There was a time in history when nobody wanted to see a Viking ship come cruising into view. But now, contemporary Viking ships are cruising the majestic rivers of the world with ship loads of happy passengers and leaving in their wake, an army of satisfied travel agents who named Viking River Cruises the Best River Cruise Line in Recommend’s Readers’ Choice Awards for the fourth consecutive year.
This is a company, remember, whose own competitors lauded them a few years back for making the kind of marketing investments that brought river cruising into the forefront of international travel in the North American marketplace.
And, according to Joost Ouendag, v.p., product marketing, the company is still utilizing creative and innovative efforts to maintain its popularity within the travel agent community and driving more sales for both entities. And, when asked what it is the company is doing to be named Best River Cruising Company four years in a row, he says, “We put a great effort in. It’s kind of lame, but you have to leave it up to the clientele—in this case, the travel agents—to decide. I think we have a very active district sales management team in the field and we’re very competitive. And, let’s be honest, that’s a factor in all of this.”
Product knowledge and support is still another aspect of the business Ouendag feels is a major positive in agent relations, and the company has put a lot of resources and effort into making its call center as efficient and as helpful as possible when assisting agents with product and booking information.
“River cruising is still a fairly new product—that sounds a little strange because we’re all doing fairly well and it’s booming—but there’s still a lot of explaining to be done,” he says, “and I think what agents find is that we have an extremely knowledgeable call center by now, that really goes out of its way to answer whatever questions that come up.”
Still another aspect of the Viking marketing approach can be a little threatening to the travel agent—its direct marketing program—but again, it’s all in how you approach it. The company does not in any way try to compete with agents with its direct marketing, Ouendag points out. They see it more as a promotional effort to get the word out about the river cruise product in general and Viking River Cruises opportunities specifically. And it’s a philosophy they’ve been repeating to their travel agent partners for a number of years.
“I think what has also really helped in recent years is the message we’ve been putting out all along. The fact that we do direct marketing is not something that’s bad for the travel agent community, it’s good for the travel agent community. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to us how passengers arrive at our ships,” he argues. “We’re actually happy to be in cahoots with the travel agent because once they build up a certain amount of knowledge, it is a lot better for the client to have someone that they’re familiar with, that they trust, that they can be face-to-face with—that makes your booking.”
The product marketing executive freely admits a river cruise vacation is not the cheapest travel product out in the marketplace, despite the fact it does have many cost-saving elements in it. Still, the pricing on the product is such that this is not going to be an impulse buy on the Internet—this is the kind of product where they want to kick the tires, the customer wants to know about it and wants to get that information in person from a knowledgeable source and more importantly, a trusted source like the travel agent.
“It’s an investment. It’s not maybe as much as it was a few years ago but it’s still quite an investment. You’re not going to the corner store to buy fifty bucks worth of groceries and so it helps to have a certain relationship built in and it helps to have someone face-to-face,” Ouendag says. “We believe what we do with our direct marketing is to a very large degree, get people to take whatever it is that they receive in their mail and walk over to their travel agency. I think it’s a combination of things and I think the travel agent community has recognized that direct marketing is not a threat and that it’s very supportive of the travel agent community.”