With the biggest annual event in UK cruise, the 2019 CLIA Conference, fast approaching, we spoke to CLIA UK & Ireland Director Andy Harmer about all things cruise and travel. From what’s coming up at the conference, to where he thinks the industry is heading in the future, find out all about the industry from the King of Cruise himself.
Thanks so much for talking to us Andy!
(This is a pretty long read, but if you’d prefer to listen to the audio of the conversation you can do so at the bottom of the page, but please be aware that the quality isn’t great).
Damian: CLIA have invested a lot in the cruise experts website over the years, what would you say has been your key challenge of actually getting travel agents to log into it and use the resources?
Andy: I returned in November 2011 and it was clear that the website needed to be upgraded, so we did a big relaunch of cruise experts in 2012.
When I first joined the association in 2006, one of the first things that was clear about our association was that back then we didn’t have a proper functioning website, there was no online learning, and we had very little in the way of resources. It was really more of a notice board.
So my initial job was to decide that we were going to do an e-learning platform, and that we were going to invest in the website as a way of engaging our travel agent community. So there’s kind of been those two big releases; 2007 was the first release when we first started working online and then again in 2012, but we’ve invested every year because actually access to our online resources, events, and learning are major reasons why people are partners, and why people join to be part of us.
It’s like the bridge that they paint every year and never stop painting [the Forth Bridge], the people who work on websites now are never finished and never quite there, and then you always need to invest, and actually what’s happened since we relaunched in 2012 is that pace of investment and change in technology has been incredible.
So working with people like Widgety has been great because it means that we’re able to focus on what we’re very good at whilst relying on the information and the resources that you can provide. But I think you know, what’s interesting about being a cruise association is we talk a lot about how cruise lines are investing and have the best technology, and they do - they have incredible technology.
We were on MSC Bellissima and they have Zoe, there is the Ocean Medallion with Princess. We know that the cruise industry is very good at technology, so for us as a cruise association not to have good technology would kind of be a bit strange. So we keep making that investment, and will continue to make that investment because actually it’s the way that we really do work - we can communicate, engage and work with our travel agent members.
D: How do you make that work with the cruise lines who are increasingly spending huge amounts of money on their own online training portals? If I’m a member of CLIA and I want to know everything about a cruise line, do I move from cruiseexperts.com to Royal Caribbean?
A: That’s a really interesting question actually because we’re not experts in Royal Caribbean (as an example) or P&O. The cruise lines know their product, ships, destinations, ports better than anybody else and we don’t pretend to have that level of expertise, so I like to think that our learning and resources are complementary.
Our e-learning platform is really about sales technique, it’s about what the onboard experience is like generally for people who have never cruised before, and it’s about the destinations and experiences that you can get ashore. This means that the cruise lines can then focus on their products; ships, activities, entertainment, dining etc.
So I’d like to think we’re complementary to them rather than having to compete with them, and I think that the other important difference is that we are accredited by City & Guilds which means that we are a vocational qualification, and that means that we have to train in a different way than commercial organisations such as cruise lines who are trying to talk about their brand.
D: Does that City & Guilds qualification allow a person working as a travel agent to have a qualification they can take with them throughout their career?
A: Yeah it does. So we’re the only travel agent training program certified by City and Guilds which means that people, once they reach that first level of accreditation with us by working three versions of opportunity, have a City and Guilds recognised qualification. Then they can take that to different employers, to their existing employer, or if you’re a student studying then you can take it to your first employer.
D: Do you think CLIA generally provides more resources for cruise than say other industry bodies such as for hotels or ski?
A: No of course we don’t, however I think if you look at the cruise industry specifically and how they come together as an association, I think we are unique. There is no one doing what we do for our industry and that’s not because of us, that’s because all of the cruise lines coming together under one association, and they have meetings every quarter and are able to put the growth of the sector over the growth of their individual brand. I think that’s quite unique, and I think because of that investment and confidence in CLIA then that means that we can pass that on to our travel agent partners.
D: You have got a lot more going on now, even in the last few years. You’ve got a mix of big events, online training, and regional events that you’re doing up and down the country as well. How do you get the balance right, and is it designed to allow any level of travel agent to access what they want from a geography, or time point of view, because you are competing for travel agents’ time?
