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TORONTO — If the COVID-19 pandemic can be compared to a long and brutal road trip, then Celebrity Cruises is intent on looking forward through the windshield rather than behind in the rearview mirror.
It’s this forward thinking, said Dondra Ritzenthaler, SVP Sales, Trade Support & Service, that has ignited several changes within Celebrity and parent company Royal Caribbean International in recent weeks, namely new safety protocols, policy updates and travel agent incentives, all of which were highlighted during yesterday’s first-ever Canadian Celebrity Cruises Leadership Webinar.
Speaking to travel agents directly, she said: “One of the things that we owe you the most is new safety changes that we’re going to make happen in a way that you then will have confidence in us, so you will then give confidence to your customer. The whole cruise industry took some heat, maybe unfairly so, but now it’s time, together with each and every one of you in Canada, to start looking forward.”
Ritzenthaler highlighted Celebrity’s three-step program for travel agents: Crawl, Walk and Run. In the current phase of Crawl, agents are being encouraged to give personal attention to customers with notes and calls, help them service their future cruise certificates and focus on marketing and storytelling. In Walk mode, agents can make outbound calls and create videos, engage on social media with tales of their own personal travels, and do call-outs to mutual loyalty members. And in the Run phase, when agents return to “full-fledge” mode, they should implement a referral program, do virtual cruise nights, increase their outbound calls, leverage their consortia marketing and ask clients “why” when they choose a refund over a cruise credit.
“What we found is when agents ask why, they find out different things that they may have perceived,” said Ron Gulaskey, AVP National Accounts & Trade Relations. “Someone might say they saw a cruise line on TV and didn’t like the way they treated their guests. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to cruise, it means they don’t want to cruise with that particular cruise line. That could be a great opportunity to tell them about Celebrity Cruises and take that money from one refund and move it over to a booking for a future cruise with Celebrity or a different cruise line.”
The leadership panel, which also included Allan Brooks, Director of Marketing Sales, and Keith Lane, VP Sales, North and Central America, went on to highlight Canadian-specific statistics and policy updates that will help agents transition between each phase. Here’s an overview:
CANADIAN BOOKING TRENDS
According to Gulaskey, in the last six weeks, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver comprised 57% of Canadian bookings, with Toronto being the strongest market so far. Compared to other international markets, Canada has been slower to rebound due to stringent travel restrictions, restricted air space and the currency exchange. However, thanks to new marketing approaches and a recent five-day sale, “Canada is now sprinting and getting back ahead,” said Gulaskey.
Among Canadian bookings, the product focus for 2020 has been the Caribbean, which represents 80% of new passenger volume in the last six weeks. Looking ahead to 2021-2022, the Caribbean is leading in share while Europe and Alaska are showing the strongest growth.
WHO TO SELL TO
When focusing on demographics, reach out to the 40-59 age group who’s had the highest APD’s for the last 10 years and spend the most onboard during the peak season. In this group, 47% are interested in cruising, mostly to Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe.
Gulaskey also encouraged agents to “look for your loyalty guests,” the cornerstone of Celebrity bookings, because “88% of the bookings in Canada right now are from people who’ve sailed with you in the past with Celebrity.” Leverage your Captain’s Club, added Gulaskey, “whether they’re ours or you want to convert strategies from other cruise lines, we’ve seen a +20% in Canadian bookings the last three weeks from our own loyal guests.”
The upper-inventory is also another niche to focus on, with 88% of Canadians (+16% PPT) booking a greater share of Veranda or above staterooms.
“In the last six weeks, Canada’s done fantastic for verandahs, Aqua class and suites,” added Gulaskey, “so the people with money definitely understand that this is being fixed and they understand our brand.”
Groups are doing well, with the share of bookings from this market increasing in the past six weeks by +14 PPT to 48%, up from 36%.
“Think about families,” said Ritzenthaler. “Families are going to be a big deal because they’ve all been stuck at home together and they’re all ready to get out.”
HEALTH, SAFETY & CAPACITY
To reassure guests, Celebrity Cruises is currently working on data-driven planning, sanitization protocols, touchless technologies and healthcare & infectious disease accreditation and certification. All of this, said Lane, will achieve Celebrity’s main goal: “to make our ships the safest place to vacation on the planet.”
Examples of safety measures onboard include eliminating the need to hand off SeaPass cards and implementing temperature screenings so that “guests get on the ship healthy, and get off the ship healthy,” said Lane.
Gulaskey also noted that the cruise line is currently re-examining the tendering process and shore excursions to ensure guest safety, while Ritzenthaler confirmed that when Celebrity resumes service, capacity will be reduced.
“When we come back, we’re not going to do a light switch approach where the light switch comes on and every one of our ships across the world will start sailing,” she said. “We’re going to stagger them coming back and we’re also not going to go to 100% capacity because we want to leverage all the new protocols we’re working on right now and want to make sure people feel super comfortable.
“By the time we get to March, April, May of next year, we’ll be back at normal capacities but I think in the meantime we’ll ease into it like a dim switch that gets a little brighter as we keep going.”
