Crystal Cruises' 2009 Top Producers Gala

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Bill Smith, senior VP of sales and marketing for Crystal Cruises, starts the Gala on a fun note

If one thought the 19th annual Crystal Cruises trade gala for top producers was going to be a stuffy affair, Bill Smith’s opening session antics onboard Crystal Serenity put that theory to rest. A consummate showman and motivator, Smith, who is Crystal’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, led top producing agents, agency owners and consortia leaders in a spontaneous opening session dance that would have made Ellen DeGeneres proud.

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Agents applaud Bill Smith's opening performance

It was definitely a refreshing, light moment for a stellar trade group that clearly deserved a long weekend of fun and recognition by Crystal for their sales performance. These agents, agency owners and consortia heads parlayed their sales and business expertise into a minimum of $750,000 in Crystal sales during 2008. A total of 67 qualified for the gala, up from 63 the previous year.

Despite a tough last quarter of 2008, 42 in the group produced more than $1 million in Crystal Cruises sales. Nineteen posted more than $2 million. Crystal officials reported that Mary Jean Tully, chairman and CEO of Cruise Professionals, once again took the top spot for the most sales in 2008.

Noting that 2008 “was a pretty good year,” Smith said he expects to maintain the $750,000 threshold for sales in order for agencies to qualify for the 2010 gala. But he and Eric Graves, the line’s vice president of sales, also said the line is looking at how to better recognize agencies who are also good performers and in the sales categories just under the gala threshold. 

As the three-day event unfolded, the top producers heard from Crystal officials about what’s new at Crystal and what’s ahead. Here is the first in a three-part series about the gala and trade issues and announcements.

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Sally Goldwasser, president, Unique Travel of Palm Beach, Michio Tamiya, chairman, Crystal Cruises, Jeannie Underwood, director of national accounts, Crystal Cruises

Business Environment

It’s imperative that agents let clients know about value in the marketplace, said Smith. “Eleventh hour booking patterns are alive and well this year. We are seeing – in no uncertain terms – that it’s going to be a different year. I think there is going to be a surge of late bookings even in the luxury sector.”

Smith also said that while bookings are coming in at a steady pace, the “stick rate” is less than the norm, but improving a bit. At one time that stick rate was down to a few as one booking “sailed” for every eight made. Now that’s improved to one booking “sailed” for every two or three bookings made.

Smith emphasized that while consumers may be booking closer in, there is pent-up demand from consumers who held off booking in late 2008 and now are ready for a vacation experience. Currently, guests who are not Crystal Society members are booking as little as three months prior to sailing, with Crystal Society members averaging about six months out for their bookings. That’s less than the norm for Crystal and the luxury segment.

New Website

This week, Crystal launched a new more visually enticing Web site. The previous text-heavy site look has been replaced with a refreshing, dynamic visual approach that features dramatic photography and interactive slide shows. Agents may discover the new site’s enhanced organization, helpful detail delivered in a layered approach, and engaging features at www.crystalcruises.com.

From the homepage, users are invited to explore the interactive Crystal Experience, as well as descriptive content about destinations, Crystal Adventures shore excursions and featured special offers. A comprehensive Cruise Guidebook includes much of the nitty-gritty information about traveling and cruising from the old site, but it’s organized in any easier-to-use fashion.

A plus for agents?  From any page within the destination section, site visitors may contact their travel agent directly or they may request that a Crystal Expert Travel Agency contact them.

At the sales gala, officials told agents that another big perk of the new site is coming soon. Within five or six months, your clients will be able to access a real-time booking system for shore excursions, spa treatments and specialty restaurant reservations. The existing system is a pre-request system and not live inventory. 

Also coming soon is an online pre-check-in process that will improve Crystal’s data for passenger arrivals to the ship. Crystal officials said that currently if a client is late to the ship and has made his or her own flight arrangements, the line may have no idea where they are – and whether to hold a ship or not. With the new site and the introduction of this new feature, clients will be able to enter that information, so the cruise line can make the appropriate decision or call airlines to check status. 

Crystal Symphony Enhancements

Crystal Symphony, which had many upgrades in a 2006 drydock, will undergo additional enhancements in a September drydock. When completed, the line will have spent a total of $50 million on the refurbishments over the past three years. 

