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Irish Agents Discuss Cruising with Sarah Slattery

Irish Agents Discuss Cruising with Sarah Slattery

In the September issue of Irish Travel Trade News, out now, Sarah Slattery talked with travel agents and cruise specialists about ocean, family and river cruising. Other features include Travel Technology, Bed Banks, Travel Commerce Platforms, an interview with John Appleby of Flight Centre in Dublin, and a report on a Sunway/WestJet fam trip to St John’s, Newfoundland.

CLIA’s third Travel Agent Cruise Industry Outlook Report of 2016, released on 4th August, revealed that demand for cruising in the USA continues to grow and that travel agents are playing an increasingly important role in the consumer travel process, writes Sarah Slattery.

Some 700 travel agents were consulted by CLIA across North America and 73% are expecting increased sales this year. River cruising showed the most growth with 64% of travel agents expecting to sell more river cruise packages this year and 54% percent expecting to see growth in the large ocean ship segment. Two-thirds (66%) of agents said that all-inclusive options were very important for clients booking luxury cruises, who also most valued a unique destination.

Ocean Cruising

Sunway has invested heavily in its cruise team and website and believes that the most important part of a cruise consultant’s job is to match the right cruise for each client. “Sunway has over six cruise experts and we can guarantee that we will offer the best deals along with the most suitable cruise for the customer,” said Deirdre Sweeny, General Manager.

Sunway’s ability to offer wholesale rates with 10% commission has enabled them to be one of the trade’s most popular cruise operators. Although the Mediterranean and Caribbean have been very busy, Sunway has noticed an increase in transatlantic and luxury brands. “Itinerary changes are also key to keeping the customer cruising,” added Deirdre, “and most cruisers will cruise again within 12 months – so repeat business is really good.”

Martin Skelly, Managing Director, Navan Travel, said: “We use special cruise offers as a key part of our marketing strategy. We have seen the Caribbean as the biggest growth area followed by the Mediterranean, and there is a considerable awareness of the difference between the two ‘main’ brands in this market.”

Carmel Aylward of King Travel said that Western Mediterranean and ocean voyages are selling well, but “price is the number one factor, regardless of cruise company and all-inclusive cruises are big sellers. Clients just want good value, regardless of route.”

ClickandGo.com has four staff members on its cruise team, “but lots more growth is planned in the coming year, due to the demand,” said Niki Stanford. “Added extras are a big seller, where there is a free all-inclusive package or a very good rate to pre-pay, clients love it, or onboard spend or upgrades.” Itineraries and brands are a big attraction for repeat cruisers: “People are loyal to brands.” However, 75% of ClickandGo’s cruise business clients are new to cruise.

“Without cruise, I am not sure that my doors would still be open,” said Pamela Brownlee, Managing Director, Fly Away Travel and her new brand, Cruises for You. “It was imperative to the continuation of Fly Away Travel that I diversified into a specialised niche market.”

Alan Lynch, Managing Director, Cruisescapes, said: “Cruise has become a very important part of our business and now accounts for a large percentage of it. As we wholesale the Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and CroisiEurope products (with more to be announced soon) the percentage has increased dramatically.” He believes that for anyone new to cruising, price is a major factor: “For second timers it is a combination of the price and itinerary, but the itinerary is the most important. The brand can be important in the decision process, but not all the time. All-inclusive is becoming more and more important, especially for the savvy cruiser.”

Cruisecapes has had a busy summer. Most of the passengers on Fred Olsen’s German Canals cruise, which departed from Belfast on 1st August, were from Ireland. The previous week the same ship cruised from Belfast to the Norwegian fjords, and both cruises were full. There were other cruises from Killybegs to Canada in May and to America in April, and both were almost full. “2017 is already in strong demand from Ireland and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines has been extremely happy with the uptake from Ireland over the past number of years,” added Alan, “and that is why they will continue to offer cruises ex-Ireland again in 2017.”

Family Cruising

Cruising is ideal for families and this is perhaps a market that could be marketed better. It is the perfect holiday for groups in which different generations of the one family can travel together, yet all enjoy different activities during the day. Meeting up at night-time for family dinners and entertainment enables families to have the best of both worlds.

