By David Cogswell
It’s the tour industry’s dirty little secret: Tour operators are more than a little envious about the well-publicized success of cruising. Even though more people book tours and packaged travel than sail on cruises, the tour industry is fragmented, and its success is spread among thousands of relatively small businesses.
In contrast, the cruise industry has fewer players, but they’re spectacularly successful at winning enthusiastic clients. Tour operators shake their heads in wonder at how the cruise companies win such loyal followers when tours, they firmly believe, offer better travel experiences and better value. Indeed, tour operators have never felt as successful as the cruise lines in getting their message out to the public. Rather than fight the cruise lines, however, many tour operators are joining them. They’re looking for ways to attach themselves to cruising and bring some of that business home for themselves.
One way that tour operators can piggyback on the success of the cruise lines is to sell pre- and post-cruise programs and even some individual shore excursions. Tour operators are destination experts who believe they can offer much better land programs and shore excursions than those that the cruise lines provide.
For travel agents, of course, there’s another advantage to working with tour operators when booking a cruise vacation: tour operators pay commissions on pre- and post-cruise travel and shore excursions. In contrast, most cruise lines—with some exceptions for premium and luxury cruise companies—do not pay commission on such travel. In any event, here are three ways that tour operators leverage the cruise market to boost their own sales:
Selling pre- and post-cruise programs. Commissionable pre- and post-cruise packages offer a good way to create more of a destination experience out of a cruise, which usually visits only ports of call for limited amounts of time. Pre- and post-cruise packages also help to manage an itinerary and reduce the pressure of making it to the embarkation on time.
For their part, tour operators are eager to help agents sell pre- and post-cruise packages. “I would sell clients on the air fare and time factor,” says Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com) . “If you’re traveling to Europe, the cost of airfare and the flight time warrants taking advantage of a pre- or post-cruise tour and making the most of your visit and cost to get there. Also, a cruise is a great overview, so I would take a cruise first, and then do a post-tour to get an in-depth insider experience of the destination.”
Goway Travel (www.goaway.com) recently launched a pre- and post cruise campaign with Tourism Australia and Qantas. “We’re encouraging agents to sell through Goway for the international airfare, pre- and post-touring and any shore excursions to ensure they maximize the opportunity for profit by earning commission on all elements of the booking,” says Emma Cottis, Goway’s product and marketing manager. “Agents can register at www.cruise.goway.com/agent for access to destination experts to plan pre- and post-cruise arrangements and shore excursions, discounted land packages with Qantas air and webinars about selling Australia.
Todd Smith, founder and owner of AdventureSmith Explorations (www.adventuresmithexplorations.com), says it’s wise to book a pre-cruise package so your clients are sure to be at the pier in time for embarkation—and this is especially true with small-ship cruises. “Small ships often feature wilderness-oriented itineraries with no ports, making it extremely difficult—and expensive—for travelers to catch up if they miss the ship because of flight delays,” he says.
When selling pre- and post-cruise packages, Smith says, you should focus on interior, complementary destination experiences. “When your clients are taking a cruise, plan their pre- or post-cruise packages to complement the experiences they will have on the cruise,” he says. “For instance, if your clients are taking an Alaska Inside Passage cruise, send them to Denali or Katmai National Park rather than Seward or Kenai.”
Smith also says it is important to thoroughly vet any land tours offered by cruise lines themselves. Cruise lines are experts at cruising; they may or may not be experts at tours. They often subcontract land tours to other operators and mark up the price. “Check with local operators and you may find the same tour for less,” Smith says.
Tom Buchberger, director of sales at Travel Bound (www.booktravelbound.com), says agents should suggest that their clients stay a night in the departure city before a cruise so they can be rested and relaxed for the cruise itself. “This is such a benefit to your clients—after all, the whole point of cruising is to relax and not worry about whether or not they’ll make it aboard,” he says.
George Johns, vice president of sales for International Expeditions, says pre- and post-cruise tours really have the capacity to add value to a journey by taking advantage of the time guests have already invested in traveling to an exotic destination. “Agents can help guests look for local events, festivals and other excuses to stay longer or visit early,” he says. “Pre-tours not only add content to the vacation, they also buy an extra day or two to ensure that you—and your luggage—don’t miss the boat.”
Unlocking the land potential of cruise clients. Brendan Vacations (www.brendanvacations.com) has come up with a sales guide designed to help agents unlock potential tour business in your existing cruise database, according to Brendan President Nico Zenner. Brendan believes that first-time cruise customers are today’s prospective tour customers. You need to show clients that guided tours provide a more up-close, personal and genuine destination experience than cruises do. According to Zenner, more than 90 percent of Europe’s major attractions are miles from the nearest seaport, since many of the cities were built inland for defense.
Brendan’s strategy is to focus on the fact that cruise and tour customers really come from the same base. “The dynamic growth of U.S. travelers taking European cruises has created a large target audience of prospects who have a propensity to travel, have a willingness to travel in a group environment and have passports,” Zenner says.
Indeed, a study by CLIA itself finds that a significant number of international cruise passengers return within 18 months to tour countries visited on their cruise. According to a Travel Trade Gazette (TTG) study of Baby Boomer cruise passengers, two-thirds said that they would like to spend more time in ports and destinations visited during the sailing, preferably evenings and overnights. And only 5 percent said cruise shore excursions represented “good value for the money.”
For its part, Globus (www.globusfamily.com) has been actively targeting the cruise market in order to sell more tours. The company has devised a number of strategies to help you turn cruisers into tour customers. For example, it has done research to provide agents information about which Monograms city packages go with which cruises.
To help capture that market, Jennifer Halboth, Globus’ director of marketing, has some suggestions. “You should create a target list of every cruise client you’ve sold for 2012 and push out an email about pre- and post-cruise packages,” she says. “As a follow-up to every cruise booking, include content on pre- and post-cruise packages and let [clients] know you can take care of booking them. As part of every sales call or email involving a cruise, ensure you work pre- and post-cruise into the conversation.”
Selling more river cruises. Of course, if you can’t sell your clients on a land-only program, sell them the next best thing: a river cruise experience. Many tour operators try to leverage the cruise market by offering river cruises, a segment that has grown significantly over the past few years. River cruises share some features with ocean cruises, such as the ease of not having to unpack and pack with every change of destination. Tour operators either own their own river cruise brands or are affiliated with river cruise companies.
For example, Larry Kwan, president of Pacific Delight Tours (www.pacificdelightours.com), encourages agents to recommend scenic river cruises as a way to explore China’s countryside, a sharp contrast to the more commonly visited cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Pacific Delight offers three-, four-, six- and eight-night Yangtze River sailings from Victoria Cruises, which can be added on to any China journey, as well as a day cruise along the Li River, which is sold as a two-night Guilin add-on. Both cruises are also available as part of packaged tours.
Like land tours, river cruises are destination oriented. It’s not all about the ship and its bars, shows and rock climbing walls. The attention is on the destination. River cruises, like tours, also are more inclusive, including meals, guides, shore tours and more. And once again, that means more commission for you, since you are paid based on the full price of the trip.
In the end, Carol Dimopoulos, executive vice president of Perillo Tours (www.perillotours.com), says cruises and tours complement each other nicely. “Cruises are a great way for passengers to have a taste of different countries and cultures,” she says.