Because the cruise industry sets its sights in the meetings and incentive market with renewed vigor, there are actually expanded opportunities for cruise-selling travel agents to reel in business clients.
“Corporate events and incentive travel represent a promising growth area for business cruising,” said Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association. “Two-thirds of travel companies report they will probably book a gathering or incentive cruise in the following one year,”
Unlike cruise meetings, incentive programs on cruise lines have a long-standing history. However the market has changed considerably in recent times, as has cruise ship design.
While more group and incentive travel are breaking to the incentive business, those that have long experience in the market caution that there are challenges for smaller players.
“The obstacles to entering the business can be a little higher with incentives,” said David Kliman, president from the Kliman Group, a meetings consultancy firm. “Big companies currently have deeply-embedded long lasting buyer-supplier relationships.”
Retail agents need to look at their portfolio of relationships, he advised.
“The incentives industry is very relationship-driven,” Kliman said. “Agents need to determine which services they could realistically provide to meeting professionals before they pick-up the phone to ask for business.”
Among travel agencies that have found success with incentives is Kathy Fitzgibbons who segued from the retail travel agency to Maritz Travel in St. Louis, the country’s largest incentive company.
She learned the business by working first with incentive “winners” who called straight into sign up for their company’s incentive programs. Eventually she worked her way around become Maritz’ Travel Buyer and Cruise Specialist, in the role of liaison with global cruise suppliers.
Fitzgibbons’ clients result from several industries. They range from the financial and automobile sectors, plus the direct-sell market, such as Avon. Her average group size is 200 guests, but she recently blocked 600 cabins for an incentive event over a Mediterranean cruise.
Once aboard the ship, incentive programs run the gamut from casual towards the meetings-intense. Nevertheless they all share a common feature: participants have worked hard for the trip.
“It’s exciting for someone to understand their reward is to go on a cruise,” Fitzgibbons said. “Usually, when the spouses learn a cruise is involved, they really apply the strain to win.”
Because cruising generally has yet to bring in more than 20% of North American travelers, there is certainly a lot of possible ways to grow the incentive market, Fitzgibbons noted.
“I attempt to incorporate cruises whenever feasible whenever we are generating a proposal for any client,” she said. “Sometimes, the business has not yet even considered it a chance.”
Value and diversity are top selling points for cruise ship venues, she added.
The lion’s share of her incentive programs occur in the Caribbean or Alaska, Fitzgibbons said, adding how the Mediterranean has seen resurgence and the Adriatic is specially hot.
River cruising is also attracting the incentive market, according to Fitzgibbons.
“In the 1990s we did a great deal of river cruises, although the business went away,” she said. “Now, new vessels are launched with lots of balconies, wi-fi, even alternate 49dexqpky venues. And, the ships stop whatsoever the little towns along the Danube, which can be obviously something that larger ships don’t do.”
Agents considering cruise incentive sales should remember that travel is only one piece of this business. Top firms offer full-service solutions that include creating and monitoring the underlying sales incentive programs.
Successful incentive planning involves overseeing activities both on / off the ship.
“We work tirelessly to produce exclusive group experiences on shore excursions,” said Fitzgibbons. “We can perform that because of our strong relationships using the top ground suppliers. We’re constantly trying to provide that ‘wow’ factor.”