When asked by one agent whether passengers are at risk of getting bumped to another cruise due to reduced capacity, Ritzenthaler said absolutely not.
“Once you lift and shift your customer, that’s their booking, that’s their sailing and that’s the one they’re going on,” she answered. “We would never bump someone off their ship and we don’t plan on the capacity being full to where we wouldn’t be able to accommodate somebody, even if they chose to move their cruise again.”
POLICY UPDATES & SELLING TOOLS
Knowing how uncertain these times are, Celebrity and parent company Royal Caribbean International have unveiled several policy updates and selling tools in recent weeks to reassure and incentivize clients. These include the RCL Cares partner support program, and the enhanced ‘Cruise with Confidence’, which allows guests to cancel before Aug. 1, 2020 and receive a 100% FCC for all sailings through May 4, 2022.
There’s also the new Same Cruise, Same Price policy, which protects price and promotions for guests who book the same cruise one year from their original sailing date. They must rebook the same itinerary and stateroom category by Aug. 1, 2020 to qualify, and the new sailing must be within four weeks of the original sail date.
Also, the Best Price, Best Offer Guarantee allows guests to change their price and/or promotion up to 48 hours prior to sailing. Bookings must be created by Aug. 1, 2020 to qualify, and refunds will be issued as OBC if made after the final payment.
Other initiatives Celebrity has taken that will help agents more effectively sell include: eliminating the 70+ Fit To Travel Letter; allowing double name changes in Groups/FIT up to 48 hours prior to sailing; allowing one-time transfer of FCC for 2020 sailings (request deadline Sept. 1, 2020); allowing no deposit groups to hold up to 50 staterooms on all 2020 sailings; protecting group rates, allowing them to add up to five cabins if they run out of inventory; and holding group space until final payment on sailings through Dec. 31, 2020.
WHEN WILL SERVICE RESUME?
“We know that consumers are waiting for three things,” said Lane. “What are Celebrity’s health and safety protocols going to be, what’s their best offer going to be, and when and where will our ships be?”
Though Lane couldn’t confirm specifically when full service will resume since the situation is so fluid, he said the company is “very confident” that in the next three to four weeks, it will “put its stake in the ground” and say when it will be going back in the water. He also noted that Celebrity has plans for every date starting in July.
When asked by one agent about what to do about upcoming final payments for Europe and Alaska, Lane noted that each booking is a personal scenario and should be treated as such.
“If the customer wants to cancel, take advantage of the Cruise with Confidence policy and make adjustments based on their booking right now,” he said. “For me personally, I would hold on to my booking and let the cruise line actually cancel it, but everybody has a different approach.”
Also on the minds of participating agents yesterday was the Celebrity Constellation, which was scheduled to go into service earlier this year following a complete revitalization. But due to a shipyard shutdown in response to COVID-19, work has been put on hold indefinitely.
Said Ritzenthaler: “We’re working right now with the shipyard on when they’re going to reopen so that we can get Constellation revitalized, as well as the other ships that were supposed to out this year and next. I don’t have a timeline yet but even though it may be slightly delayed, we are still committed to get it done and we will communicate with all of you as soon as we have firm dates.”
WHAT ABOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE?
When asked by one agent how Celebrity plans to accommodate Canadian travellers with regard to travel insurance, Ritzenthaler said it’s currently in the works.
“We haven’t had insurance out of Canada for years, it never really bubbled up to be a super big issue until now,” she said. “There were rules and implications with the provider we use for other parts of the world, which meant we couldn’t use in Canada but we can no longer have that as an excuse.”
Brooks, who leads marketing and sales in Canada, is working with his Canadian team to “get you guys travel insurance,” added Ritzenthaler. “It’s one of the top five priorities for him, and we’re going to support him to make that happen.”
FOR AGENTS ONLY
For agents, Celebrity is protecting commissions on bookings paid in full and final. Lane assured that “whatever commission level you are at right now, for the next two and a half years you will stay at that level, until the end of 2022.” Plus, because “loyalty is big to us,” Celebrity is doubling agent loyalty points “so you get 1,000 instead of 500.”
With capacity being reduced in the short-term, agents are being promised more opportunities to experience a Celebrity cruise for themselves at reduced rates. Said Ritzenthaler: “It’s a win-win. Many times we’ve wanted all of you on our ships but they’re always so full that we didn’t always have the opportunity to put you on the ship. Now, we really need you to be on the ships so you can see the protocols we’ve made. One of our big strategies when we resume service is to get as many of you on our ships as possible.”
On Celebrity’s social media platforms, agents are being encouraged to stay engaged and remain positive with weekly photo contests conducted by sales managers. Featuring a new theme each week, the current contest encourages agents to submit photos of their favourite Celebrity destinations.
Added Lane: “We’ve always been with the trade, we’ve always been with travel advisors ever since our company’s existence, since all of us have been in our positions,” said Lane. “We really feel that we’ve conveyed that recently. If we’re going to tell you how much we love you, we’ve got to show it to you.”