TTG contributing editor Abigail Healy and Virgin Voyage Store’s associate vice president Shane Riley caught up with five of the UK & Ireland’s best Ocean Cruise agencies and heard about homeschooling snaps, steps challenges and armchair travel marketing
About them: More than 50 years ago, Derek Wilson set up a shop in Bolsover when he saw the potential of cruise. Now the agency boasts 110 staff all based at a call centre off junction 30 of the M1. The company took the decision to close down its cruise holidays shop in Meadowhall during the crisis, redeploying staff to the call centre.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Team leaders supported and informed their teams with daily catch ups, homeschooling was normalised with behind the scenes photos and everyone was given an extra five days’ holiday. Managing director Michael Wilson took a risk-averse approach and stopped taking bookings early in the pandemic so there were no major repatriations. A new website, launched in September offers a more user-friendly platform and virtual events also saw a flurry of bookings.
Highlight: A new weekly editorial-led newsletter, Armchair Traveller, drove more traffic to the website than any other deal-led communications and was recognised by Abta as a great example of marketing during the pandemic.
About them: Established in 2008, this specialist focuses on mainstream cruise. It offers a concierge-style service and, pre-pandemic, employed just fewer than 200 people across all of its brands.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: A designated duty office team took care of customers in-resort and when bookings dried up between March and May, the sales team trained to become customer service agents. With around 70 bookings to repatriate staff were empowered to handle customer enquiries with scripts to cover some of the trickier topics and a reviews.co.uk score of 4.76 has been maintained throughout the crisis. Teams channel, Isolation Nation, kept positive, non-work-related communication going while a steps challenge, which raised £1,000 for a local charity, and flexing hours to accommodate longer lunch breaks in winter helped bring staff wellbeing into focus.
Highlight: Surprise and delight gifts for key customers were ramped up during the pandemic with branded travel journal notebooks and pens to encourage clients to dream of their next getaway plus ad hoc gifts if a concierge knew there was something they would especially like.
About them: Celebrating their 50th anniversary last year, this small agency based in central London has four cruise consultants and two marketeers plus owners Edwina and Matthew Lonsdale. It specialises in luxury small ship cruising.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: With clients in Asia at the start of the pandemic the team were amending bookings as early as February. Multiple reports helped track upcoming departures and cancellations and a 24-hour phone line was available for clients abroad. Weekly Zoom meetings kept everyone in the loop and a monthly mental health calendar prompted ways for the team to look after themselves. Refocusing search terms to focus on the UK and northern Europe saw an increase in website visibility and bi-monthly magazine Cruise News switched to more editorial content and photo competitions. The team is continuing to support a local homeless charity and Edwina Lonsdale has volunteered at the local food bank.
Highlight: The Mundy Adventures website, which focuses on expedition cruising, is going from strength to strength with more enquiries for Antarctica than ever before.
About them: With sister brands focusing on river cruise and general holidays, this arm of the family-run Travel Village Group established 61 years ago, is headed up by ocean cruise product manager Jess Clayton.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Furlough was avoided until December to keep staff available for customers and they expanded the team with two new senior staff. Chief executive Phil Nuttall kept clients in the loop with video updates and a personal letter about the company’s duty of care. Blogs and weekly e-shot, The Village Post, took a soft approach with recipes, details of new ships and plenty of Jane McDonald content to keep customers engaged. Team spirit was kept up with pub quizzes, a virtual Come Dine With Me and charity events while personal rants and raves were shared on closed Facebook Group, The Village Square.
Highlight: They haven’t shied away from investing in customer experience with a new website developed last year including a white-labelled version for homeworkers and a new CRM system that produces professional looking travel documents.
ROL Cruise's Sarah Wikevand and Ellie Fielder with TTG's Abigail Healy and Virgin Voyage Store's Shane Riley
About them: This independent agency based in Essex celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and now has 110 staff.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Prior to the pandemic staff spent time in other areas of the business so they could help out in different departments when needed. Key account managers were retained so cruise lines had one point of contact to relay information to. Quizzes and bingo helped keep the team together socially while the senior team sent out treats such as a Costa coffee and cake to staff members that stood out. In house magazine Blue Horizons became more editorially-led with quizzes, recipes and recommendations of where to go post-pandemic. National press advertising was largely maintained to help “fly the flag” for the whole industry and a new TV advert this January also continued to inspire customers.
Highlight: A donation was made for every booking in May and June last year with £100,000 raised for Colchester Hospital. Thank you notes from key workers for the care packages they’ve received have proven the money has been well spent.
Virgin Voyage Store's Shane Riley answers five key questions about the cruise line's plans for 2021.