A: Yeah, and that’s a really interesting question actually because I started my career in travel as a travel agent, I think I know the challenges of trying to keep up with all of these changing products, destinations, hotels, flights, airports and everything else that’s going on, and then you couple that with the rapid change in the cruise industry and you really do have a challenge with how you keep up to date with everything that’s happening.
And actually I think that’s one of the reasons why CLIA has done so well in the last 5 to 10 years is because we are able to, I think, cut through so much noise and messaging and say these are the things you need to know, these are the trends that we’ve identified, these are the opportunities and this is how you go about taking them from opportunities to realizing them as a growth in sales and revenue.
So I think that that restriction in agents time and knowledge and resources actually benefits us because we’re seen as that go-to place where we can tell you what’s happening on a number of different platforms. We recently started doing podcasts, and weekly cruise news updates in a video of less than 60 seconds, we have more opinion pieces and we’re much more active on social media, because what we’ve found is that people do have less time. It’s up to us to find where we are best able to communicate with our members, which could be regional events or our big flagship conferences; It could be podcast, online learning or through our resources. We just have to be in all places.
D: For your big headline conference in May, how much of that is Celebrity Edge the draw?
A: I think the trouble is that some people in the industry, such as me actually, are very lucky and we get to see quite a lot of ships. I think we sometimes can lose sight of the fact that seeing the ship is a really important part of someone’s career development and knowledge and expertise, so Edge is of course a huge draw for our attendees but as are the other ships; the MSC ship and the Cunard ship that we have in. They’re all important because sometimes I think we focus so much on new ships and what’s next that actually we forget that the British public cruise on a lot of ships, and they go to a lot of destinations, and so actually for us to help people sell more cruising we have to showcase a breadth and a variety of ships.
What’s interesting is actually that balance of what people like at our May event has shifted slightly; so it’s ships, but it’s also conference which is great because there’s lots of insights and great speakers. The trade fair is really important, and again I’m very lucky that I get to meet a lot of cruise line people in my job, but for many agents that’s not always part of their regular day, so the opportunity to allow networking, for people to meet new people, and to renew acquaintances is also a massive part of that event.
We try to get that balance right by offering a variety of difference pieces to that crazy jigsaw puzzle that becomes May conference, but the line-up of ships and the date and everything aligns so this year will certainly be our biggest conference ever.
D: And how do you keep everyone happy? It’s something that we’re starting to find an issue at times, how do you manage that? The ocean cruise lines are fiercely competing with each other, same with river and, do they not all have different demands at times?
A: It’s impossible! [laughs]. They are competing, but they also recognise that if we can get someone to try a cruise for the first time, if we can get a holiday maker to say “I may have been on holiday on land for the last 30, 10, 20 years, however long, but we’re going to try a cruise”. We know full well that once they have cruised, they will cruise again.
D: And this is I guess why Virgin Voyages launching is great for the industry as a whole? It could bring in new to cruise customers?
A: Well anything that gets media attention is good for the industry, and I think cruise is very lucky; if you read the trade press for example, you would think that cruise is 50% of the holiday market, but actually we’re still just a small percentage of it. So that gives us great opportunities, but also things like a new ship launch, like Bellissima recently, and Virgin joining the market, or any new ships being built and new destinations coming online such as Cuba. Anything that gives us cut through is really important.
I think Virgin is a useful addition, firstly because they’re very good at talking to customers who may have never thought about cruising before, but secondly because they’re very good at marketing. Richard Branson is a great ambassador for travel with his airline and now the new cruise line. Anything like that is good for the industry, and we will have that halo effect to talk to new customers from companies like Virgin joining, but we also get that from any new ship or product launch.
What’s interesting now is that as we hit that two million mark, what’s clear is that we are attracting people who have never thought about taking a cruise holiday before, and that’s a great position to be in.
D: For travel agents; if they don’t embrace technology or upgrade how they do things, do you think there is a chance that the market will fundamentally change in the next 5 years? That they may disappear, or even go bust? Is it enough to just rely on your existing customers?
A: There’s a couple of things there, I think firstly, not to embrace technology is almost crazy. It’s almost an argument that you can’t have any more, because you have to embrace it. Customers are changing, the way we buy and the way we connect with suppliers is changing, but I think what will be different will be how much travel agents need to embrace new technology. Travel agents are really good at knowing their customer, and they know what their customer likes and how their customer likes to be spoken to and when they like to be spoken to, so I think that degree with which new technology is used will change. Even if you take it back to, do we print a ticket or do we send online tickets, there are still a lot of customers who want travel agents to provide printed tickets.
