“When travel advisors get on ships, they sell ships,” says Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly.
In travel trade circles, it’s no secret that firsthand experience is one of the most effective ways to become an expert in cruise travel – a market segment that, over the past year, has showed no signs of slowing down.
A lot can happen when a travel advisor boards a cruise ship and shares his or her experience with the world. For clients watching from afar, it’s a starting point that can lock in future bookings (at favourable rates), inspire groups and even catch the attention of travellers who’ve never cruised before.
Cruise is a seeing-is-believing business, and next week, an esteemed group of travel pros will experience the real deal with Norwegian Cruise Line at Symposium at Sea, TravelOnly’s annual conference that turns cruise ships into classrooms.
The cruise-centric event from Oct. 22-29, which PAX is covering exclusively on location, will sail from the skyscrapers of New York City to the pink sands of Bermuda, and back, on board the Norwegian Escape, a Breakaway Plus-class ship, built for 4,266 passengers, that debuted in 2015 and was refurbished in 2022.
It’s a good time to meet and strategize, said the head of TravelOnly as cruise sales continue to make waves. Big waves.
“Our cruise numbers are off the charts,” Gregory Luciani told PAX in a telephone interview ahead of the symposium. “These are exciting times. The cruise market in Canada is ripe and people are ready to get back on ships. We want to make sure we’re at the forefront.”
At this year’s Symposium, some 50 attendees are registered – a mix of new and experienced TravelOnly advisors, their guests, as well as all-star suppliers who will not only present, but will also make themselves available to agents in personalized, one-on-one settings.
Cruise travel, for several years now, has been a priority at TravelOnly, a family-owned-and-operated company that hosts associates across Canada.
In 2017, the host agency introduced “Cruise TravelOnly,” a niche brand that helps agents expand their ability to sell and earn higher commission on cruise products.
Associates that sign up can brand themselves as cruise specialists and, in turn, position themselves as a trusted source in the marketplace.
Cruise TravelOnly may have slowed during the pandemic years, but with travel’s rebound in full swing, and as consumers return to ships, “we have more cruise specialists than ever before,” Luciani shared.
“The cruise market is the fastest growing market for us, offering the highest profit margin,” he said.
Cruise travel deep dive
Symposium at Sea will offer a deep dive into sales strategies, cover the latest cruise (and land) trends, and connect TravelOnly associates with suppliers (and with each other) to share ideas and spur future growth.
Group bookings and leveraging business in the seniors’ market will be one particular focus, Luciani told PAX.
There will also be an emphasis on selling exotic cruises, such as voyages in French Polynesia, and blocking space out “as far as we can.”
The Symposium will explore other niche segments, too, such as destination weddings on ships, and the MICE market, where Luciani sees “major opportunities” as the demand for corporate and incentive-driven travel returns.
In addition to the training sessions, team-building activities and supplier dinners that will be held on board Norwegian Escape, excursions into Bermuda – a British island territory in the North Atlantic – will also take place.
Attendees will get to visit local attractions, such as Bermuda’s Crystal Caves and Aquarium, taste the local fare, and tour some glam hotels, from the St. Regis to the Rosewood.
All eyes on AI
Symposium at Sea unfolds just as TravelOnly makes waves in the world of artificial intelligence.
Luciani, for one, is looking forward to showcasing TravelOnly’s recently-unveiled AI Assistant tool, which the company says will “redefine the way travel advisors approach their business.”
Modelled after the natural language chatbot ChatGPT, the tool is a “content creator and itinerary builder that can create blog posts, social media feeds, and marketing plans with rich imagery and point-and-click prompts,” Luciani explained, noting that TravelOnly is the first host agency in Canada to launch technology quite like this.
Symposium attendees will get a crash course in how TravelOnly’s AI Assistant works.
“It’s very user friendly,” Luciani said. “It will save agents so much time.”
The CEO stressed that AI, which has been a topic of debate in recent months, isn’t meant to replace the travel advisor. (Our associates “are still the brains of the operation,” he said).
Artificial intelligence, rather, about working smarter, not harder, he said.
“If you’re not using AI, you will be behind in a year from now, and then further and further,” Luciani said.
Symposium at Sea, which lists Norwegian Cruise Line as a platinum sponsor, will also cover the latest in accounting processes, cyber security and social media marketing, such as YouTube.
Bold-faced names from Manulife, Viking, Goway Travel, AmaWaterways (gold sponsors) will also be on board, as will familiar faces from silver sponsors, which includes WestJet Vacations, Transat, Celestyal Cruises, Exoticca, Carnival, TravelBrands, and Riviera Boutique River Cruises.
“Growing from all sides”
TravelOnly, between internal hires and new talent joining the travel industry, has been “growing from all sides” over the past year, Luciani told PAX.
“We’re recruiting at a higher rate than last year, which is very exciting,” Luciani said. “These are people who weren’t in the travel industry before, and they’re bringing new ideas and clients.”
Some of the niche markets that have emerged from this trend include pet travel, Luciani said, as well as group bookings curated by professional wedding and event planners.
The latter “already know how to do groups,” Luciani said. “We just teach them how to sell travel and utilize their existing contacts.”
Thanks to a recently-redeveloped onboarding program, “We feel like we’ve reached a place where we can train virtually anybody,” Luciani added.
It’s a “sweet spot” where success is measured by sales numbers and performance.
“Agents are booking faster than in previously years,” Luciani said. “The conversation from joining to selling is insanely different. People are making money sooner, which makes them happier.”
“Suppliers need our support”
The conversation, however, still includes suppliers, and their ability to properly support travel advisors in a post-COVID world.
Luciani says service levels – wait times, especially – are still a pain point as some suppliers grapple with fulfillment issues, especially when it comes to helping agents book groups.
“There’s still so much frustration,” he said, stressing how important it is for suppliers to attend conferences, like Symposium at Sea, to ensure the “ongoing success of our industry and ecosystem.”
“The retail agent is, by far, the most stable and constant channel,” Luciani said. “Think about how long an agent works on file….it can be countless hours. Suppliers need our support.”
Luciani noted that TravelOnly is set to have “another record-breaking year.”
“And with that, we want suppliers to recognize how important it is to keep supporting the trade, versus going direct to consumer, because they don’t have the infrastructure to support it,” he said.
Advisors helping advisors
As for the advisors attending this year’s Symposium at Sea, Luciani’s expectation is that all participants block group space with the partners on board, and work back from 2026 to put marketing plans in place to ensure their groups are full.
There will be some top TravelOnly talent on board to help make it happen.
TravelOnly has a mentorship program that connects experienced and successful agents with new and rising stars within its network.
Several mentors will be at Symposium, assisting with training, and sharing processes that, in some cases, “have taken a decade to develop,” Luciani said.
For industry newcomers, it will be invaluable information.
“Once you have a process in place, your world becomes more familiar,” Luciani said. “It builds confidence.”
Stay tuned for PAX’s exclusive on-location coverage from TravelOnly’s 2023 Symposium at Sea aboard Norwegian Escape!