There is no reason why families who have booked, for example, Club Med or Holiday Village-type properties would not switch to an all-inclusive, family-style cruise ship.

“The family market is increasing, but I think it is up to us to promote them as a family product,” agreed Martin Skelly, while Pamela Brownlee, who believes that family cruise is a growing market but that they mainly sell cruise to families with two children, said: “It tends to get very costly when you have three children.”

Niki Stanford believes that value for money is key with families and that family cruise is an area that will “grow and continue to grow”. Alan Lynch has seen no dramatic increase in family cruises, but has “found an increase in multi-generational holidays for occasions.”

Deirdre Sweeny advises families to book early “as family cabins are limited, as are family deals”. Carmel Aylward agrees and said: “Cruise prices are good for families during Bank Holiday weekends, but not in July or August.”

River Cruising

Most of the agents do find that river cruise is growing but, contrary to CLIA’s report, it is not the sector in which they see the largest growth, so I also spoke with some river cruise specialists.

Riviera Travel finds that 70% of its cruise passengers have taken a sea cruise in the previous five years and a massive 97% of its clients would re-book a Riviera cruise (independent survey: www.rivieratravel.co.uk/). “Since starting in Ireland in 2013, travel agents now comprise 27.7% of our bookings, a 50-60% increase year-on-year”, said Stephen Sands, General Manager, Riviera Travel. “For agents it is the ease of booking (through our Dublin call centre or online) and we arrange and take responsibility for the flights and transfers to the ship. The price across all our sales platforms are the same – we have never discounted, and never will,” – a novel approach in present times, but one that clearly works for them.

Riviera has invested in four brand new 5-star all-suite ships that will come into operation in 2017, all offering European sailings. “We find the key to selling river cruise to clients is a combination of interesting itineraries and value, as opposed to price,” added Stephen.

Sunway represents AmaWaterways and Deirdre Sweeny said: “There is such a variance between what is on offer in the market, ranging from 3-star right up to 6-star deluxe. What is included in the price is so important: some include drinks, some at meal times only, and some have no drinks or tours included. It is clearly very important to match the right cruise to the right customer.”

Alan Lynch commented: “We sell both river and ocean cruises with the same enthusiasm, and we try to get our clients to experience both, so there is a lot of cross-selling. It is not as easy as it sounds because they are two completely different products, so you have got to know the products, otherwise you will end up with an unhappy client.”

River cruise is growing rapidly and, although some travel agents have not seen this growth yet, clearly there are plenty of Irish consumers who are opting for river cruising.

Sharon Jordan, Country Manager, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, reported a 15%+ average growth year-on-year to date. “We expect that to grow even more given that September to November are strong travel dates for river cruise clients: we have more people travelling during those months than any other months of the year.”
Uniworld’s most popular cruise, Enchanting Danube, continues to be the number one seller from the Irish market, followed closely by Castles Along the Rhine. The average spend is €2,000 per person based on the fact that “most of our clients book from our two-for-one special offers, but this can go right up to €10,000 per person for those special once in a lifetime trips to places such as Vietnam or India,” said Sharon.
Some 90% of Uniworld’s business comes from travel agents, something that is down to the great relationship Sharon and her team has with the trade. “We do not have an online booking engine and we encourage all our guests to go to a travel professional. Our commitment to travel agents is paramount and we have no plans to grow direct business.”
River cruise is growing rapidly and, although some travel agents have not seen this growth yet, clearly there are plenty of Irish consumers who are opting for river cruising.
From 26th – 28th November 2016 many Irish travel agents will sail onboard Uniworld’s 154-passenger SS Antoinette from Amsterdam to Cologne for the ITAA Annual Conference. I can only assume that this will help river cruise to grow much further in 2017 and will perhaps then reflect what is happening in the US market.

When it comes to the ocean cruise sector, we seem to be there already.

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NEIL STEEDMAN has been a trade journalist, copywriter, editor and proofreader for 50 years, and News & Features Editor for ‘Irish Travel Trade News’ for the past 40 years.

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