The "Wave" is about to begin! That’s the global cruise industry’s Wave Season, the prime sales period from November or December through the end of the first quarter or sometimes as late as May. Typically, it’s the time of the year for the best cruise deals. Cruise lines seek to “front load” or fill accommodations quickly in early, and then gradually increase fares as inventory drops. That avoids price slashing closer to the sailing date, maintaining price integrity for both cruise lines and advisors.
Moving into the annual Wave period, Luxury Travel Advisor asked several top travel advisors as well as senior cruise executives for their “Best Wave Season Sales Tips.” Here’s their perspective on how to make the most of the upcoming Wave Season. So, add these to your own top tips and create your own customized Wave Season sales plan.
1. Ramp it Up Early!
“I always ramp up marketing now through February with the many offers vendors either prepare for us, or we use Signature Travel Network’s marketing,” says Tom Baker, president and partner, CruiseCenter.com, Houston, TX. He believes that being adequately prepared for Wave Season, being ready to go to market early with great offers and then effectively handling guest bookings and referrals is a good recipe for sales success.
2. Find Out Who’s Missing?
“As we get ready to usher in the busiest months for our industry, it’s important to remind advisors to stay in constant contact with their customers,” emphasizes Joe Leon, vice president, sales – Americas, Silversea Cruises. Simply put, “don’t wait for them to come to you.” That advice is echoed by Michael Consoli, franchise agency owner, Cruise Planners, Roswell, GA, who’s the world’s top seller of Viking and Cruise Planners’ top producing agency.
Consoli closely tracks which clients are missing in action from the early Wave Season vacation planning phase. “I run a report of my previous clients and call out to those who have nothing booked for the next 24 months,” he says. That connects him with past clients and then he can offer enticing offers that fit their travel style, personality, budget and favorite suppliers.
3. Be Proactive with Suppliers
“Most suppliers provide tools to build high-quality marketing assets that allow you to market your brand or agency with professionally designed emails, fliers and social media posts,” says Leon. This is particularly important for independent travel advisors not affiliated with a consortia or host agency, as “they may not have access to high-powered corporate marketing departments and essential resources.”
If advisors haven’t done so already this fall, he suggests advisors get in touch with their BDMs or inside sales support team members. Learn what’s being offered and when. “Also, it’s vitally important to not just know the offers, but how to leverage the different marketing tools suppliers provide to help you stay engaged with your clients,” says Leon. Be proactive in asking questions of cruise suppliers.
4. Go “All In” for Leads
When clients are primed to chat about a hot Wave Season offer, it’s critical that the agency is “all in.” That means it must be ready to do business, even during off-hours or the weekend. “Advisors must be able to respond to inquiries within a few hours at the most,” believes Ken Heit, owner and president, Luxury Cruise and Tour, Inc., a cruise travel expert affiliated with FROSCH, Fort Lauderdale, FL.
If the advisor can’t chat with customers due to travel or important personal commitments, then assign another agency employee. Set up a schedule for handling phone or online inquiries. If you’re a one-person agency, consider partnering with another similar agency to help on alternate weekend days. But handle leads promptly, even during non-business hours. Otherwise, clients may go to another agency or even the line directly.
5. Know Your Customer, Think Creatively
With travelers receiving many communications, “they rely on their advisor to present the best itinerary to fit their needs,” according to Malaka Hilton, founder and CEO, AdmiralTravel.com, a Virtuoso member agency in Sarasota, FL. She stresses that it’s critical to “Know Your Customer” and to think creatively, too—finding an itinerary that’s not like everyone else’s trip. Better yet, find something that your client has never heard of or perhaps never thought was possible.
For example, she focused on Aqua Blu, a luxurious yacht of Aqua Expeditions sailing in Indonesia from Bali to the Komodo Islands. While advisors may know that option, typically many clients don’t. “So, I contacted Aqua and said, ‘Give me a chance to sell out a full charter of 15 cabins,’” says Hilton. “I sent the invite to my clients and the cruise was sold out within a few weeks.”
At the trip’s end, she polled those clients—asking how many knew about the product prior to learning about it from her. “Only two out of 30 raised their hands,” acknowledges Hilton, but when she then asked how many will join her on the next Aqua adventure, “all hands went up. So, the message here is: Create what nobody else is doing and ‘social media’ the heck out of your experience while on board,” she emphasizes.
