TORONTO — With many questions and concerns still lingering over cruising’s eventual restart, Ensemble Travel Group asked three agency owners about the future of cruising and how agents can best prepare for future bookings.
According to Ensemble, despite the recent news from Royal Caribbean and Celebrity about resumption of operations, “there are still so many questions about when cruising will fully restart.” So as part of its ‘Restart Sessions Video Series,’ Ensemble has released a new video focused on the restart of cruising.
Moderated by Gene Sloan, Cruise Editor for ‘The Points Guy,’ the video takes on a Q&A format with the following three agency owners: Megan Reimer, Owner of Cruise Vacations of Winnipeg; DeeAna Archer, Owner of Archer Luxury Travel in Texas; and Jeff Sturman, Owner of Best Cruises in New Jersey.
Here are some key takeaways from the panelists:
How have you been managing your business as well as your clients during the pandemic and the suspension of cruising?
Archer: I’ve really tried as best I can to remain positive knowing that travel and cruising will restart and encouraging my clients to book now so they have something to look forward to. Up until recently, we had stopped sending anything – offers, our newsletter, etc. People just didn’t want to hear about travel. But now things are insane and we are booking a lot of travel and our clients are traveling now. We are also selling a lot of domestic travel to high end hotels and resorts such as Four Seasons, St Regis and Ritz Carlton. I’m also selling a lot of Disney and Universal and have a lot of clients who just want to go and will go anywhere that’s open.
Reimer: In the early days of the pandemic, you couldn’t even say the “c” word – people didn’t want to hear about taking a cruise. But now with so many more people getting vaccinated and a sense that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we are seeing a lot of people interested in using their credits as well as new bookings. I also started a newsletter – but whenever I mentioned anything about travel, I got lots of opt-outs. So, I tried to just connect with clients on everything BUT travel. I’m starting to introduce some domestic travel ideas within Canada, and reminding people about using future travel credits. I’ve also been doing fun virtual events that have been very successful as a way to stay connected with clients.
Sturman: It’s been challenging. Up until a month ago, people didn’t want to hear from us. When we sent out offers, we got opt-outs instead. So, we used this time to really organize our business spending a lot of time cleaning up our database so that we can reconnect with clients who have traveled with us before and who we know are ready to sail again.
How do you think cruising will be different?
Reimer: We are all used to the new normal in our daily lives and cruising will be different for a while, too. Crystal for example is requiring proof of vaccination and others are likely to follow suit. I think that at least in the beginning with the first sailings, we’ll see a lot of safety and health protocols that will be reduced as time goes on and the numbers show that the virus has stopped spreading.
Sturman: Everything is changing in terms of how many people gather, be inside, etc. Things are always changing as we go through different phases of the pandemic. I think there will be strict protocols in the beginning on the first sailings, but that as time passes and the pandemic starts to fade, those will likely be slowly lifted.
Archer – I think there will be more emphasis on in-room or more semi-private experiences as people will look to be with fewer people or just the group that they’ve traveled with such as extended family or a group of friends.
What is your advice to clients who want to cruise again?
Reimer: Book now. Get your name on a list and put down a refundable deposit – there is literally no risk in doing so. But if you wait a year and think you’re going to get the cruise and cabin you want at the price you want, you’re going to be disappointed.
Sturman: We also have to be honest with our clients about what we don’t know.
Archer: I’m using this experience an opportunity to get clients cabins they never might normally get. We are booking a lot of our clients in suites with private pools, decks and experiences they can get right in their cabin so they don’t have to interact with other people if they don’t want to. I also have some clients double-booked. For example, they may really want to cruise, but more importantly, they just wanted to go somewhere if cruising doesn’t restart when they are ready to go. So, in many cases, we have a cruise booked AND a back-up land trip just in case.
What are your thoughts on how the U.S. and Canadian governments have handled their response to the suspension of cruise travel?
Reimer: We were certainly surprised that there would be no ships here until next year. But I think we’re just resigned to the fact that it’s out of our control. I also think that for some clients, there was a sense of relief that they didn’t have to make the decision themselves of whether or not to go.
Sturman: I believe you have to trust the science. It’s hard to get angry if this is what the experts think is necessary.
Archer: I think that if the cruise lines feel confident about their ability to sail safely, we should trust them to make those decisions. I also think that there are options that would and could make it safe. For example, just cruising to the cruise line’s private island with no other stops. It does seem as if the cruise lines are being more unfairly targeted than say airlines given that people are still flying – albeit with masks. I just think that there are ways that the ships can go out safely – even if it’s with fewer passengers or requiring a week between sailings.
Are you seeing increased interest in River Cruising or Smaller Ships?
Sturman: My ocean cruise clients are not necessarily interested in changing to river cruising, but we are seeing increased interest in moving to a smaller ocean ship experience. So, a lot of people might be moving from a Princess or Royal Caribbean to a Viking or Oceania cruise instead. We are also seeing people upgrade to suites as they haven’t traveled in a while and have been saving up and choosing to use that money to trade up for a cabin they may not have been able to afford.
Reimer: We are booking a lot of river cruises, but these are mainly people who have previously taken them. We, too, are also seeing a lot more interest in the smaller ships though. One significant change since the pandemic started is that I have not booked one inside cabin. Everyone wants a balcony or some kind of outdoor space.
Archer: Most of my clients are reluctant to book river cruises right now and it’s mainly because they are still concerned about the travel restrictions to Europe. We are seeing more interest in the Caribbean and Bahamas as people think they are more likely going to be able to get on one of those ships sooner. But even for those travelers who are sailing on the larger ships, we are focused more on the “ship within the ship” experience. So even if you are on a large ship, if you have a suite, you’ll have your own private area.
Are your clients ready to go now or do they want to see how it goes with those first sailings?
Archer: Now! I have a list that is pages long of people who want to be on the first cruise. They don’t care what they will have to do, even for those who are vaccine-reluctant will get it if it means they can take a cruise.
Sturman: It’s a little different here in the Northeast. Our clients – who skew a little older – really want to get away, but they aren’t ready to go now and are happy to wait until 2022.
Reimer: For Manitobans, I think they will wait a bit. While cruisers are the most loyal travelers, they just aren’t ready just yet – but we think things are going to be crazy in 2022.