travelBulletin

coverTRAVELBULLETIN and our sister publication Cruise Weekly last month commissioned the biggest ever survey of Australian travel agents selling cruising. The intriguing findings unsurprisingly showed the industry continues to reap the benefits of the cruise boom – but also highlighted threats including losing sales to overseas agencies and cruise lines direct. BRUCE PIPER unpacks the results.

WHAT is the add-on most likely to get a prospective cruise customer over the line? 85% of Australian travel agents put on-board credit at the top of the list, according to our survey which saw a strong response rate from more than 500 cruise consultants. Conducted independently by travel consultancy StollzNow Research, the study came in with a strong confidence level, with the final number (516) collated by selecting only the hands-on client facing cruise selling agents who responded.

Interestingly, on-board credit rated more highly than the plethora of “Fly Free” offers in the market, which garnered a 73% response rate – slightly ahead of a cabin upgrade and earlybird discounts, which were both rated as effective by 71% of the agents. Other lower rated freebies which consultants said drive sales for cruise lines included free shore excursions and reduced deposits, both of which rated as 41% effective in the eyes of the agents.

RIDING THE WAVE

The survey clearly showed the respondents are making the most of the strong growth in the cruise industry. 85% of consultants sold more ocean cruises in the last twelve months than in the previous year, in contrast to just 12% who said their cruise business had stayed the same, and just a handful who had seen a decrease. Growth wasn’t as strong for small ship and river cruising, with just under half of respondents saying they had seen an increase, while about 40% said they hadn’t experienced any growth in these sectors.

What was particularly noteworthy was the consultants’ perceptions of where the growth in cruise business had come from. The majority (53%) said they had seen customers switch from overseas short-haul land-based holidays to cruise, while the impact of cruise on domestic tourism was also clearly seen, with 51% saying clients had switched from local trips to holidays afloat. Cruise was also seen as significantly impacting coach touring, with 46% of respondents who sell ocean cruise saying their customers had moved across from coach holidays. 34% said cruise clients had switched from other overseas long-haul land holidays – and intriguingly 14% had clients who had booked ocean cruises after first trying a river cruise.

Consultants had on average sold 25 ocean cruise passengers in the four months between September 2015 and January 2016. The average for river cruise over the same period was four passengers, while the small ship average was two sales. More than two thirds of the consultants (69%) said they believed they were losing “some” or “a lot of” sales to direct bookings. 84% said they drive preferences to a cruise line that does not do direct sales – despite the reality that all lines do in fact sell direct. Overseas agencies were also a significant concern, with 50% “extremely” or “very” worried about the rise of foreign competitors, and a further 28% moderately concerned.

The study also looked at the impact of preferred agreements for agents working in particular networks. 16% said they always switch clients to a preferred cruise line, while 42% said they did this sometimes. 24% rarely moved their customers across to a preferred partner and 8% said they never switch sell.

PRINCESS RULES

Of the 498 respondents who regularly sell ocean cruise, one theme resounded – the particular strength of Princess Cruises when it comes to travel agent cruise sales. A whopping 87% of the consultants said their customers ask for Princess by name, just ahead of sister brand P&O at 85%. Royal Caribbean was slightly behind, requested by the clients of 81% of the respondents. Carnival Cruise Line was in fourth place, with 70% of agents saying their clients asked for it by name – and then there was a big jump down to Silversea Cruises in fifth place with a score of 57%.

At the other end of the scale just 6% of respondents said their clients asked for Costa Cruises by name – hopefully reflecting memory loss within the community about the Costa Concordia disaster. 20% of respondents said their clients asked for MSC Cruises by name, with newcomer Norwegian Cruise Line only just ahead, requested by clients of 23% of the agents surveyed. In the middle of the pack were brands such as Celebrity (56%), Seabourn (55%), Regent Seven Seas (54%) and Disney Cruise Line (52%) which were ahead of Cunard at 49%, Holland America at 48%, Crystal Cruises with 44% and Oceania at 40%.