6. Create Your Own Travel Show!
“Don’t wait for it, create it—market and create your own travel show,” recommends Drew Daly, senior vice president and general manager, Dream Vacations, Fort Lauderdale, FL. He suggests inviting some of your own local suppliers to support your efforts. “Either rent out a small room at a hotel, local event space in your community or a restaurant venue,” he says. “Take advantage of consumers’ strong desire to have ‘things to do’ and create a travel show where they’ll learn about the destinations, get a deal and meet the experts.”
Similarly, Anita Pagliasso, vice president, industry relations, KHM Travel Group, PATH president and an ASTA Board director-at-large, urges advisors reach out to their local cruise line BDMs and discuss holding a cruise line event or program at a local venue, on a podcast or in a Zoom meeting. “Make sure you have some type of business plan for your vision so that the BDM can allocate a budget for sponsorship or co-op funding,” she suggests.
7. Upsell on Many Fronts
“Upselling to a different stateroom category or to an additional excursion is a great way to increase your commission, and it doesn’t have to sound like a sales pitch,” Pagliasso recommends. “All it takes is a few photos and descriptive words about the added amenities they’ll receive in a suite.” Talk about the extra space they’ll have to kick back or to take in a glorious sunset from their stateroom or suite balcony.
While most travel advisors certainly work diligently to assist clients with the main cruise vacation components, also “think beyond the basic package and help clients add the memorable finishing touches,” Pagliasso advises. Offer to assist with shore excursions, airfare and pre- or post-cruise hotel arrangements. She also recommends proactively sending a VIP note to any hotel manager asking for complimentary upgrades.
8. Glean Client Intel Early on
As Wave Season kicks off, gather valuable “intel” from your clients about what brands or destinations they’d most like to sail on during the upcoming year or two. Have a casual discussion about what’s ahead in the new year and any bucket-list desires. “Give them an opportunity now to let you know what brands and destinations they are most interested in,” says Ken Muskat, executive vice president and general manager, Scenic Group USA. “So, when you communicate to them during the Wave period, then send them the offers they are most interested in,” which “will drive greater conversion.”
9. Segment Your Database
Now is the perfect time to segment your database. Muskat also recommends: “Determine which clients have typically booked during Wave Season in past years. Then prioritize emailing them with pre-Wave and Wave offers. You can even start communicating with them now to let them know Wave Season is right around the corner and to keep an eye out for great Wave offers.”
10. Dive into Cuisine and Wine
“Virtuoso recently reported that seven in 10 travel advisors have seen an increase in culinary travel,” says Shawn Tubman, senior vice president, sales, Regent Seven Seas Cruises. “So, while a Wave Season promotion can be enticing, the best way to convert your clients into bookings may actually be through their stomachs rather than their wallets.” He suggests that advisors “look for unique cruise experiences that will tantalize their taste buds—wining and dining them in a way that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy at home.”
Well, they’ll certainly have many luxury options as cruise lines have added guest chefs, new menus, themed cruises, specialty eateries and other culinary-and-wine elements. Crystal just returned to service with its two ocean ships and brought back the beloved specialty dining venue, Umi Uma by Master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ own new 1,200-passenger Seven Seas Grandeur will elevate the brand’s “Epicurean Perfection” concept with more than 130 new dishes and refined recipes in seven dining venues.
Silversea Cruises serves up a robust S.A.L.T. (Sea and Land Taste) program on certain ships with both dedicated onboard restaurants and S.A.L.T. activities ashore. Scenic’s Koko’s is a classy Asian restaurant that’s both a main dining experience, plus it also offers a tasty fresh sushi bar and the intimate Night Market private dining experience for just eight guests. Seabourn’s “Sushi at the Club” on expedition ships Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit, has been such a hit that the sushi concept is expanding to some other Seabourn ships, and the list goes on. So, dive into food and wine as a client hook.
11. Book Early!
Several advisors, including Heit, reiterated the importance of helping clients understand that they’ll have the best pricing and choice of staterooms and suites early in Wave Season. Tell customers that those top suites often sell out quickly given suppliers’ generous Wave Season offers. “If you have clients who want a specific date or stateroom category, encourage them to book now and not wait,” similarly advises Pam Hoffee, president of Avalon Waterways. Cruising is hot, plus “booking trends have sales ahead of pre-COVID load factors,” she notes. “If a date is particularly important, book early to avoid disappointment.”
