Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020

Professional Travel Advisors Key to Cruise Industry Rebound

When the cruise industry resumes operations, professional travel advisors will be key to helping it rebound by counseling clients about new health protocols and onboard changes.

“It will be travel advisors that will help provide guidance, information and expert advice to help clients navigate the ‘new normal’ when travel does re-emerge,” said Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.

And that means travel agents must be educated on what, exactly, the cruise industry is doing onboard, in terminals, and on motorcoaches to protect the health of its clients and crew amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The key to bringing the cruise industry back is going to be determined by how well they can instill confidence in advisors and consumers. That’s going to start with heavily enforced screening standards and pre-boarding cleaning protocols,” said Cindy Schlansky, co-president of Tzell Travel Group.

“This also includes details on what additional cleanliness standards they are implementing mid-cruise (increased housekeeping staff, more frequent sweeps of public areas, etc.), whether they have any standards to reduce overcrowding, etc. Investments in health and cleanliness will be largely dictated by the cruise lines themselves given the high cost associated with maintaining these additional levels of screening and services.”

Flexibility in canceling and rebooking also should continue said Monty Swaney, co-president of Tzell Travel Group: “What the industry needs from CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) is continued advocacy to maintain policy flexibility. Consumers are likely to remain highly risk-averse for a period of time from a health and financial perspective, so to the extent cruise lines can maintain their cancelation flexibility, it will help advisors support the cruise community.”

In fact, a travel agent education program is undoubtedly in development, said Bruce Nierenberg, of Bruce Nierenberg & Associates in Orlando and a veteran cruise executive and entrepreneur.

“It’s being created now,” he wrote in an email to TravelPulse. “There is a big job needed here. CLIA will be involved in the distribution of the information and any training, but the task is a big one and I am sure the industry will pull out all the stops to give the tools necessary to the travel agents to sell the product effectively, including how to handle the virus issues and solutions. Stay tuned, it will be coming soon.”

Nierenberg said the cruise industry should communicate with travel agents and consumers by “direct mail, webinars and extensive consumer advertising supported and financed by all the cruise companies in non-competitive formats.”

Working together as an industry is key for the cruise lines, he added: “The safety and sanitation issues must be addressed, but it needs to be done in a manner that lays the problems to rest by doing a great job creating the solutions, implementing them across the board and then explaining them in a meaningful but simple manner,” Nierenberg said. “I would like to see some unified marketing by the companies with the big budgets showing industry unity, including cruise line CEO types taking a leadership role in the communications together as an industry, not as separate companies.”

And the travel agent community must be paramount in the messaging. “While there are always various risks associated with any type of travel, the travel advisor has a responsibility to the safety of the client,” Schlansky said. “For them to be able to recommend cruising to their clients, they need to be able to present the facts and the additional safety measures being implemented to mitigate those risks.”

Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network, said his organization has been providing travel advisors with advice on addressing clients’ coronavirus concerns and crisis management plans through webinars and talking points. It also will give advisors links to cruise lines’ websites that outline exactly what each company is doing to enhance safety, so advisors can quickly and easily do research.

“What are they doing in terms of disinfectants, what are they doing in food-handling safety, what are they doing for social distancing, what are they doing to protect the guest as they get on board?” Block said. “Are they going to do temperature testing, are they going to do the 10-minute swab testing, what are they going to do for staff safety?”

Travelers will adjust, he said. “I think the majority of guests will accept quite a bit of inconvenience, meaning longer check-in times, screenings after boarding and after departing the ship and getting back on. I really believe the vast majority of guests will react positively knowing they are safe on board.”

Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, said likely changes may include “constant sanitation of elevator buttons, hand railings, and other high-volume touch areas of the ship. I suspect temperature checks may become the norm before boarding the ship. I also suspect self-served buffets will be replaced by waited dining experiences.”

If the cruise industry launches a successful marketing campaign on all the changes, travel advisors will be able to focus on what they do best.

“If the cruise companies do the right thing, the agents will be able to spend their time selling and marketing their favorite products and not using all their time selling the solutions that will have been implemented,” Nierenberg said. “Sure, the agents will need to be informed of how to handle security and safety health questions, but it should be just that, satisfying normal questions, not explaining that cruising is safe to begin with.”

Another key point to communicate – what cruise companies will do if COVID-19 resurfaces and ports deny entry or quarantine ships. “Advisors will also be looking to cruise lines and various government entities for reassurances that their clients won’t become stranded or abandoned during their cruise for extended periods,” Swaney said. “There were numerous circumstances where clients’ itineraries were redirected or canceled entirely mid-way when port regulations changed. Once advisors have assurances on how cruise lines will handle accommodating passengers or handling refunds and credits, that will help them sell cruises with much more confidence.”

Cruisers will return, although first-timers likely will be more hesitant – although deep discounts will eventually sway some.

“We will initially see a price decline on some itineraries, and this will be attractive to some first-time cruisers. Affordability often trumps other concerns,” Schlansky said. “For those who have always wanted to cruise but haven’t been able to fit it in their schedule or budget yet, the combination of pent-up demand to travel with lower prices on some cruises means some first-timers will take the plunge and book their first cruise.”

Garcia said Cruise Planners has recently experienced a 15 percent increase in bookings for 2021. “This spike shows there isn’t a fear for travel overall, there is a fear for contracting coronavirus or being quarantined,” she said. “Cruise Planners travel advisors haven’t stopped booking for the near future – and the end of the year may prove to be profitable, as they have the tools and resources to make informed decisions and guide their clients to the ultimate vacation.”

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