Do the math and you’ll understand why Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) is important to travel agents. On the line’s world cruise programs, top suites sell for $340,000; the average fare per person is $80,000. Seven-night cruises begin at $4,200. Agents in good standing with RSSC can earn a 15% commission plus overrides, depending on their performance with the cruise line.
But RSSC, which sails throughout the world, equally understands the other side of the equation, especially when it comes to the core group of luxury travel advisors that deliver the bulk of the line’s premium business.
The cruise line deals with 6,000 travel agent locations annually across North America, but only 800 deliver 80% of its business. RSSC is Virtuoso’s biggest cruise supplier and also does a brisk business with American Express Platinum and individual agents.
“My guess is we have at least 20 agents who give us over $1 million a year in business,” says President and CEO Mark Conroy.
Who are RSSC’s most successful agents? They are the ones that “get it,” who sell suites at luxury hotels and other products at the high end of the travel business, says Conroy. They’re not afraid to quote a high price for a product that they know their client will enjoy as long as it’s in line with the luxury lifestyles they are already leading.
“We still get some agents who feel it’s their responsibility to save their customers money,” says Conroy. “I say it’s the agents’ responsibility to make sure their clients have a great vacation and get great value. That doesn’t always mean paying less. In fact, it might mean paying more to get that extra stuff.”
To build a base of luxury travel agents who can brave the challenges of selling to the affluent, RSSC has 19 directors of sales who report to two regional sales directors across the country. The team is armed with a number of marketing tools it’s able to offer to agents who have been identified as top producers for the cruise line or who have the potential to become top producers. Programs include “RSSCU”, an 11-module on-line training program that is product specific but also gives information on selling to the affluent in general. Other programs are the Partner Advantage (www.RSSCPartnerAdvantage.com) direct-mail marketing program, which lets agents customize direct-mail pieces.
The sales team also works with preferred agents to ensure they are using their databases to their best advantage by keeping up with client preferences, such as the type of suites and linens a guest likes to have on board.
“One of the strategies of the organization is to have key relationships with key agents and to develop new talents as we go,” says Randall Soy, CTC, director of national accounts.
Agents selling luxury cruising must understand RSSC’s core customer: 80% hail from five major markets: Florida, California, Texas, Illinois, New York. They are well-educated (college grad or above), social, involved in community, physically active, curious about the world and eager to experience new and different things, according to RSSC.
The core customer is an empty-nester couple who has traveled extensively and cruised at least once.The average age is 58; but the range is roughly from 45 to 75; most have a net worth in excess of $1 million.
“Most of our customers are ‘achievers.’” says Conroy. “They have achieved their great wealth, rather than inheriting it; they may be thought of as “unpretentious millionaires.”
“They are looking to us to have a series of products that is consistent; what they really like is seamless service. Those are the things our customers really want us to do to surprise and delight them again and again,” says Conroy.
The line has been surprised to see an influx of children aboard European and Alaskan cruises in the summer. They’re either with baby-boomer parents who had their children later in life, or with grandparents taking them on their first European tour. Since 9/11, RSSC has seen multi-generational families traveling together.
“Where they used to get together at grandma’s house, grandma sold the house and has an apartment in New York and a condo in Florida. Grandma used to have to worry about what everyone was doing; this way they go on a cruise and it’s all taken care of for them,” he adds. This trend has spurred RSSC to create Club Mariner, which includes shore excursions that will appeal to kids, and takes them behind the scenes to meet the staff and see the inner workings of the ship.
Having all this demographic knowledge in hand is only part of the entry into the game. Delivering a product that wows and pleases these affluent customers is a 24/7 challenge. RSSC, like its competitors in the luxury cruise market, has the hardware: Great ships with opulent quarters that are as comfortable (if not as large) as their lavish homes on land.
For example, RSSC’s Voyager has two 1,403-square-foot Master Suites with two separate bedrooms, a living room with TV/DVD player, a dining area, large walk-in closet, two marble bathrooms and a teakwood veranda walk. The four Master Suites on the Seven Seas Navigator have a separate bedroom with dressing table, a living room with seating for up to six people, a wet bar and an audio/visual entertainment console. These suites also have private butlers.
Providing great service and fabulous food is another part of the equation. In fact, at this level, it’s expected. The challenge, then, falls in controlling the entire customer process that begins when the reservation is made and ends when the passenger sets foot on home turf.
“When they are on the cruise we have a lot of control so we can do a pretty flawless job. When I look at the comments we do get, it’s either getting the customer there or home in regard to transportation,” says Conroy.
