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Do you use search engines for your shore excursions?

August 18, 2009

This article interested me quite a bit! I’m sure you will like it too.

Don’t Google the Shorex!

By David Vass
Published on: August 18, 2009

Although cruise industry big wigs don’t like to admit it, they can be short sighted like the rest of us and slip into a false and misleading bottom-line mentality. Mandated profit margins can swim before their eyes and cloud their common sense. Sometimes this works against their best interests. It can work against the best interests of their passengers as well. Then there’s trouble.

Yes, stuff happens on the cruise supply side — and this same stuff can happen on the cruise seller’s side as well. What I’m suggesting here — rather sacrilegiously, I suppose — is that travel professionals and cruise passengers can be shortsighted as well. I’m going to use Google to illustrate this.

The ubiquitous search engine is indeed an exciting electronic tool for us to work and play with, but it’s not a revolutionary cruise concierge program by any stretch of the imagination. What I mean by that is that by using Google or another search engine to purchase shore-side activities, many things can go wrong. Let’s consider this from three points of view — that of the cruise line, that of the conscientious travel agents working hard to sell cruises, and that of the seasoned FIT travelers who make their own shore-side arrangements.

First, let’s look at the cruise lines. Some cruise line shore excursion planners are intent on seeking out the most basic shore excursions and land programs they can find and then slapping on unrealistic, super-sized markups. To say there are pitfalls to this kind of thinking is an understatement. Such over-the-top prices drive many passengers as well as travel agents to what they perceive to be the new cruise travel concierge — the Internet search engine.

Now, let’s turn to the travel professionals. Frequently, in a misguided effort to help their clients save money, they find and sell bargain basement they find online to stretch dollars. But cheap seldom equates with good. Here are some pitfalls to this kind of short-sighted thinking that apply to both cruise suppliers and travel agents.

First, in an effort to circumvent what they believe to be the high prices of cruise line shore excursions that may displease clients, both suppliers and agents source unqualified operators — frequently mere bus companies that are not equipped to do a good job.

Second, some bus companies are not even allowed within the port. This can force passengers to take long hikes to locate their so-called guides and their transportation. It’s a bad start to what should be a wonderful shore side experience.

Third, sometimes the bus driver doubles as guide and has limited language skills. Again, this is not a favorable situation for cruise passengers.

Fourth, buses can be without air conditioning, sound systems, liability insurance or even adequate brakes.

Fifth, arrival and departure times can change and piers frequently change at the last minute. The bus sometimes winds up at the wrong cruise ship.

The worst case scenario to what I am outlining here is lost clients for both the agent and the cruise line. Their get up and go does just that – they get up and go to another cruise line or even to a land-based resort.

So what’s a good cruise line planner or a perceptive travel agent to do? Cruise line land program executives are, for the most part, seasoned and knowledgeable. But they are frequently pressured from the top of the executive food chain to increase the selling price of the onboard tour product while at the same time they themselves are pressuring responsible tour operators to decrease their profit margins.

This trend frequently results in a loss of sales for the cruise line as the passenger accepts the first, over-priced tour and then opts to cancel the remaining four or five. Instead, that passenger goes to the onboard Internet Café, and books tours directly online for the remaining ports at a less expensive price. This is dangerous to the passenger for the several reasons I cited above. As you can see this also is counterproductive for the cruise line since anticipated revenue is being lost at the very place where it is meant to be made — the point of sale.

Unfortunately, it is the quality tour operators that suffer most. Already reduced to single-digit profit margins due to pressure from the cruise line, these responsible tour operators watch the preliminary participation numbers dwindle throughout the cruise. As passengers become disgruntled with the land experiences and cancel onboard tours, they leave the operators with guides, meals, admission tickets and transport that must still be paid. And, of course, it is the responsibility of the tour operator — not the cruise line — to pay for these costs..

As you can see from this scenario, everybody loses — that is except the bottom feeder tour “operator” who may, as I have outlined above, not have insurance or brakes. This operator stands at the port gate and scalps the cruise lines, the responsible tour operators, the travel agents and the passengers.

The solution is not a complicated one. It is to reduce the selling price of the onboard land programs, bringing them back to a realistic level, which will, in turn, increase participation numbers. That, in turn, will create by volume more profit and more commission for all involved. Only this will provide a safer, more creative passenger experience than the current trend toward the Internet as cruise concierge.

David Vass is vice president-worldwide cruise development and vice president-product research and development of Abercrombie & Kent, the destination management and luxury tour operator.

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