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An Interview with Denis Lim & Blaine Lambert, Cruise Experts Travel
Here on From the Deck Chair, I like to focus on cruise ships and itineraries themselves. After all, there’s an astonishing wealth of ships out there that are just waiting to be explored, all of which call on destinations near and far, exotic and common. It may sound contrived, but it’s true: there is a ship and destination for everyone.
But I’m also fascinated by the business of cruising, because make no mistake about it: the cruise industry is an enormous, thriving, ever-changing segment of the travel market. And few know that market better than Denis Lim and Blaine Lambert, Cruise Experts Travel’s President and Chief Operating Officer, respectively.
In their daily roles, Denis and Blaine deal with cruises each and every day. They’re cruise fanatics. But their involvement goes beyond what you or I might experience: as one of Vancouver’s most successful travel agencies, Cruise Experts Travel specializes in cruising – and that means they have a first-hand look at what the current trends in the industry are. After all, the numbers don’t like: most people are cruising now than compared to a decade ago.
This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Denis and Blaine to learn about the trends in the industry, how their company has evolved, and how they’ve managed to stay competitive in an industry that is constantly changing, and how they – like myself, and like everyone reading this blog – got hooked on this fantastic mode of travel.
FTDC: Before we start, I have to ask: how did you both get hooked on cruising?
Blaine: I actually had no interest in cruising whatsoever in the beginning. I thought cruising was for older people and there was nothing to do onboard but eat. It was not until I actually was involved with the agency that I went on my first cruise and realized how much fun a cruise could be. I later learned that there is a huge variation in the experiences our preferred cruise line partners’ offer. There is literally a cruise for every individual out there catering to a wide variety of taste and adventure!
Denis: I have loved ships since I was a small child. I remember going on drives with my parents and as we drove past the harbour I would see the tall masts and funnels of the many ships in port. I would imagine sailing on them to exciting and exotic locales. The dream was born! After taking several cruises in my adulthood, I decided that this was a very pleasant business to be in. I love the product and I love traveling. That is how I got into this exciting business!
FTDC: How has booking travel changed since the advent of the internet?
Denis: Cruisers have more options than ever before to book travel. This keeps us on our toes ensuring we never take any client for granted and always do our best to offer a great price along with service excellence.
Blaine: People now have access to a lot more information online. If an agent does not know their trade it becomes obvious to the consumer fairly quickly. Our advantage is that as we are so specialized, our team really does know their stuff and can offer a lot of extra information that may not readily available on the internet.
FTDC: What are some of the benefits to booking with an agency as opposed to directly booking with the cruise line or through an internet reseller?
Denis: Well, the first reason is service. When you deal with us you have your own friendly agent. All our agents are well trained and customer service focused. They are motivated to match you with your ideal cruise vacation. If you deal directly with a cruise line or internet reseller, each time you contact them you get assigned randomly to one of their call center staff. There is not the same opportunity to get to know you and what is important to you on your vacation.
Blaine: People often think they can save money by booking direct with the cruise line. This is simply not true. As a larger cruise seller we often get preferential pricing over less specialized agencies or full service travel agencies. Agency agreements with our cruise line partner are that they cannot offer a lower price than any of their travel agent partners. Therefore with our volume and specialization advantages you can actually get a better price or booking extras you could not get with the cruise line.
FTDC: What does Cruise Experts Travel offer that others may not?
Denis: We are true experts in cruising. Since we specialize in vacations around cruises are agents really know their cruise lines, the ships and the itineraries they sail. Anyone can book a cruise but using one of our experts we will ensure we put our client into that perfect stateroom and not the one under the pool deck or the promenade deck where people are up late having fun.
Secondly as we are a large agency focused on cruising, we are a top producer with all our preferred cruise line partners which allows us pricing and amenities that most agencies would not be able to offer.
Thirdly we are able to offer the complete experience. While most agencies can book their clients’ air tickets, a service which we also offer, we are unique in having our own shore excursion division with staff that specialize in planning out those shore side activities. As we have our own contracts with these shore excursion operators we can offer a better quality experience often at a lower price than booking with the cruise line directly.
FTDC: How hard is it to innovate when consumers have access to so much information online?
Blaine: Well, the interesting thing with travel is you need to be innovating continuously to stay competitive and deliver what our clients expect. We have always been a forward thinking agency and using technology whenever possible to improve productivity and or customer service.
Denis: Our cruise experts travel constantly on their vacations. They actually cruise on the ships that they sell cruises on and visit exotic ports of call so they can recommend restaurants, hotels or “must see” sights to their clients.
FTDC: There is an interesting mix of new ships coming on-line next year that includes both megaliners like Norwegian Breakaway and smaller ships like Compagnie du Ponant’s sleek Le Soleal. Is there a reason to choose one over the other?
Denis: Ships are getting larger with more incredible onboard amenities to “wow” their guests. The new breed of super liners in service today offer a vast choice of accommodations to fit every budget, a host of onboard activities to satisfy all ages and multiple restaurants onboard so cruisers never get tired of the cuisine. These super liners are truly large floating resorts that move from port to port.
But many guests favour a more intimate vacation experience and may prefer a smaller ship accommodating several hundred pampered guests versus thousands on the super liners.
These smaller ships may lack the “wow” factors of their larger sisters but instead offer a higher standard of food and service. Some ships provide all suite accommodations with large private verandahs which are perfect for spending time reading a good book with a glass of your favourite beverage in hand. These smaller ships can also dock in the smaller, less visited exotic ports that the big ships cannot call in. While the per diem cost may be higher on the smaller ships, many guests are willing to pay for this more exclusive experience.
FTDC: You deal with cruise bookings every day. What are some of the trends you’re seeing?
Denis: River cruising in Europe is huge! Cruise packages including pre or post hotel stays with included air are popular as many travellers prefer an all- inclusive vacation. Cruises to exotic destinations like South America, Asia and Australia/New Zealand are growing in popularity as prices go down and more and more baby boomers are retiring and have the time and money to spend on themselves.
FTDC: How has Cruise Experts Travel evolved since its inception?
Denis: When looking at the organization today I barely recognize the company I started back in 1995. We were a small cruise-only agency at the beginning. There were two of us in the office working six days a week with a couple of outside agents. We only sold cruises without air or hotel packages. Today we are one of the larger cruise sellers in Canada. We are a full service agency that can look after our clients’ air and hotel reservations and also plan out their daily shore excursion activities during their cruise. We have grown from a two person agency to an award winning agency with thirty staff operating out of our wholly owned 6,600 sq. ft. head office in Vancouver.
FTDC: I am really excited about hosting one of your exclusive Alaska CruiseTour packages this coming July. Since you began developing them, they’ve been quite successful. Why do you think consumers have really responded to this type of cruise package?
Denis: People are busy and when they go on a vacation they want to ensure they have a great time. Our Cruise tours are all about providing a high quality experience for a very good value. We don’t want you to miss out. All our tours include local guides and one of our staff to ensure everything goes perfectly.
FTDC: What’s on the horizon for Cruise Experts Travel?
Denis: For 2013 we have tripled our Cruise Tour program. In Alaska we have more dates and itinerary options. We have added two exciting Europe Cruise Tour dates visiting the Baltic and the Mediterranean.
We are also launching two programs that directly impact our clients. The first is a loyalty program that will allow our agents to pamper returning guests with little welcome gifts in their staterooms. Secondly, we have a brand new referral program that will reward our clients for introducing new customers to us.
Learn more about Cruise Experts Travel by visiting their website or following them on Facebook and Twitter! From the Deck Chair will return Monday with exciting details of our next Live Voyage Report, which begins in just a few short weeks!
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