Expedia Cruises franchise owner tells it like it is: “This is the age of the travel professional”
Greg Schulze, SVP Transport and Cruise, Expedia Group, June 15, 2021

Expedia Cruises franchise owner tells it like it is: “This is the age of the travel professional”

TORONTO — Longer duration cruises. Higher per cabin spend. A spike in bookings for world cruises.

Expedia Cruises franchise owner Kyle Matheson, based in Richmond, B.C., says he’s seen it all and more at his travel agency in recent weeks as Canadians’ interest in booking travel finally begins to take off again.

Normally the cruises we’re booking are seven and a half nights, on average. Now they’re 11+ nights. Trip transaction is up 100%. Clients are booking further out. And while it used to be just Mom and Dad booking a cruise, now they’re bringing the kids and other family members. People are really looking to celebrate travel,” said Matheson at the Expedia Cruises 2021 Virtual Conference, taking place this week.

Matheson added that the pandemic has truly underlined the role of travel agents as travel advisors, and travel consultants: “This is the age of the travel professional. We can truly become that trusted advisor that can walk them through a lifetime of travel.”

Matheson’s optimistic reports of rising booking levels are in line with overall Expedia Cruises trends shared by Ealeen Wong, Director, Strategy & Business Development, Expedia Group. “We’re seeing an uptick across all lines of business and points of sale,” Wong said during yesterday’s panel discussion. “People are eager to make up for lost time.”

That includes Expedia Cruises President Matthew Eichhorst. Opening the first day of the three-day virtual conference, Eichhorst, who is based in B.C., said: “Like you, I’ve been waiting for this moment for 15 long months.”

Eichhorst noted that while recovery levels vary across North America, the volume of enquiries is up on both sides of the border. Booking levels are soaring in the U.S., and interest is picking up in Canada too, especially now that a major hurdle – the hotel quarantine – will be eliminated starting in July for fully vaccinated returning Canadians.

Underscoring the theme of this week’s conference, ‘The Time is Now’, Eichhorst said Expedia Cruises is seizing the opportunities from the pandemic to move ahead with its goal of becoming the #1 cruise agency in North America. To do that, he says Expedia Cruises “wants to transform the way cruisers buy vacations”, with Expedia’s omnichannel strategy playing a major role.

According to Expedia’s research, 20% of cruisers book online, while 80% book with the help of a travel agent. “The need for travel advisors has never been greater,” he says, adding that at the same time Expedia Cruises “needs to have the best online customer experience in the industry.”

Eichhorst says he sees the return to travel and cruising playing out in 3 phases:

  • Recovery Period – As ships start to sail this summer and fall, the restart will be slow but steady. “Now is the time to increase engagement with clients,” he says. “Restart your marketing to the best of your ability, and in accordance with your cash flow. People do want to travel again, and FTCs are expiring. Get your clients booked before your competitor does.
  • Growth Period – Eichhorst says he believes cruise clients are ready for Wave 2022 promotions, and the industry should step up accordingly.
  • Performance Period – Over the next 18 months or so, heading into 2023, travel and cruising will really take off. “We will look back and feel this incredible sense of accomplishment,” says Eichhorst.

Expedia Cruises now has more than 300 franchises across North America. Over 2,000 attendees registered for this week’s virtual conference.

STATS & TRENDS

Here are the latest stats pulled from across Expedia Cruises’ network of agencies in Canada and the U.S. …

  • The average length of cruise bookings jumped from nine days in Q1 2019 to 11 days in Q1 2021, and the average spend per cabin has also increased by just over 100% for bookings in Q1 2021 compared with bookings in Q1 20191, showing a willingness from some cruise travelers to spend more on their cruise than pre-pandemic.
  • With US vaccination rates up and more relaxed travel restrictions, 44% of new bookings in Q1 in the US market were for 2021 departures, 20% of which are for this summer – people are demonstrating that they want to cruise again as soon as possible.
  • Newly released research also revealed that the desire to cruise spans different age groups too: although Millennials (53%) and Gen Zers (56%) are comparably comfortable with taking a cruise, Millennials (12%) are nearly twice as likely as Gen Zers (7%) to have booked a cruise for some time during the next six months.
  • New research also showed that despite travellers currently spending more per cabin, lower pricing matters more in cruise compared with other forms of travel in some markets. From research that looks at what travellers value the most when booking a trip, cruise travel was the only line of business where travelers from numerous countries ranked low pricing as the top value. Separately, younger generations tend to be thinking more about environmentally-friendly policies when thinking about cruises, most notably with Gen Z in North America ranking it jointly in the second spot after value.

TECHNOLOGY

Expedia Group executives also shared an increased focus on technology and a desire for its cruise business to become a leader in digital experience and content, in supply and transparent pricing, and in service and trip management, by taking full advantage of the company’s platform capabilities to support agents “and to serve travellers in the most efficient way possible.”

Expedia Cruises notes that its Cruise Search Results (CSR) tool, also known as the grid view, is a direct result of partners requesting a more agent-focused experience so they can more efficiently shop and compare cruises for their clients. The company says the tool has been highly successful since its launch this year. Agents can now share up to five cruise itineraries in one email with a few clicks.

Meanwhile a new ‘info site’ experience for cruise shoppers will be rolled out in the coming months. The page will provide customers with helpful information about what’s on board the ship, what is included in the cost of the cruise, and what kind of experiences travellers can have at each port of call.

There’s also an ongoing shift of franchisees and Vacation Consultants from Cruise Desk to Expedia Group Partner Central, the company’s technology platform for travel partners, which the company says makes it easier to efficiently search and shop for cruises, manage their clients through CRM systems, perform administrative tasks, create marketing collateral and run reports.

Expedia Cruises is also prioritizing its continued focus on its ‘omnichannel strategy’ to align Expedia Group’s online and offline cruise shopping experience, giving clients more options to purchase via their preferred method (in-store, mobile, web, or phone) and increasing visibility and conversion for cruise line partners on Expedia Group sites.

Ongoing sales training is underway to empower franchisees and Vacation Consultants to perform at their optimum, to restore confidence after a hiatus period for many, and to remove friction from the cruise search, book and trip management experience, says Eichhorst.

He notes that recent trainees who completed the Expedia Cruises’ Princess 3-Day-Sale training generated eight times more bookings during the Princess Cruises 3-Day-Sale this year than those who didn’t take the training.

“It is truly wonderful to have so many of our franchisees, Vacation Consultants and wider industry partners join us this week to discuss the future of cruise,” said Eichhorst. “The conference theme is ‘the time is now’ and we’ve never felt so much energy from our partners and travelers to return to cruising as soon as possible. Almost 70% of the conference attendees said in a pre-conference survey that the industry will be back to 2019 demand levels by the end of 2022, so there is great optimism. To get there, industry experts have highlighted the importance of data, technology and collaboration as the key to unlocking this growth, and at Expedia Cruises, we are committed to supporting our franchisees, Vacation Consultants and cruise partners throughout that journey.”