Battling back against direct cruise bookings

Charlie Funk

Beginning about 1998, a sea change occurred in the cruise industry (pun intended). That was when the percentage of all bookings that were made directly with the cruise lines began creeping upward. In 2000 and 2001, CLIA proudly proclaimed on its website that, on average, barely 10% of all bookings by member cruise lines were made directly.

By about 2010 or 2011, CLIA’s website showed that 30% of cruises were booked directly. Or, considered another way, direct bookings had tripled in a decade. Indeed, one of the largest cruise lines was booking 45% of its business directly. Two other cruise lines in the same category were at or near 30% direct.

And then CLIA stopped publishing the percentage of direct bookings or put the information way off to one side.

Analysis of data published over the years leads me to believe at least one line takes in excess of 60% of its bookings direct, while competitors are in the 35% range.

Why would anyone book direct when a travel professional is there to help them?

  • Belief that anyone can book a cruise if they point and click with a mouse.
  • Booking control. Many of those with whom I have spoken over the years want booking control or had a bad experience when they used a travel advisor.
  • Clients’ belief that they are saving fees that a travel advisor would charge.

Let’s analyze these reasons.

  • Point and click. It is easy to navigate modern website interfaces. Indeed, that’s true — if that were all that’s involved. I don’t have enough room for all the examples reported to me, but suffice it to say that many of those who thought that if they booked directly they would get the same level of information and advice they need about what to do in destinations, information on special restaurants, etc., have been sorely disappointed.
  • Booking control. It’s hard to argue with this one. All your explanations on superior knowledge and service are like water off a duck’s back if what the client wants is total control. And more than a few of them booked a prior cruise with an advisor who was merely an order taker who knew barely as much as the line’s call center representative. They are satisfied but don’t know what they’re missing.
  • Avoiding fees. Most agencies do not charge service fees, although the percentage is growing; this is the space in which we find ourselves. In most cases, direct booking saves zero dollars, and more often, the direct booker loses the additional amenities an advisor may offer.

A fellow contributor to Travel Weekly, Richard Turen, has devised what I believe is a useful response when someone asks, “Why should I book with you instead of direct?” He recommends telling them, “This supplier pays our agency a commission of x dollars to make and administer your booking. Please call them and ask to book direct. Then, after you’ve received a quote that’s exactly the same, to the penny, that I quoted, tell them you want a discount equal to my commission because you are doing all the work. When they don’t give you the discount, call me back and I’ll take care of it for you.”

There will be many who contact us who will not be swayed by the years of experience we have; our superior, often firsthand knowledge of a destination; and all those many wonderful things you can and will do for them. They don’t care!

But if you let them know how much it is costing them in their time and put a price on it, perspectives change.

It’s like this: Our suppliers are on record supporting the agency community. Perhaps if their call to action was, “For more information, contact your travel advisor, use our agency finder to find and an advisor or call (toll-free number)” instead of the main call to action being to call the supplier, none of this would be necessary. 

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