At the recent Cruise3Sixty, which took place in Vancouver last month, Recommend’s editor-in-chief, Paloma Villaverde de Rico, sat down with Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for TRAVELSAVERS, NEST and The Affluent Traveler Collection, to gain insight on how travel agents can have a leg up on their competition, and learn about the new goings-on at TRAVELSAVERS, which has a retail chain of more than 3,000 independently owned full service travel agencies in 30 countries. Here, in the first part of the 2-part interview, Mazza discusses the importance of travel agents, as well as the importance of joining consortiums such as TRAVELSAVERS. You can read about the company’s new offerings in next week’s Recommend Weekly.
Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): Inevitably, when I’m speaking with someone from the general public and I tell them what I do for a living, their first question to me is: ‘Are travel agents still relevant?’ How do you answer that question?
Nicole Mazza (NM): Absolutely. 100 percent they are. Travel agents today serve a very important role for consumers. Time, expertise and value are the three points as to why consumers should be using a travel agent. Certainly time. Who wants to research a vacation to try and figure out the perfect place for themselves and their family to go? Value. Travel agents add incredible value. Our agencies—TRAVELSAVERS and NEST—have access to thousands of offers and special discounted pricing that consumers won’t find on their own. Security; peace of mind. Making sure there is someone there to assist them if anything were to happen on their vacation or, for whatever reason, they needed to change their plans midstream while they were on vacation; they have the reassurance of having an expert behind them. Most of the time, a lot of our agencies will be very proactive. If a flight is being canceled, they will be on top of it, monitoring it; by the time the client calls they already have another hotel booked for them, another flight, all the transfers booked for them. So it’s peace of mind, reassurance, and first and foremost, the value.
PVR: So to pinpoint it to cruises specifically, if I want to go on an NCL cruise and I know exactly which itinerary I want, why should I go through a travel agent?
NM: Value. Again, travel agents have access to thousands of offers and value adds. They are going to know exactly where you want to be on that ship, as well. You are a honeymoon couple, so you want that quiet area; you are a sun lover, there are certain decks you are going to want to be on, where the balconies get the best sun. An agent will know those nuances of a ship. They will also take care of you prior to going—making sure your dining is all done, your shore excursions, what you are looking to do. My question would be, ‘Why wouldn’t you use a travel agent?’
PVR: What are the biggest challenges for travel agents right now, specifically in the cruise industry?
NM: I think exactly what we touched upon—the misconception: That a travel agent brings little value to the table, where, in fact, travel agents bring huge value to the table. Once a consumer uses a travel agent, a good travel agent, they will never leave, they truly don’t. They understand the value they are getting for their dollar. It’s getting more consumers to understand that value.
PVR: How should travel agents be thinking outside the box? How should they be getting those new clients through their door?
NM: It’s all about service. We spoke a lot yesterday about branding [during Cruise3Sixty’s General Session I]. They need to be passionate about what they are selling. They need to believe in what they are doing today in this industry because they are a huge asset to the consumer. They need to believe in that; they need to brand themselves and they need to network. They need to get out there; they need to speak about what they do in every circle they are in. The largest source of business for travel agents is referral. So do your job and do it well, do it extremely well and the referral business will come in.
PVR: How important are these types of consortiums for the travel agent community?
NM: Incredibly important. It’s crazy today for an agent to be independent, in our view. Just the marketing support we give, the branding support, the value offers, the assistance, the service, the training that we give to our agencies is incredible. At TRAVELSAVERS and NEST, there are a lot of different technologies. We are part of American Marketing Group, which is 19 different travel brands, so there are lots of resources at travel agents’ fingertips. If they want to start a new niche, we have a company that services that. We have 250 employees standing behind them every day, so they may be a 1- or 2-person shop, or a 5- or 6-person shop, but when you join a consortium like TRAVELSAVERS, or a home-based network like NEST, you have 250 employees immediately working for you. And what’s different about ours as well is that we stand behind the branding of our agencies. It’s not about branding TRAVELSAVERS. Our company was founded by an independent travel agent, who happens to be our father, so we truly believe in the independent travel agent, we work to build their brand for them. We are completely behind them. At NEST, we like to say, ‘It’s their business, we are just here to help them grow their business.’
