As the summer season rolls around you will, as I predicted, find that most luxury cruise ships are full or nearly so. The problem is, of course, that while the cruise lines are claiming record numbers of bookings and seek to convert their new clientèle into regular guests aboard their ships, there are a good number of these guests that are there for one reason, and only one reason: THE PRICE.
There is a sort of shark mentality that exists with many cruises and, even though it may sound distasteful, especially those focused on the mass market and premium lines. You grab what you can for the least money and leave the rest to waste. It has nothing to do with building and maintaining relationships or appreciation of value.
This mentality is based, in large part, upon what the “order taker” type travel agents and internet megasites have trained the general cruising public to do. The issue is price…and pretty much only price. Is there a $50 onboard credit? Will you beat the price by $75.00? Sorry you put all the work in, but X agency gave me a free upgrade (though it doesn’t matter that Category 4 and 5 cabins are virtually identical…I mean it is a “free” upgrade).
On the business side of things, many of those very same travel agencies are crying the blues or are out of business because they were so cut throat that they trained their clients to demand even more when the bookings got light. There was no loyalty. What there was were/are comments like, “Joe, I know I have used you for years, but I am sure you can understand with the economy and all, it is about my money.” In other words, it is not about the hundreds or thousands Joe saved the same client over the years, or making sure the client was in the best cabins available, or got him upgrades or amenities gratis. Loyalty in an overpopulated business with high demand can be fleeting – it is about today’s bottom line. And Joe, the travel agent, had no where to go because he can no longer afford to virtually give away cruises and hope for some benefit down the road.
In the end, the client leaves Joe and gets what he/she wants: THE LOWEST PRICE. But, and it is a big “but”, then the questions arise about the cruise, where to stay, what to see, and then, even moreso, problems arise. Those cut rate travel agencies almost never provide that kind of support. How could they afford to? They just gave away the majority of their slim profits to get the booking.
And this is where it gets ugly…and I fear it will get uglier.
In comes a luxury travel agent who focuses on luxury cruises. Here, the price is important, but more than price is “service, service and service“. The luxury cruising client wants, and demands, service over and above the price. They drive a hard bargain and expect a discount, but they see value in the service and in mutual loyalty so they are willing to pay a bit more than the cheapest price because they understand the value in having someone focusing on their desires beyond the price of the cruise and see the value in knowing their travel agent will give them solid advice for their next cruise and will be there to address their questions and resolve their problems.
So now the mass market or premium market clients – and I am speaking of the ones who have been “trained” to be sharks…which most certainly is not all new to luxury clients – find themselves engaging in the “accepted” shark practices using a luxury travel agent who doesn’t focus on the mass market because of his/her disdain for such tactics nor the concept of “love ’em and leave ’em” clients. There is a conflict just waiting to happen because the luxury cruise lines have signaled that the shark mentality is perfectly acceptable through their efforts to attract the mass market cruiser to the luxury market.
Years ago a wonderful person said, “If you sell a cruise for $399 the passenger will expect a white gloved assistant meeting them at the bottom of gangway and the captain, holding their glass of champagne, waiting for them at the top. They will never get it. If you sell a cruise for $3,999 the guest will expect none of it, but get it all.” The problem: Now you have the mass market passenger with huge expectations entering into an unfamiliar, but idealized, world of luxury cruising. Now they are paying thousands rather than hundreds and if they expected it all at the lower price…WATCH OUT!
I have personally witnessed the overindulgence stemming from the open bar policies. The grotesque consumption of huge quantities of caviar. The unreasonable demands because it is “all inclusive”. The seeking for ways to justify that mass market line X is just as good as luxury line Y and insisting it be an issue of “This ain’t worth it. I want my money back.”
Now, to be fair, any client can do whatever they want. It is their money and their decision. But, alas, the payment of a small commission earned over literally a year there is, in my opinion, only so much a travel agent must do. While I firmly believe in “The customer is always right” I do believe that there must be a purpose to supporting this philosophy and when the expectations are unrealistic or the complaint is not legitimate going to bat for the disgruntled client may not be the thing to do…especially if the client is going to leave you for the lowest price or a mass market cruise because the luxury cruise prices have risen.
What well and truly baffles me is the idea by some in the luxury cruise business that there will be a wealth of new clients that will fill their ships for years to come. The luxury lines need to find a way to undo their acceptance and encouragement of the shark mentality. Personally I would have preferred ships sailing at lower occupancy with higher rates even though that might well reduce my 2009 income because I think my income and the quality of my business for 2010 and beyond would have been better off.
In fact, just today I had a voicemail from a potential new client who was angered because his observations of just what I am speaking of were dismissed as not possible. He was there. He observed them. It is, for heavens sake, his cruise! And to be told that the “party line” consistent with the propaganda must be held is just unacceptable. That luxury client had the loyalty for the travel agent, but the travel agent obviously felt his/her loyalty was to the marketing department of the cruise line; not the client.
So I know there will be some converts from the premium markets to the luxury market (How can I ever go back to not having X?), but I am concerned that with “Fins to the left and Fins to the right” it isn’t all going to be Margaritaville over the next months as the new guests find their footing and the luxury cruise lines try to hold the line. What is hoped, and I believe will be successful on some luxury lines (but not all), is that the longtime, loyal, guests are not caught in between the two.