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Even from home-based operations, travel agents are key industry advocates
6:58 p.m. EDT, May 12, 2012
Four months after the Costa Concordia tragedy, travel agents say they're seeing more demand for their expertise as travelers return for guidance on cruise purchases.
Cruise agents were on the front lines assuring consumers of cruising's overall safety after the Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy Jan. 13, killing 32 people, cruise industry officials said.
Two of the largest home-based franchise cruise agent networks are headquartered in Broward County : CruiseOne of Fort Lauderdale and Cruise Planners/American Express of Coral Springs .
Sandra Cunningham of CruiseOne in Boynton Beach said she's getting more questions about ships and amenities as customers who used to do their own research on cruise vacations are "swinging back."
"They want the personal touch and are more comfortable dealing with a human being," she said.
Others, like Bob Zweig, a Cruise Planners travel agent in Cooper City , say business has boomed since the incident, aided by an increase in customer referrals.
Industry officials say that despite the perception of a declining travel agency industry, advisers are still important for people shopping for cruises. They're responsible for a large percentage of cruise sales despite shifting consumer behavior and a growing presence of online booking alternatives.
"There's never been a greater need for a travel adviser, with the huge variety of cruise lines, ships, features, destinations and, of course, values," said Vicky Garcia, Cruise Planners' executive vice president of sales and marketing.
Besides their dependence on travel agents to fill ships, cruise lines also rely on them as industry advocates.
"I could not imagine a cruise industry without the travel agent," Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises (USA) Inc., told travel agents last month at the Cruise Lines International Association Cruise3Sixty conference in Fort Lauderdale. "We need your business; we need your Pied Piper support."
Sasso said travel agents are always going to be the dominant place where cruise sales take place.
"Travel agents have never gone away; they may not be on every street corner as they once were, but they're working smarter and from home to keep costs down," said Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager of CruiseOne.
CruiseOne has more than 750 franchise locations nationwide, the majority home-based.
Wall said consumers really want to talk to a travel adviser who knows the cruise lines and their ships, amenities and ports of call to help determine the best vacation fit. Their insider knowledge of deals and how they can be combined for maximum savings benefits the consumer.
Nationally, the travel agency industry accounted for almost $95 billion in travel sales in 2011, or one-third of all travel sold, including 68 percent of all cruises and 45 percent of airline tickets, according to a new report from travel industry researcher PhoCusWright.
Cruise Planners has more than 800 franchised cruise agents nationwide.
"They [cruise lines] know they can't do without us," Zweig said. "But every now and then they have to reaffirm their commitment to travel agents verbally."
That point was echoed by several cruise line heads at the industry conference.
Dan Hanrahan, president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises , outlined key reasons why cruise lines favor travel agents.
Not only do consumers want travel agents, they're a force of more than 100,000 who are "out there telling our story," Hanrahan said. "We could never do that."
Travel agents also have successfully built up a client base over the years that cruise lines are able to tap into. Those customers help promote cruising to family, friends and others on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter .
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