This desire to “control” the land experience has RSSC working to change its tour desk into a “Travel Concierge Desk.” Its tour staff is being trained to become a concierge “community,” which passengers can visit casually to discuss land options and opportunities. Staffers are also being trained to look at their guests more carefully and to draw intuitive conclusions about the types of land experiences they might enjoy.
For example, if a passenger is carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, a member of the concierge staff may tell her there is an opportunity at one of the ports to visit a designer’s showroom for custom-made clothing. A couple that keeps to itself may be asked if they would like a private guide on shore.
There’s also a more formal plan in place. Shore excursions on RSSC will now take on three different levels. The traditional land tour will still exist, but in the smaller groups that most lines offer.
A new “Concierge Choice” product will involve even smaller groups and offer a more individualized experience for more money. A completely custom-tailored experience will also be offered, which could include renting a villa in Tuscany with the rental of a vintage car, such as an Alfa Romeo.
“Shore experiences will define the total experience,” says Darius Mehta, director of land programs. “In Rome, it’s always the same guides, and the Sistine Chapel is always the same. How you package and present it to the guest will differentiate the product and get the ‘Wow’ effect.”
To accommodate this new strategy, RSSC has already contacted its land operators throughout the world for the names of the hottest restaurants, retailers, personal shoppers, new designers and chic hotels in their regions so that it may educate its staff.
“The challenge is that a hotel concierge is in one place 365 days a year,” says Mehta. “Our concierge desk moves around the world, so we have to be up on everything.”
Mehta suggests travel agents who don’t have the option of planning such customized shore excursions put their clients in touch with the Travel Concierge Desk, which does charge a fee for its services.
Mehta is also reworking RSSC’s hotel program, which will be divided into Select Hotels (big city hotels), Landmark Hotels and the Concierge Collection. This last option will include world-class hotels with “experiential activities.” For example: In Paris, clients can stay at the Plaza Athéneé and spend half a day with a personal shopper. A stay at Claridge’s in London includes theater tickets with car service back to the hotel.
But what else is going on inside RSSC? The cruise line, owned by Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, has given up its lease to its first ship, the RSSC Diamond and its management contract to the Paul Gauguin, the luxury liner that has plied French Polynesian waters since 1998. (The ship still sails with RSSC through 2006.) The moves have left the line with three similar, ultra-luxury ships: the Navigator, the Voyager and the Mariner. All accommodations have suites and balconies (the six-year-old Navigator has 90% balconies). Conroy feels the line has a more homogenous look now, something that will help the line—whose mantra is “Luxury Goes Exploring”—define more clearly to the consumer what it is all about.
The cruise line is actively working on a name change that would be unveiled in the fourth quarter of this year. Conroy is unable to reveal options for a new name for legal reasons, but one would wonder if the Regent name could be in the offing, as Carlson also owns the Regent International Hotels brand.
“We’ve got a good name. We’ve established ourselves, but we do face a bit of a challenge,” says Conroy. “Radisson is a four-star brand and it’s a ‘business traveler’s hotel,’ but it’s not—and I’m not demeaning them by any means—a luxury brand. If you don’t know who we are as a cruise line, you might confuse us as a company that’s in the premium or contemporary line because Radisson, as a hotel company, is probably in the same realm as Westin and Sheraton, which is comparable to Royal Caribbean, Carnival or Princess.” Conroy says that if the name change is made, it will be “to reinforce who we are and what we want to deliver as a product.”
Who RSSC is is currently being communicated in new consumer ads that promote an image of excitement. In one double-spread ad, a flamenco dancer’s dress swirls in motion. The line’s “Luxury Goes Exploring” tagline is accompanied by the phrases “Intimate travel. Unique experiences. Five continents.”
There’s no doubt the ad copy reflects RSSC’s great versatility as a product. But it also represents two of its greatest challenges. The first, says Conroy, is that clients tend to select cruises based on the multitude and variety of their ports of call. However, when RSSC asks them how they can improve their cruise experience, they respond, “With more days at sea.”
“That tells you that they buy things for different reasons. When they see an itinerary with a different port every day it excites them from the adventure side of it, but once they get on board they say, ‘I’m doing so many tours and I’m out so long I’m not really enjoying the ship as much as I should,’” says Conroy.
The second challenge? RSSC reports that it has more than 1,000 households that have spent more than 400 nights with them.
“The other problem you run into when you have really experienced cruisers like we do is: How do you find new places for them to go?” laughs Conroy.