The Voice of the Cruise Industry

Coronavirus comment: “This is not an easy time to be a cruise agent”

travel agents report increase in new customers

Travel agents have acknowledged the challenges they face selling cruises in the current climate given the ongoing situation with the coronavirus outbreak.

New cases of coronavirus on cruise ships are being reported weekly, the latest being Grand Princess, which was quarantined off the coast of California as 21 people, including 19 crew and two passengers, tested positive, and Fred Olsen’s Braemar, on which five people have tested positive.

These reported cases have naturally led to passengers being concerned about travelling and booking cruises.

Of course, this is not the first emergency situation the cruise industry has had to deal with and history has shown that it has always managed to triumph in the face of adversity, as managing director of Bolsover Cruise Club, Michael Wilson, highlights.

Coronavirus Fred Olsen Braemer: cruise
Fred Olsen’s Braemar has become the latest ship to be hit by the virus

“Obviously, this is a tricky time for travel,” he said.

“In fact, despite over 40 years in cruise myself, having seen volcanic ash clouds, airlines come and go and many other crises, I can’t remember an issue like coronavirus.

“However, cruise is a flexible and dynamic part of the travel industry and I’m positive we’ll continue to respond to the changing environment, as we have done for almost 50 years, in a proactive and thoughtful manner.”

Having been founded almost 50 years ago, Bolsover has dealt with “adverse situations” in the past and as such, is well-adept at responding to such crises.

The company has therefore secured refunds or, in some cases, alternative cruise holidays, for hundreds of its Cruise Club members and “will continue to do so as the situation changes”.

“Our top priority is the safety, health and comfort of our guests so we’re working closely with all our cruise line partners to ensure this,” said Wilson.

Along with this, the company is also putting plans in motion in case its staff have to work from home.

“We are also putting in place extensive plans for our call centre and customer-facing premises so we can continue to support customers in the event we need to run with a skeleton crew,” said Wilson.

Cruise specialist at GoCruise James Hill has also acknowledged that times are tough.

“It is not an easy time to be a cruise agent as we are dealing with an ever-changing situation with, as yet at the beginning of March, no resolution,” he said.

Coronavirus cruise, Diamond Princess, Princess Cruises
Passengers on board Diamond Princess were quarantined for two weeks

“Many cruise agents are commission-only, which makes the current time of increasing financial concern.”

With new enquiries being conspicuous by their absence, now the focus for travel agents is dealing with bookings where the cruise lines have cancelled sailings and are redeploying ships, and with clients receiving future cruise credits, “the key is rebooking to preserve commission and future earnings”, says Hill.

For Hill, it is imperative that travel agents know of and can offer as many flexible alternatives to customers as possible in order to secure bookings.

“In the instances where refunds are being made, cruise agents may need to offer land as well as other cruise alternatives, which may well be out of their knowledge and comfort zone.

“Where agents have booked travel arrangements independently of the cruise lines, there are flights, hotels and transfers to be cancelled and rebooked – for many agents, this may be the first time they have faced the real problems of self-packaging.”

Along with offering new arrangements, travel agents also need to “chase quotes” that have been given to customers and in some cases, reassure them that they will able to cancel if needs be thanks to cruise lines’ relaxed cancellation policies.

According to Hill, the biggest concern from clients is not the prospect of being ill, but the fear of being quarantined on board the ship, like the passengers onboard Diamond Princess last month.

Coronavirus travel insurance: travel advice
Clients need to check what their travel insurance covers

“By and large, it is not the fear of being ill, but the worry of being quarantined abroad, unable to return home with all the problems that being ‘stranded’ away from home come with.”

He adds: “Explaining that travel insurance will probably not cover such cancellations is not easy.”

Therefore, Hill believes that those suppliers who “protect commissions and ‘look after’ their loyal agents now may well win supporters for life”, while commission-only agents “may well be beginning to re-examine their financial commitments over the coming weeks”.

While agreeing that this is a “worrying time” for those in the cruise sector, cruise sales manager Lee Ashton stresses that the team at Cruise1st is still managing to secure bookings, particularly from seasoned cruisers looking for bargains.

“We are still getting bookings and we are finding they are from people who have cruised before, so more from experienced cruises who understand and know a bargain when they see one,” he said.

“Some of the pricing we have out there at the moment is amazing, and won’t be available at these prices again once things get back to normal.”

In spite of growing concerns, Ashton is confident that the cruise sector is “resilient” and “will bounce back”.

Meanwhile, both Tui and Hays Travel have said that they are continuing to closely monitor the situations on outbreaks of covid-19 around the world.

Tui Group is currently operating as planned and normal booking conditions for amendments and cancellations apply, but should the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice change and advice against travel to a destination, customers have the choice of a range of options, including an amendment or full refund. For Tui, “putting the safety and wellbeing of customers and staff” is its “highest priority”.

Tui recently announced that it is planning a recruitment freeze, the postponement of non-critical projects and a cut in administration costs due to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on its travel bookings.

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