Questions, questions and more questions from customers were what Singapore cruise agents were met with when sailings resumed in Singapore in the last quarter of 2020.
The surge in inquiries for cruising were not unexpected, said agents, as it was the first time cruises are resuming operations in Singapore after the global pause in March, and naturally consumers are brimming with questions – from how the post-pandemic sailing experience is like to what pre-boarding Covid testing protocols entail during the decision-making phase.
Being at the receiving end of such questions not only afford agents a chance to better understand the state of mind of consumers’ preferences and concerns, it also increases the chances of selling cruises to customers, particularly the new to cruise, said cruise specialists speaking at a panel during the recent CruiseWorld Asia regional conference in December.
Post Covid, the level of questioning from existing and potential cruise customers alike has evidently shot up, said Koh Cheng Wee, general manager at Citystate Cruises. “We saw a higher percentage of non-cruisers – whom we could identify clearly based on the questions they asked. Regular cruisers also asked a lot more questions as well.”
Koh hence advised travel agents to be prepared to serve customers for a longer time, in part due to the “new questions and new protocols” and in part due to the digitisation of more steps and processes of the post-pandemic cruise journey.
“Many [cruise] protocols are handled in digital ways, but quite a number of our customers are elderly or senior and need more guidance in this area when it comes to booking online, using apps, etc,” he added.
Speakers and moderators during the travel agent panel at the virtual CruiseWorld Asia Regional Conference 2020.
At the same time, a greater need for personalised advice is underscoring the value of travel agents more than ever, said NATAS president and UOB Travel Planners executive president, Steven Ler, who like Koh, has observed an increase to new-to-cruise customers.
“During this time, travel agents create a very critical role to bridge the gap between consumers and the travel products out there. The new element here is about safety, which is new to all of us. Customers need to hear a trusted voice and agents can be that trusted voice to bridge the gap for them.”
Customers’ “need to talk to somebody” translates to “a lot of high-touch service” when agents need to “hand hold customers through the process”, Ler added. “It’s almost like taking a virtual voice tour of what to expect on board, which also gives them a sense of assurance.
At the same time, technology now also enables travel agents to maintain constant engagement with customers throughout the entire cruise journey even if an agent is not able to meet them face to face, these cruise travel experts shared.
“With the help of technology, most of the time when the customer enquires until the end of the trip, we don’t physically see the customer but we are constantly in touch, which I believe will be the new norm that we will be having,” said Chris Tay, assistant manager of New Shan Travel.
Moreover, having access to cruise agencies’ deep knowledge and expertise is valuable for travel agents who do not specialise in selling this niche sector.
“As a wholesaler of cruises, we’ve been approached by a handful of agents,” Tay remarked. “One thing we see is that 50% of them have not sold a cruise package before, but this is the only travel product available [which is why] they’re eager to sell to their customers as well. However, due to the lack of knowledge on cruise products, they actually leverage our professional advice to guide and share with them more info about cruises.”
The reasons for buying from a cruise wholesaler are manifold, stated Tay.
“My advice to new agents who haven’t sold cruise before: If you want to be an official appointed agent to sell cruises I believe you will be tied down by bankers’ guarantee required by both cruise lines, but if you work with us you need not do that, we can assist you and provide that service with commission as well, but without you needing to tie down with any bankers’ guarantee.”