D: It’s interesting you say that because a customer said to us that if someone spends £20,000 on a holiday, you print them a bloody ticket, because that’s what they want.
A: Well, you know, what’s great is that all customers are different, but what’s also great is that travel agents are in that really good place that they know who their customers are and what their needs and wants are, and many travel agents will have had the same customers for a long time.
They know what they’re looking for, so travel agents can be really good judges on whether they use new technologies to continue to talk to them, or whether they simply use new technology to make their job more efficient, or even if they use technology to find new customers and to talk to new people.
I mean, social media has been around a while but it’s something that is useful, and it’s useful because it gives every travel agent the opportunity to spread the word further about their expertise and their knowledge, whether they’re a CLIA ambassador or a CLIA accredited agent etc, it allows them to find new customers in new places. I think some of it is that agents know their customers, and I think some is that agents can look at ways in which technology can improve the speed to which they can sell, or the way that they can find new customers.
D: We also get travel agents that say “oh we’ve got masses of traffic to the site, the last thing we want to do is for them to book online, we want to have a conversation with every customer”. They want them to phone up before booking online.
A: And again I think that differs by the customers you’re talking to, and that isn’t necessarily an age or demographic thing; people are different. I think what’s interesting about cruise is that certainly for yet-to-cruise customers or people who are trying a cruise for the first time, they will often want to talk to a real person because there’s so much choice in terms of ships, cruise lines, destinations, ports, itineraries, cabins and all of these things that often customers will want to talk to agents about. So again, technology will enhance that experience for some holidaymakers but not necessarily for all.
D: So like ships, your job title seems to have been upgraded in the last year to eighteen months -
A: It’s been refurbished! [laughs]
D: - You’ve been refurbished - are you looking to get your European partners to the same level as CLIA UK, in terms of resources and engagement, or are they fundamentally different? The French, Spanish etc.
A: I think one of the things I’ve learned over the past 12 - 24 months is there are lots of similarities between us, because we share a lot of common history and common culture, but actually there’s lots of differences as well; one template will not be something that we can just replicate in other markets.
If you put the language difference to one side, what’s interesting is that The Netherlands and France don’t really use Twitter, but they love Facebook, and so that means that Twitter is less of a cut through in those markets.
If you look at the level by which the Spanish and the French use our Learning Academy it’s actually much higher than it is in the UK, but the UK is better for events and resources for example. So we will try to replicate where possible all the resources, learning and events that we do but of course they will have to be targeted and amended to reflect local demands and what people are looking for. So that’s why we have local offices and local cruise lines who work with us to suggest ways in which we can enhance what we do and to attract more members.
What’s been really interesting is that we’ve had quite a lot of success in attracting travel agent members to join CLIA in Europe, when they don’t have that history of working with an association like they do in the UK.
But I do think that the UK is a great example and a great model in the world of how, when you really do bring together cruise lines, travel agents, third party suppliers, media, all into one community you really can make quite a big impact, and I like to think that the UK sets a great example of that
D: Last question, you travel a lot - does the novelty wear off?
A: Yes, every day!
I got into travel because I liked travelling, I’d been on an around the world trip when I was young and travelling around the world was quite a feat in those days, and I came back wanting to give people the opportunity that I had to travel. I ended up being a travel agent and working through the travel industry. So for me, visiting new cities and new places is always exciting, the challenge is always that you don’t have the time that you would like often in these places.
I have the best job in the world, because I had a trip to Washington DC at our global head offices for meetings, but I had a couple of days where I tagged along on a couple of days where I got the chance to walk around the city. Incredible city to look at, I did the same in Lisbon when I had to go there for some meetings, never been before. Beautiful city, amazing place. So there are always opportunity like that, and then there are the times when you’re sat at Madrid airport and your flight is 6 hours delayed and it’s a Friday afternoon, and you just want to get home.
But I can’t complain because every time I get to visit I get to talk about cruising, which I think is amazing and I get to meet people who are as excited about the opportunities as I am and so, really I can’t complain about travelling, we’re a global industry with global guests, global crew, of course we have to travel.
Some travel snaps we stole from Andy’s Twitter page, @UKAndyHarmer
D: That’s great, thank you!