Anecdotally, agents attending the gala clapped when learning that Crystal plans to replace the large chair in certain categories of accommodations onboard Crystal Symphony with a small “love-seat-sized” leather sofa. Previously, the line had couches but replaced them with the chair in 2006 drydock, a move that didn’t go over well with clients. So, the line is working to place sofas back in those cabins. 

Other refurbishments? The line plans to renovate the Crystal Penthouses and change the configuration of those. The outdoor balcony will be reduced a bit to allow other interior spaces, including the dining area and bath, to enjoy close-up sea views.

The Crystal Symphony’s Prego specialty restaurant will also get a facelift. The pool area will be adapted as more of an outdoor living area, with lounges, tables and chairs, day beds and cabanas. Crystal says it will eliminate lines in the Lido restaurant by installing food islands.

The Shore Side

Crystal reports it also will pay more attention to the independent traveler and will maintain “open hours” at the Shore Desk on port days. The goal is to assure that those who wish to explore on their own don’t feel shut out. 

Most cruise lines close the shore desk on port days to concentrate on their own shore trip operations. With the new policy, Crystal says its guests will have flexibility to do what they wish with the assistance of a port expert available to assist. 

In addition, new detailed port maps will be unveiled for European cruises within a few weeks. Those maps will also assist guests who wish to walk around a port destination see the top sites and understand where resources are located.

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Agents and travel professionals dance the night away aboard the Crystal Serenity at Crystal Cruises Top Producers Gala

Celebrating 20 Years 

Agents can expect lots of hoopla as Crystal Cruises unveils its 20th anniversary commemoration in 2010. Look for exclusive anniversary events added to two cruises that occur on July 20, 2010, the line’s official birthday date.

In addition, agents and their clients will discover special anniversary events and programming on the President’s cruise from Dubai to Athens as well as on the annual Crystal Society cruise, which will be renamed the Crystal Society Reunion cruise for the anniversary year; that latter cruise will feature both a history element and the chance for guests to interact with beloved original crew members.

The line’s “Celebration” fares currently in effect for bookings this year also will be renamed “Anniversary” fares and will continue to apply to voyages throughout 2010 (if booked by December 31, 2009). As a result of that and other incentives, including the line’s “As You Wish” program, officials say a Crystal voyage in 2010 will actually be less expensive than in 2006.

It seems difficult to imagine that just 20 years ago Crystal was simply a line on the drawing board. Owned by Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), the largest shipping company in the world, Crystal began as a cruise line with just one ship, Crystal Harmony; that vessel has since left the fleet and now sails for NYK’s Japanese cruise operation.

Today, Crystal’s fleet is often described by agents as a big-ship luxury line. It currently operates the Crystal Symphony and the larger Crystal Serenity.  Crystal guests are highly loyal. In fact, 50 percent of all guests who come onboard a Crystal cruise book their next cruise while onboard— with agents who booked those clients receiving the booking credit and commission.

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Front Row: Corrine Ng, VP of strategic partnerships for American Express, with husband Bill Duffy and Ruth Turpin of Cruises Etc. Back Row: Peter Lloyd and Eugene Lashley of Century Travel

Family Group Market

The biggest growth in Crystal’s luxury customer base is coming from the family group market, according to Bill Smith, Crystal’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. Even in a tough economic year, this trend has good sales potential for those agents eager to develop new business, he notes. Clients might say “we’re not going to buy that car this year, but you’re not going to take away that [family vacation] experience,” stresses Smith.

Smith says the line is working to assure both Crystal Society guests whose children may be grown (and don’t want to interact with any children onboard) to have a great experience. Smith says the key to keeping both groups happy is simple. “I don’t care how big or small your ship is, you have to space for them and programs for them,” Smith stresses. Crystal typically can accommodate up to 180 children on any one cruise.

Crystal’s Family Memories program will assist agents booking family groups, and that program continues through 2010. Among the perks? Client groups receive one berth free for every 10 full fare guests; prepaid gratuities; an additional $100 per person onboard credit for maximum of two guests per stateroom; third berth “kids sail free” program for those 17 and under; a $500 credit when a Crystal Private Adventure of $2,500 is booked; and a group family photo.

