For the fifth year in a row, Viking River Cruises has sailed into Recommend’s Readers’ Choice Awards as the Best River Cruise Line, boasting more than 20 itineraries on 19 ships on three continents with eight more ships totaling more than $250 million on order over the next three years, making it the largest river cruise company in the industry.
“It’s exciting. I can only say that we try so hard to be the best. But this kind of recognition just really helps us because you never know. Your passengers love you but the agents are tough and the competition is fierce. It never was before quite what it’s been the last couple of years,” enthuses Michele Saegesser, v.p. of sales for Viking River Cruises. “It’s such a great honor and we can’t thank you and your readers enough.”
One of the primary reasons, of course, is the line’s historical emphasis on effective marketing to both the marketplace and the trade itself, an emphasis that’s driven demand all across the river cruise industry itself, but no place more so than within the trade itself. “We’ve created a lot of marketing tools for agents to use to be effective,” Saegesser explains. “We’re the largest so we’re going to have a pool of agents that’s way bigger than anybody else and we’re preferred with so many consortia and they’ve been terrific about helping us getting the word out.”
Still, she adds, “I think the big word is consistency. We didn’t just go and market to the agents when the times got tough, we were just as aggressive when the times were great so that their support base is still there. They make a lot of money off of us, let’s face it—it’s over $1,000 in commission. This last year we rolled out no NCFs and we’re pretty proud of that message.” That consistency is just as important in the consumer arena, with frequent mailings and more importantly, including the agents and agency partners in that direct marketing effort. “Even when we mail out to their clients direct, on the part where the address is, it says your travel agent is, ‘ABC Travel’ and their phone number,” she says. “We’ve been doing that for about three years now and agents will say, ‘Oh, you’re mailing too much.’” But in the last 18 months, she says, “…and especially since that’s gone on the piece, we’ve had almost no complaints. They know it’s feeding business into the door.”
Viking takes pride in a sales approach that’s aggressive, innovative and, quite frankly, a little over the top, sometimes scaring off less-aggressive agents. “We’re not approaching agents in the same traditional matter. I have a theme around here that’s called ‘Rock the Boat,’ and even if they have to tip the boat upside down if need be,” she says. “I want the sales team to work with agents to really think bigger programs. We have a cruise night program where there are a few rules. We don’t want to do it in a travel agency, we want to do it in unique venues—whether it’s river boats or fondue restaurants, and we invite agents to invite their passengers that fit the profile of who we market to and we pay for the whole thing.” The result? “I’ve been doing an ROI sheet on these cruise nights and it’s really insane,” she says. “On a teeny one, we’re averaging $110,000 in bookings. This isn’t little stuff. We aim to keep our agents from going down the road of what the deal ones are, we’re looking at the longer cruises and that’s what we’re selling on these nights. We’re even challenging our agents to come up with something that really rocks our boat a bit.”