12. Be Personal Year-Round
While it’s critical to ramp up Wave Season efforts, don’t think once-and-done. It’s a year-round effort. “Through all my years of doing CRM, or customer relationship management, one thing still stands out today,” says Janet Bava, chief commercial officer, Windstar Cruises. “It’s what you nurture throughout the year that will be more likely to convert during Wave Season with the incredible offers that luxury cruise suppliers make available to you.”
Also, technology is great, but “there’s nothing like the personal touch of making a phone call or sending a personalized email,” Bava mentions. “It’s also good to send clients a simple text saying you’d love to catch up and inform them of a special experience they will enjoy and should reserve before it’s no longer available.” Also, she and others suggest sending greeting cards for client birthdays, anniversaries, special achievements (new job, new baby, college degree) and religious holidays.
Yes, email cards are fine for some clients with tech preferences. That said, Vicki Freed, senior vice president, sales and trade support and service, Royal Caribbean International, is known as a strong supporter of hand-signing cards and adding a personalized greeting. She tells advisors to hand-write the address on the envelope too. Again, it’s all about cultivating a one-on-one, personal relationship with clients.
13. Build Product Knowledge
Luxury advisors who have been selling luxury cruise vacations for some time know the products inside and out. But new luxury products are continually debuting such as Explora Journeys or the “return” of Crystal, for instance. Also, an advisor may also be experienced, but new to selling luxury cruises. In all cases, it’s critical to build product knowledge. Be the expert.
“If you’re an advisor who’s new to river cruising and haven’t sailed yourself, prepare for the Wave Season by taking the courses that river lines offer online,” suggests Avalon Waterways’ Hoffee. “Familiarize yourself with ships, rivers and the main differences offered by each line.”
Then, “be prepared to borrow marketing,” Hoffee adds. “There’s no need to re-create the wheel.” She suggests that new advisors take advantage of all the marketing tools offered by the lines. “And, if you don’t know your local business development managers, meet them,” she stresses. “Maybe there is even an opportunity to host a consumer event.” Similar advice comes from ocean lines too.
14. Always Qualify Clients
It’s easy with a slew of hot prospects eager to book now to take a short-cut and not do the full qualification process. You may think, “Well they know what they want.” But save yourself frustration later and retain those clients for life. “Qualify your clients to make sure you get them on the right ship that matches their needs,” emphasizes Heit.
Otherwise, they might initially be happy that they got a great Wave Season deal but, as the weeks progress, their mindset may turn more negative as they investigate more about the specific brand or ship—and discover facets that they hadn’t considered at the outset. They may rethink their decision to book and even cancel. Matching clients with the right product and ship for their individual travel style and personality is critical 365 days a year, and that includes Wave Season.
15. Create Social Media Buzz
“Having a continuous and consistent social media presence is extremely important,” believes Daly. “Advisors should curate content of their own, use engaging polls with their audience and be consistent in their posts. The idea is to always be present and build relevance so that when a consumer is ready to book, they’ll reach out to the advisor.” He adds that a consistent social media presence also adeptly showcases the advisor’s travel expertise.
16. Highlight Longer Journeys
Travel supplier research in 2023 reveals that consumers going on vacation desire to stay longer than they did in the past. Many deprived of travel experiences during the pandemic are still making up for lost time. Thus, be sure to showcase any longer cruises, and in particular, new “Grand Voyage” options in any Wave Season client communications.
Grand Voyages are typically longer than two or three weeks yet shorter than a World Cruise. In addition, even if the agency is promoting a one-week or 10-day ocean cruise, be sure to suggest add-ons. Inform clients that they can create an even grander, lengthier vacation with pre- or post-cruise stays or by combining back-to-back voyages.
17. Showcase New Itineraries
New cruise itineraries are a great sales hook for loyal past guests of all brands. “We do online presentations of new itineraries to create new business,” Consoli tells us. He and his staffers tap into Zoom, and for those clients or potential clients who attend, “we include a special offer to get them to book,” he stresses.
Also, keep your eyes peeled for the latest itinerary research released by travel suppliers, consortia/host agencies or travel insurers. Pay careful attention to any specified “hot spots” for increasing consumer demand. If the research shows that South Africa and Singapore are trending well with luxury travelers right now, for instance, then promote itineraries that go there.
18. Match Themed Cruises to Clients
Beyond the strong food-and-wine consumer interest, look to other themed options. If clients are die-hard fans of museums, golf, Broadway, ancient history, race cars, pop music, comic books, golf, literature or many other special interests, tap into similarly themed voyages. You’ll likely be halfway to the booking simply by suggesting something the client dearly loves. Then pair it with any Wave Season offers.