It wasn’t just brand awareness where Princess was a leader. The survey found Princess was the most commonly sold cruise line by the Australian consultants – ahead of Royal Caribbean in second place, P&O third, Carnival Cruise Lines fourth and Celebrity in fifth position. Princess was also the most highly rated cruise brand when it came to cruise consultant training and development as well as excellence in call centre service.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

There’s no doubt that the bold initiative of Scenic and APT to launch and operate their own river cruise vessels in Europe has created unprecedented demand and awareness of river cruising in the local market. Although on a global scale river cruise passenger numbers are dwarfed by those taking an ocean cruise, last month newly appointed Royal Caribbean chief for Australasia, Adam Armstrong, revealed that last year about 100,000 Australians took an ocean cruise in Europe, not too far ahead of the annual 70,000 Australian European river cruisers. Aussie travel agents are certainly capitalising on the massive promotional efforts undertaken by APT and Scenic, with other brands also making the most of the marketing push.

As you would expect APT and Scenic were neck and neck when it came to river cruise lines regularly sold by the cruise consultants in the survey. 64% of agents said they sold APT, just ahead of Scenic at 62%, with some daylight between them and the third placed Avalon Waterways at 47%. Fourth place was taken by APT-owned Travelmarvel at 37%, which outstripped Scenic’s Evergreen/ Emerald Waterways operation which was sold by 28% of the agents. Uniworld was also regularly sold by 28% of the agents, just ahead of Viking River Cruises at 26%. 93% of the agents said their customers ask for Scenic by name, just ahead of APT at 92%.

When it came to other measures, APT and Travelmarvel were clearly top of the pops, with both ranking ahead of other brands in terms of training and development, sales representatives, call centre and customer service.

OTHER SURVEY TAKE-OUTS

The StollzNow study also looked at the rise of expedition and small ship cruising, with both segments sold by some the consultants polled in the survey but in much smaller volumes than ocean or river cruising. When it came to small ship lines regularly sold there was strong awareness of the new Viking Ocean Cruises product, along with Seabourn, Ponant and Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic. The survey also showed strong awareness of the small ship offerings from Scenic and APT.

Other questions related to the visibility of the various cruise lines when advertising in trade and consumer media, with predictably top results for Scenic, APT, Royal Caribbean, P&O, Holland America, Princess and Celebrity.

CLIA AWARENESS

The survey also included some questions abo
ut Cruise Lines International Association, in order to gauge perceptions of the peak cruise industry body on the ground. Among the consultants who responded to the survey, a whopping 83% were aware of CLIA’s activities, with awareness strongest among home-based agents (98%), followed by Travellers Choice and Magellan, both at 95% which was just ahead of Helloworld at 94%. 90% of iTravel consultants were aware of CLIA, followed by Express Travel Group at 83% and independent agents at 78%. Although still strong, awareness of CLIA among Flight Centre agents was lowest at 67%.

78% of those who were aware of CLIA said they “always” or “sometimes” participate in Cruise Week promotions, and the organisation also ranked highly among these consultants, with 64% saying CLIA’s industry representation was “extremely” or “very” good. CLIA’s education was also highlighted as a positive by 54% of the agents.

Overall the exceptionally strong response to the study indicates the increasing importance that cruise is having in terms of the Australian travel sector. The ongoing commitment of CLIA to educating consultants has meant there is a strong base across the country of agents who understand that there is indeed a cruise for everyone. In the changing world of travel distribution it is clear these agents have grasped the helm and assured their future by focusing on this growth area where clients respond so well to marketing initiatives.

Another key factor was the strong uptake of Cruise Weekly, with more than two thirds of the cruise sellers saying they read the newsletter on a weekly basis to keep updated with the latest industry trends.

The full results of the StollzNow Cruise Weekly/ travelBulletin cruise agent survey are available for purchase – for details email Christian Schweitzer on [email protected]/ccmwp or call 1300 799 220.

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