Where do you turn when a client wants a cruise that goes beyond the beach? by Charlotte Thomas
Cultural cruises fall into a wide spectrum. Some voyages – or excursions – simply scratch the surface. Others are full-on, with all tours included, a focus on offthe-beaten-track ports and an immersive lecture programme on board. How, as an agent, do you match the right client to the right cruise?
All cruises include an element of culture in what’s offered ashore. But you wouldn’t put a retired history professor looking to study the antiquities of the Mediterranean on a Carnival or Royal Caribbean cruise, any more than you’d suggest Swan Hellenic to people wanting beaches and party nights.
“I would say the biggest obstacle to selling cultural cruises would be the choices that are out there for a customer in terms of the number of cruise brands,” says Colin Wilson, group sales director, All Leisure Holidays, which includes Swan Hellenic, Voyages of Discovery and Hebridean Island Cruises in its portfolio. “Our on-road team carry out regular training with our agents and where relevant, we partner with the trade in joint marketing activities. These can be anything from producing posters for the high street shops to going on the road with our agent partners to speak to their customers about what it means to cruise with each of our brands, and how different we are to so many other cruise brands in terms of our niche offering.”
Get it right, Wilson says, and the rewards are good. “All three of our brands benefit from a high rate of repeat customers, currently averaging at 75%, which is good news for the travel agents that book with us.”
One of the lines most focused on selling cultural cruises is Voyages to Antiquity, which concentrates on unusual itineraries and a comprehensive speaker programme, as well as including all excursions in the price. Managing director Jos Dewing says a cultural cruise can be a good experience for first-time cruisers. “You’re selling the concept of the land element of a cruise. For customers more used to a land-based holiday than a cruise, selling a cultural voyage can be a way of blending the two.”
Agents should stress the benefits of a cultural cruise, including the line’s buying power that gives large groups access to top speakers and behind-the-scenes tours of popular venues. “A client can do things on a cultural cruise that they can’t do individually, like a private visit to San Marco in Venice, after hours,” says Dewing. “We offer all kinds of excursions like that – exclusive, private, different. We go to Greek islands where you won’t see another ship. We have guides who are real experts. Our guests feel as though they’re doing things others can’t.”
Something else to remember, Dewing adds, is that a cultural cruise can be a great solution for a single traveller. “Everybody has a sense of curiosity, of wanting to discover things. Everybody mingles; it’s in no way a lonely experience for a solo cruiser.”
The key, though, is the destination, which often leads the way in the client’s buying decision. “All of our cruises are destination-focused,” says Wilson. “We allow the customer to get right under the skin of a destination with the help of our expert guest speakers and local tour guides. Once an agent has found out the destination or destinations that a customer is looking to explore, it is then relatively easy to explain which of our three brands are going to be the perfect match.”
The Mediterranean and Asia are strong on history and culture based voyages. the Caribbean less so; but establish what the client means by ‘culture’; some may want to visit antiquities while others may want to learn more about food and wine.
River cruises offer a strong element of culture and all the luxury lines include excursions, which can mean a big cost saving. the most inclusive, such as Scenic and APT, offer a choice of activities. A river cruise is often the most comfortable way to experience the culture of a challenging destination, like China, or Myanmar.
remember that most cruise lines offer the option to book private guides – or book a car and driver direct. the forums on sites like CruiseCritic.co.uk are invaluable resources when looking for personal recommendations.
If a client is dead set on one particular museum, check that the itinerary falls on an opening day. For example, the Uffizi and the Accademia in Florence are closed on a Monday, as is the Picasso museum in Barcelona.
The best time to take a cultural cruise in the Med is off-season, when the crowds and the heat are more manageable.