PVR: What are some of the cruise trends you are seeing?
NM: Of course, Caribbean is always hot, as well as Alaska. We are seeing a large lift in the Hawaiian market as well as in South America and the exotics, Asia, Thailand, it’s a very hot market right now.
PVR: What about river cruises?
NM: Beyond… It’s insane.
PVR: Did you have an inkling that it would become so popular in Asia?
NM: It has to. Once you do the rivers in Europe…everybody starts on either the Danube, or the Rhone…. Those are your first. Kind of like ocean cruising: You start in the Caribbean and then you move to Alaska, then you move over to Europe. You start on the European rivers and then from there you get hooked on it; it’s such a phenomenal value, such a phenomenal cruise vacation, that you are going to look for other rivers. The world just doesn’t have enough rivers though, unfortunately, to handle the demand that is there.
PVR: Should travel agents be looking beyond the traditional demographics—55 and over—for their river cruise bookings? Say multigenerational families?
NM: It’s interesting to look at it. Quite a few river cruise companies are coming out with family sailings. Uniworld does it; AmaWaterways does it, so there are specific sailings. What’s going to happen though, unless you have a child who is well-traveled, loves culture, being on board on a standard river cruise is not going to be a good fit. Again, that’s where the travel agent comes in to guide their clients. Another thing is that on river cruises there are no connecting cabins, so you have to be careful because you’ll have to split between cabins that are on board. Kathryn [Mazza-Burney, executive v.p. of sales and service for TRAVELSAVERS and president of NEST] and I come from a very large family, and a unique angle that we are looking at is taking the smaller vessels out as a charter. Take the Avalon Visionary that came out last May; it’s perfect if you have families, because the whole lower deck features beautiful staterooms, but they don’t have balconies so they are perfect for children. So if we brought two nannies with us, you can have all the children downstairs and contained, and the adults can stay on the upper deck. It’s a large family reunion that would be perfect on a ship like that. There are a lot of different ways to look at multigenerational family bookings.
It’s fun with the family. Take a look at Ama and Avalon. They have some fun things that are taking place that will really keep the children entertained. They are changing some of their back lounges and putting Wii, Xbox, lots of movies and they are going to be doing lots of things at the back of the ship at night, because it’s usually at night where it gets quiet.
PVR: Why do you think so many travel agents focus on cruise bookings—the demand must be there, but why do you think it’s so popular with vacationers and travel agents?
NM: It’s a phenomenal vacation. The value that a cruise has to offer, especially for a family vacation. It’s an all-inclusive vacation. It’s easy. From an agent perspective, look at the product itself, look how much it’s expanded. There is so much to do on board for a family. It spans so many segments and so many demographics. You can find a cruise for any client that you have. Whether it’s taking my family on board, my parents love the Oceania Marina, for example, or if Kathryn and I are traveling with our husbands without the children, we love Celebrity. It’s young and hip.
Kathryn Mazza-Burney adds: There is also a lot of opportunity to earn if you sell cruises, if you upsell. If you take advantage of selling ancillary services such as the pre and post, in certain cases air. Everyone talks about the NCFs and there are quite a few non-commissionables, but if you sell it properly and you learn to upsell your client—and that’s by knowing your client—there’s a lot of money to still be made in cruising.
NM: The cruise lines also do a phenomenal job on the tools and resources they offer to the travel agent community. You see it here today, the different products and services. We also offer booking engines, different direct mail pieces, different tools and training on how to sell properly. The cruise lines are great partners with us on getting our agents trained properly and the tools they need to run their business.