Recommend’s editor-in-chief, Paloma Villaverde de Rico, recently had the opportunity to talk with Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager of CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. Founded in 1992 and based in Fort Lauderdale, CruiseOne is a home-based franchise travel agent network, while Cruises Inc., which was founded in 1982 and also based in Fort Lauderdale, is a host agency. Both are members of CLIA.
Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): How are travel agents relevant in today’s world?
Dwain Wall (DW): Part of the challenge that we have in the industry is, unless you are 45 or 50 years or older, you don’t really know what a travel agent is. There are just not a lot of storefronts and, therefore, travel agents can be somewhat hidden, and that’s part of our job as a franchise organization to make sure we get the word out to consumers about the value that we bring. We really take that very seriously. We think about it a lot, both internally within the company, and we talk about it a lot on some of the boards that I sit on, including ASTA, as well as some of the cruise line advisory boards I sit on. We need to recruit younger people into the industry. Not only for that reason, but we need a healthy future work force. Part of our dilemma is educating and informing young people that this is a viable profession.
PVR: What do you think is at the core of the value of a travel agent?
DW: Travelers are very informed today; the Internet has really helped to educate and inform travelers, and that’s a good thing for us. Informed travelers are better travelers because they know what they want; they understand the value of what they are buying, and hopefully there are fewer surprises. The thing about the Internet is that you can basically make anything look good. You can make a dingy pool look like a resort pool with beautiful furniture around it, and you get there and it’s a chain link fence. So the value of travel agents is that we do the research; we visit many of the destinations we sell. We travel a lot; we travel because it’s our passion, and you get to the core of why most people are travel agents, and it almost always ends up being because they love to travel. They have a passion for it. And if you have a passion for travel, you are going to spend more time than the average consumer in terms of research, reading. We are professionals; we are paid to know this stuff and we need to have good, accurate information.
PVR: What does a company like yours bring to the table in terms of booking a cruise for a consumer who knows exactly what they want?
DW: If you are an experienced cruiser and you know that you love this ship, and you want to go on this particular ship, then there might be less value in working with a travel agent, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with a travel agent. Sure, you can book direct, but you are not getting the promotions we offer. Just at CruiseOne, alone, we will have funded over $350,000 in corporately-funded marketing and promotion programs for consumers that are offered by our agents. That’s everything from shipboard credits and pre-paid gratuities to free shore excursions. We just had a deal with Celebrity where we offered free beverage packages. You wouldn’t necessarily know about that if you book direct. I mean, you might hear that from a reservation agent at a cruise line, but more than likely you will not.
We educate our agents on that. We actually have a matrix that we update every day with all the offers, because there are so many offers out there, it’s almost impossible to keep up with as an individual. That matrix is online and our agents can literally pull it up and they can talk live with a customer about what’s out there. A lot of times a customer’s vacation choice will be driven by these promotions, because they are very valuable. In fact, people will sometimes move their vacation in order to take advantage of these things. For the consumer, value is everything. We don’t want consumers to call us and not be able to take advantage of offers, so we try and make our offers really broad, because we don’t ever want to look like a company that’s baiting and switching, if you will. We work very hard to make sure our agents are educated and informed about the offers we have—the ones we have and the ones the cruise lines are offering.
PVR: How do you work on informing your travel agents about all the tools they have available to them?
DW: We have a business center; it’s an Internet site. It’s basically their operating system. It offers everything from a customer relationship management tool to a booking engine to an accounting system, and they can read about offers from cruise lines there, or they can access the aforementioned matrix. We also do webinars (five or six a week). It could be a cruise line hosting it or a tour operator, the Funjets & A&Ks of the world, and a lot of them are live so that agents can ask questions, because it’s an opportunity to teach. The other thing we do is regional meetings—we do six or eight of those a year, and we choose the cities very carefully so that we can reach as many of our franchisees and travel agents as possible. We get upwards of 100 or sometimes more than 100 agents at these 2-day training sessions. We invite our partners to be there to present, and we have training programs that we present as well that covers everything from how to grow your business; how to reach customers; and how to use the marketing tools we have.
PVR: Can you tell me a little bit about home-based agents as part of your network.
DW: The majority of our network is home-based. That was a result of the airline commission cut that they did about 15 to 18 years ago. Travel agents couldn’t afford to be storefront in many cases because they really relied on these commissions to pay for their overhead, and it drove a lot of these agents to try and find different ways to do business. This is really how CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. was born—to help agents who needed licensing, so we provided contracts with suppliers, the training, the technology and the marketing tools. They get everything they had when they were storefront, and now they are just home-based. We are seeing a very interesting trend, though; it’s small, but consistent. More and more of our agents are going back to storefronts.
PVR: Tell me a little bit about how the company recruits veterans and why they actively pursue veterans as well as educators.
DW: For a system our size, we have a significant number of veterans in our system, and we pay particular attention to recruitment of veterans. We think it’s the right thing to do, of course, but also they make very good agents. What we found when we did our research of our very best agents, is that the best agents are those who came from backgrounds like education, such as teachers, nurses, military—areas where they recognize and understand the importance of education, and recognize and understand the importance of consistency, and most importantly, they like people; they care about people. If you think about the thing that’s the common denominator among all those careers, it’s that they have to like people and care about people, or they wouldn’t be in that job.
PVR: According to my research, it says that 60 percent of your agents in the U.S. will now receive field marketing support, and the goal is 100 percent by next year. Can you tell me a little bit about the expansion of the field marketing team into the Northeast?
DW: A few years ago, we tested a thing called field marketing. It doesn’t sound like much when you say it like that, but what it is is our way of getting boots on the ground in the local market where our franchise owners and our agents live and work. The concept was that if we are out there with them, then we will be with them more often and we can help them be more successful in their marketing efforts. So we started it in Florida and Texas, and we measured everything we did. We partnered with local TV stations that are doing travel shows; we’ve done boat and auto shows; we’ve done special promotions, including in Texas, where we have a free parking promotion. In California, we provide gas cards, because consumers drive to the ports in that state; the same in Texas and the Gulf area, so we also provide the parking when they get to the port.
PVR: So in other words, there will always be someone there locally for the agents?
DW: Yes, that’s the point.