Serenity’s Pod Situation

Crystal Serenity’s 2009 World Cruise was slowed a bit earlier this year— with a few ports eliminated— due to an unexpected problem with an electrical short in coils within a propulsion pod, according to Gregg Michel, the line’s president. Mechanics came onboard at various ports and completed repairs.

But Crystal Serenity’s top speed of 21 knots is now a maximum of 19.5 knots. So a new propulsion pod is now under construction and will be installed in 20 months or so. Until the pod is ready, Michel says Crystal will adapt to the slightly reduced speed.

Michel said it should cause only minor tweaks in pre-announced schedules. For example, the only change to the upcoming 2010 World Cruise is the elimination of one overnight stay in Buenos Aires— keeping the call to just a day before the ship heads to Africa.

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Martha Antoinette Koszutski and Neriton Vasconcelos of Pier1 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, along with Alexandra Don, vice president of onboard guest services for Crystal Cruises

Exotic World Cruise

Crystal spent much time at the trade gala detailing features for the 108-day World Cruise that departs January 10, 2010. The voyage encompasses 41 ports in 37 countries. The itinerary includes South America, Africa and India, with a greatly expanded focus on the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Black Sea, and several European ports in the Mediterranean Sea en route to London.

Among the highlights are a return to Africa with multiple overland safari options; a visit to Herod’s Tomb in Israel; and exotic port calls within Saudia Arabia and Iran. For the Iranian port call, guests will be able to visit the ancient ruins of Persepolis; as a result, that unusual segment is now the most heavily booked of all 2010 World Cruise segments.

Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, asked Crystal about how the visa situation would work for guests. John Stoll, Crystal’s director of land programs, reported that the line will secure group visas for calls at Saudia Arabia and Iran— much as the line does now for its calls in Russia. Clients must be booked on a Crystal Cruises’ official shore trip in those countries to go ashore. Similar to policies at some other Arab states, guests may be denied entry if they have an Israeli stamp in their passport; some guests are ordering new passports without such a stamp.

While on tour in Saudia Arabia, female guests will be required to wear a form of traditional Saudi Islamic dress— which the line will provide to guests for the shore visit. The World Cruise segment that includes Iran also is expected to offer an overnight land program option with visits to several Iranian cities including possibly Tehran; guests will then likely rejoin the ship in Kuwait.

Crystal officials stressed that guests could be assured the luxury line was dealing with appropriate government agencies on complex security issues. In Saudia Arabia, for example, guests will be tracked across the country “all for our security and guest safety,” said Stoll. In addition, he said extra precautions were being taken by Crystal behind the scenes to assure the highest level of safety and security.

Noting the extremely strong booking interest in this segment, Crystal’s Michel asked the top producers what they thought about this itinerary. Some agents were highly excited about the exotic itinerary and said guest interest was very high.

Mary Jean Tully, chairman and CEO of The Cruise Professionals said “people are quite excited about going, but just want to be sure Crystal is not going to cancel” this segment. She says the clients like the itinerary a lot, but want to know if they have the option of selecting another itinerary if for any reason Crystal would change the itinerary to different ports.

A few other agents, however, were disappointed or upset given the political situation in the Middle East. One agent told the group she was the daughter of Holocaust survivors and was truly upset over the decision by Crystal to offer any segment with an Iranian port call. Another— Sally Goldwasser, president of Unique Travel of Palm Beach, FL— said the marketplace reality is that her Jewish clients simply will not book this segment.

Gulf of Aden Security

For a 2010 Dubai to Athens cruise on Crystal Symphony, Gregg Michel will host a President’s Cruise— which includes a transit through the Gulf of Aden. So he tackled the agents’ security questions related to piracy. Michel said Crystal is in close touch with international authorities related to security in the region. He also stressed that the area in which the ship will sail to reach the Suez Canal is being carefully patrolled by international security forces. Many of the recent piracy problems have occurred far from that zone as a result.

Finally, Michel also said pirates typically target slower cargo vessels and have been, frankly, unsuccessful at boarding any ship that sails at more than 15 knots. He said Crystal would continue to monitor conditions closely and that Crystal Symphony just completed a successful and uneventful transit through the area a few days ago.

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