UK agents can expect to see competition from the US as American retailers look to expand their businesses globally, delegates at the UK Cruise Convention were told this week.

Although cross-border selling is often discouraged by cruise lines keen to retain price integrity between markets, US agents are being helped to legitimately export their businesses.

The trend was highlighted by Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises executive vice- president for customer services, sales and marketing, who compared and contrasted
the two markets.

“As the world becomes more global, I have seen agencies having conversations with us about entering the UK cruise market. It is now seriously on the radar of US agencies,” she said.

“We will support any agents who want to sell in any market as long as they sell under the terms and conditions of that market.

“They need to be legitimate in the UK and be aware of customer protection laws, have a UK office and be a member of Abta and be bonded.

“It’s in their interests and ours that they are seriously educated about what it takes to trade in this market.”

Meet the US challenge

UK Crusie Convention logoUK agents were urged to meet this potential challenge head on and use some of the ideas being successfully implemented in the US here before rivals can get a foothold.

Swartz said travel agents in the US were growing their cruise business through a number of means, including using technology to drive down costs, specialising, and making use of short-term sales promotions.

She said the US market was characterised by a more fragmented agency demographic, with 20,000 active agents, more cruise specialists and home-based workers, fewer shopfront stores and more web-based promotions over newspapers.

“More agencies are focusing on cruise sales,” said Swartz.

“We see agencies moving away from having costly operating structures, with staff working from home. The power of technology now, with high-speed internet and online tools, means you can simulate an office environment virtually.”

Citing two examples, she said one US agency had developed technology to direct calls to agents who were better at closing sales, while another had based a new online cruise business on a database acquired through buying a portfolio of magazines.

Adopt best practices

Swartz said the best agents were looking to give themselves an edge by taking advantage of opportunities such as group bookings and short window promotions such as three-day sales or special departures.

Others have embraced social media, most recently using the online coverage of Grand Princess’s dry dock refit to interact with their customers. Agents were making more use of high-tech and low-tech marketing techniques.

These enable agents to interact with their customers on a more personal level and offer a bespoke service, such as targeting special anniversaries with tailored offers.

One of the key advantages US agents were thought to have over their UK counterpart was the attitude of customers in the two countries about cruise.

Daily Mail reader research, revealed at the convention, showed how many misconceptions still prevailed in the UK.

“In the States, cruising is seen much more as a young person’s, mass-market holiday that is appealing to a wide audience,” said Andy Stuart, NCL executive vice-president for global sales and passenger services.

“There are an awful lot of misperceptions here in the UK that we have to work hard to overcome, so in a way it’s easier in the US for the agent to be a bit more aggressive because customers already accept that cruising is a great holiday.”