It’s a great “win-win.” The client gets something they’ll love, plus the advisor reaps the commission reward. For instance, Cunard Line offers a “Literature Festival at Sea” in November 2024; book lovers can absorb themselves in seven days of inspiring literary events on Queen Mary 2’s westbound transatlantic crossing. Guests will hear from 20 acclaimed authors. Separately, Azamara teams with Perry Golf to offer many golf-themed cruises; they include golf play at prestigious, challenging courses and, at times, attendance at top golf championships.
19. Develop “Refer-a-Friend” Offers
As Wave Season kicks off, “prepare a ‘Refer-a-Friend’ communication so anyone who books during Wave will get an added benefit if they refer a friend—a new client—to book with you,” recommends Muskat. “This can be as easy as an amenity delivered onboard to show your appreciation of the referral.” That might range from a bottle of fine wine to an onboard credit.
20. Focus on Active Adventures
New active cruise options and more expedition cruises to the ends of the Earth are drawing totally new clients—often those who haven’t cruised in the past and younger travelers, too. Scenic, Seabourn, Silversea, Hapag-Lloyd, Ponant, Viking and others are now operating new polar-class ships, plus Aqua Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions, Atlas Ocean Voyages, Hurtigruten Expeditions and other niche players also offer new adventure itineraries.
Be sure potential clients understand how much cruising has changed over the decades. Talk about today’s active and wellness options. Explain about such activities as hiking, biking, mountain treks, whitewater rafting and Zodiac rides with wet beach landings. Paint the picture of the potential “great adventure” of an Arctic or Antarctica expedition. Delve into options for the Peruvian Amazon, the eco-rich Galapagos Islands, remote South Pacific and Asian isles, or the Northwest Passage.
Explain that they’ll journey to pristine, remote eco-spots. Talk penguins, puffins, whales, sea lions, birds and polar bears. Mention that they can even dive in a submersible to view the underwater world, or head to the geographic North Pole on Ponant’s icebreaker, Le Commandant Charcot; guests actually get out on the ice to take selfies at the top of the world. At the same time, explain how guests will experience incredible pampering at sea. Outline the sumptuous, high-end accommodations, dining, enrichment, spa treatments, entertainment and top amenities, as well as the ability to travel with like-minded adventurers.
21. Prep Your Agency Team
Travel agencies need to move quickly so they can tap into supplier opportunities. “Prepare your agency marketing team to get ready to build out Wave Season promotions on your website and in your emails as soon as you receive the Wave assets from the cruise lines,” recommends Muskat. “These will typically come in early December so be sure your staff is ready to execute on these.” Remember that other agencies will also be receiving those. So, get a good start out of the block, so to speak.
Muskat also suggests working with preferred cruise line sales representatives immediately—mainly to understand the timing of when the agency will receive the Wave promotions, and what marketing vehicles the supplier wants to reserve to promote their Wave offers, as well as their ideal timeframe to promote. “This way you can ensure you are giving ample promotional time to your preferred suppliers without causing too much overlap or confusing messages to your database of clients,” adds Muskat.
22. Offer Insurance on EVERY Booking
Offer insurance on every booking and encourage guests to take it. That’s particularly important in today’s travel world with canceled flights, overbookings and health issues that can pop up at any time. Citing “changes and miscues by airlines and other travel suppliers,” insurance coverage is critical, believes Heit.
23. Tackle the Winter Blues
Tap into the seasonal “winter blues” with a touch of humor, Daly suggests. As the end of 2023 looms, “the winter blues will soon be upon everyone with gray skies, snow and cold weather in many parts of the U.S.,” he says. “So, have fun with social media. Post images of a ‘sand man’ next to a ‘snow man’ with a fun caption. Perhaps ask, ‘Shouldn’t you be soaking up some sun too?’”
24. Sell “The Experience,” Not the Deal
“Don’t sell the offer, sell them the experience that you have highly curated for them based on what you know they would enjoy doing,” stresses Bava. Post-pandemic, in particular, unique and special experiences are top-of-mind for luxury travelers.
25. Map Out a Solid Wave Plan
Using the tips above, plus incorporating an agency’s successful past Wave Season efforts, can create an effective 2023-2024 Wave Season plan. Assign agency team members goals, objectives and key responsibilities. Talk to suppliers about what to expect. Then get ready for the Wave to push the agency to even greater business success in 2024.