Oceania Cruises is placing a greater emphasis on educating new to industry frontline sellers and solidifying support for the home-based market as sales continue to soar from Australia and New Zealand for the brand.
Steve Odell, SVP and Managing Director Asia-Pacific for Oceania Cruises says that since the pandemic the distribution scene changed, with a diminished wholesaler market, alongside increased dealings with retail agencies and direct sales.
“The other big trend is the home-based networks have also become a more powerful force in the market,” Odell told LATTE in a wide-ranging interview alongside Oceania Cruises’ President and CEO, Howard Sherman.
Oceania Cruises fine-tuned its sales structure late last year, appointing a Business Development Manager dedicated to home-based advisors for Australia and New Zealand. That role is headed up by Martine Nunes, who has been with the cruise line since 2015 in previous BDM and sales positions. That approach to better service the work-from-home travel seller has paid off.
“When we launched our 2024 Voyage Collection in April, about 25% of the business came from home-based travel advisors,” Odell told LATTE.
“You’re seeing quite a shift. Wholesalers are a bit reputational, I would say. In the beginning of COVID, some disappeared quite quickly and there were a lot of customers left in a vacuum, and they haven’t come back.
“There are some new wholesalers emerging that are going to be good for us. But now we’re dealing much more with a travel advisor and a retail environment.”
Odell says the landscape will likely further evolve as the industry grapples with 60% less travel advisors than before the COVID pandemic.
“But we’re already beginning to see the needle swing back as people are coming back to the industry, but different people, and some new people that haven’t sold travel before.”
“One of the things we’re really focused on is education and training just to make sure that people understand the segments and how products fit.”
“You see the emergence of some brands like Travel Associates, for example, that’s really encouraging. They’re trying to lift up the segment and make sure that Luxury and Premium market gets much more air space. That’s the kind of initiatives we’re following very closely,” he told LATTE.
Odell said Oceania Cruises has partnerships with all the home-based networks in the region, but the key difference has been the dedicated BDM channel.
Jason Worth, Vice President, Australia & New Zealand at Oceania Cruises explained that previously the state BDM would cater for home-based networks, based on wherever their headquarters were located.
He said it was hard to split the BDM’s time across the dispersion of the group if, for instance, they were based in Queensland and had advisors in the Northern Territory, WA and New Zealand.
“Now with one BDM focused on home-based, Martine can set up calls, within zoom and cluster events across the country and New Zealand, so there’s much more interaction than we ever had before COVID,” Worth said.
Odell said the home-based focus could evolve further but currently it’s “about relationship building and being the ‘go-to’ person for help.”
“The cluster events are probably the key to it right now where we’re getting people in a region in one place, or on an online call,” he added.
Worth said that in the US – Oceania Cruises’ number one source market – there is an entire team dedicated to a similar type of home-based, independent contractor market.
Questioned if that approach – an expansion of the home-based BDM team – is being considered for the Australia and New Zealand market, Worth said he believes there is “more space available for that”.
Guests are upselling
Worth also noted that Oceania Cruises had witnessed retailers such as Travel Associates and others in the Premium space, “up selling to our brand”.
“There’s a lot more appetite to go from that big ship premium space into our upper-premium smaller ship space.
“Oceania offers a similar price point but a better experience, better food, better onboard offering, better service levels, more port-intensive, so an all round overall better experience,” Worth told LATTE.
Odell said Oceania also has a stronger client repeat in business – “and that’s what they’re really looking to do. To retain the customer in the right brand.”
Direct booking influx
Odell was open about the increase in volume from direct bookings since the pandemic, saying the segment was now a bigger part of the distribution.
“I think a lot of that is customers have wanted to find a place to come to get information. There was a little bit of loss of trust with the wholesalers in the middle of COVID where they just disappeared and customers were left in a vacuum.
“We are finding that customers are coming to us for information more, and to book.
“A lot of that business will go back to a travel agent because the travel agent is a full-service agency, whereas we’re not. We have a pass-back policy for agents.
He said travel advisors “are always going to be our biggest channel and our most important one, but customers need somewhere to go.”
Opportunities and resources
“The other area for growth is New Zealand,” Worth added. “They were slower to rebound from COVID versus Australia. They may be four months behind but they’re coming back strong.”
He said Oceania Cruises’ appointment of a BDM in New Zealand back in February “has been perfectly timed in terms of the rebound there”.
Oceania previously had a BDM role across the ditch but during the pandemic shelved those roles as there were no travel agents to visit during the pandemic.
Odell said all those positions have now been restored “as it was, and we’ve honed it, pivoting all the time because the market is changing rapidly”.
Oceania Cruises’ staffing level in Australia is back to pre-COVID levels, and in fact, there is now a greater headcount, particularly in the contact centre in response to the rise in volume of business.
“We’re showing higher levels of business for ’23/’24 than we had pre-COVID so we’re having to gear up and it’s still a very voice-driven transaction,” Odell added.
“People need help. The luxury customer has a lot of questions, so we geared up in the contact centre with more people.
“The challenge is finding the right kind of people, and they’re not necessarily these days coming from travel. They’re coming from other industries,” Odell remarked.
Worth further noted that Oceania Cruises and its sister ultra-luxury brand, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, are continuing to move to standalone businesses in the local market.
“We’ve also split a lot of our brand roles. People that were covering both Regent and Oceania, we’ve been able to hire and split the roles so they can focus solely on one brand.”
Odell added: “The aim is to get everything single brand but right there’s still economies of scale by having dual brand people. But largely now, sales are split, marketing is split, frontline cruise consultants are split and then we’ve got some general shared services like Groups and Guest Relations – that is still dual.
“Ultimately, we need dedicated resources to brands because that means there’s deeper knowledge and it’s obviously a smarter way to do business,” Odell concluded.