs," she says.

Garcia stressed that since the developing COVID-19 crisis, Cruise Planners has hosted an internal webinar for its travel advisor network with guest partners such as Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, Royal Caribbean International (shown the third person from the left in the photo above).

The franchise organization also provided its franchisees with news conference access to Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. In addition, Garcia says her franchise group's advisors look to the home office team at Cruise Planners for full-blown support, so "we have been regularly updating via our intranet with the latest travel partner notices and talking points to facilitate sensitive conversations with clients."

All resources are coming to bear, Garcia said, citing strong relationships with industry partners. "We have been advising many of the major decision makers on how they can still protect the travel agent partners and have been advocating for commission protection," she says.

She said many have responded favorably, and "we are thankful for the hard work and dedication of our travel partners, ASTA and CLIA, and are impressed with how the cruise industry has rallied to pivot so quickly."

Cruise Planners has also done the following for advisors:  

  • Informational webinars about the cruise industry developments;
  • Creation of an internal Cancellation Policies Grid, updating advisors on more than 30 top suppliers;  
  • Creation of two internal FAQ Sheets, both agent and consumer versions;
  • Used video, email, social media and phone calls to help keep advisors formed, reassured and calm via a variety of mediums, including video, email communications, social media, phone calls and more.

Garcia says Cruise Planners is continuously monitoring the situation and keeping its network in the loop. "We are advising our franchisees to remain proactive and communicate with their clients." 

She says her group's advisors "know the ropes," so instead of clients spending time on the phone experiencing long hold times, advisors are doing the legwork and finding solutions. 

"Also, we are confident that once this ends, there will be a second Wave Season," Garcia stresses. She says the franchise's travel advisors will be prepared for the resurgence. "Some of them have their phones ringing off the hook, others are fielding questions and taking this time to 'spring clean' and organize their database, do some additional online training and reach out to clients."

Cruise Planners also is advising travel advisors to be proactive. “We advise travelers to call their travel advisor and discuss the best options for them, but we are glad that many travelers impacted by the cruise cancellations are being offered generous future cruise credits," Garcia told Luxury Travel Advisor.

She said Cruise Planners is also seeing an increase of inquires from brick-and-mortar or traditional travel advisors about its work-from-home model. 

Facts Over Fear

Late Sunday David Harris, CEO of Ensemble Travel Group, told us that to assist his group's travel advisors, Ensemble is taking a "Facts over Fear" approach and is providing members with the tools and resources they need to provide their clients with the relevant information they need to make travel decisions that are best for them.

This includes providing weekly updates on how Ensemble is responding to the situation; creating a page on the organization's Member Portal with regular updates from all the relevant State Departments for the U.S. and Canada as well as public health agencies and trade industry organizations; and sharing regular posts via social media.

How would he characterize the week? "It’s been a very challenging week," says Harris. "In addition to the spiral effect of cancelled events and new restrictions on crowd levels, there has been quite a bit of mixed messaging from the health agencies and government officials for whom we are trying to rely upon for the facts and critical information." 

David Harris Ensemble Travel Group 2019 Conference Opening Session

Specific to the cruise industry, "this included very mixed messaging following the meeting between CLIA and Vice President Pence when it was agreed that the industry would work together to develop plans for increased screening and sanitization," Harris says. "That message was then countered by one of the experts on the Administration’s task force who stated that if you are an otherwise healthy individual that there was no reason not to travel on a cruise ship. Later in the week and over the weekend, NYC and cruise port announcements have further created significant challenges for our industry and, of course, many others, too."

"A week of mixed messaging and concern resulted in CLIA’s decision on Friday that its cruise line members would voluntarily and temporarily suspend operations from the U.S. as they work to address this public health crisis," Harris says. "But, we know they are working cooperatively with the CDC and others to prepare for resumption of sailings when it is appropriate and we fully support everything they are doing."

What’s ahead in your eyes?

Harris replied, "As our member agencies' staff are being laid off despite busily accommodating and assisting literally thousands of clients – repatriating, cancelling and/or rebooking or simply lending moral support at such a difficult time – the travel advising community has been shaken. Income is only a concept at this point…all are in 'damage and reputation control mode' and yet, there is little or no income to pay the wages for these efforts. Layoffs have begun and will continue.

"While we would like to think we could continue to promote and sell travel, until there are proclamations of COVID-19 containment, it is simply not prudent to suggest travel for clients. Consumer confidence is shaken and while pricing incentives will be motivational at some point, that point is unfortunately not now and it would be irresponsible to suggest support of that approach. It is not only the travel industry but rather, most every industry that has been significantly impacted by this pandemic."

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