TTG contributing editor Abigail Healy and APT’s managing director UK & Europe Paul Melinis and head of sales Jessica Shelton-Agar caught up with five of the UK and Ireland’s best river cruise agencies and heard about video updates, virtual days at sea and money raised for the NHS
About them: With 14 shops across the south and east of England plus 63 franchisees there were plenty of staff and customers to consider when the Covid-19 crisis hit. Prior to the pandemic, 2020 had started out well with an impressive increase in river cruise bookings.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Files of March, April and May departures were laid out on desks to be dealt with in turn and all customer calls were returned the same day. Most of the team were furloughed while the managers each took responsibility for one store. The senior management team all took a 20% pay cut, keeping staff in store on 100% of their wages. Head of commercial, Paul Hardwick, began video updates to reassure customers, which continued throughout the year with varying messages. This January the marketing and events team returned to start planning events (virtual initially) for 2021.
Highlight: A new branded van will be taken out into communities where there are no branches and used to host a pop-up travel agency.
About them: Based across Wales and the South-West, the agency has coined the strapline, “The home of river”. With an increasing percentage of river cruise sales over the past three years, 2020 was set up to be a record breaker for the sector.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Furlough was avoided initially to manage amends and refunds as quickly as possible then from June flexi-furlough was used to rotate the team every three weeks. River cruise saw an impressive 78% reprotect rate while a dedicated refunds team battled on behalf of customers. The team let customers know they were there for a friendly chat and owner Miles Morgan filmed regular video updates to reassure and inform customers. Staff blogs featuring weekly diaries of day-to-day life on a river cruise from their own trips helped keep customers’ interest piqued while Facebook pages were set up for each branch to engage their own customers.
Highlight: As well as caring for customers and keeping in touch, members of the team have volunteered at their local vaccination centres, one agent, Margaret, has been reading to the blind and they have been putting in welfare calls to vulnerable and elderly customers.
About them: Celebrating their 50th anniversary last year, this small agency based in central London packs a big punch with its focus on luxury cruising.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: Having been switching to cloud-based, paperless working made working remotely reasonably simple. A Whatsapp group allowed the team to get immediate answers and keep spirits up. Thursday fizz meetings kept the social side of things bubbling while the existing buddy system became a useful way to support each other. An alert bar added to the website allowed messaging to be regularly updated for clients and Q&A articles helped to inform them too. The team saw its highest ever social engagement with an average monthly reach of 30,000 on Facebook and a 66% increase in unique visitors to the website year-on-year in January 2020 following a change in SEO strategy.
Highlight: E-shots with a virtual day at sea featuring online pilates and cookery classes and cocktails at the bar – all using content from different cruise lines proved a popular way to engage clients.
About them: Part of fourth generation business, Travel Village Group, the river cruise arm was set up in 2004 by owner Phil Nuttall who always had high aspirations for it and refused to let the Covid-19 crisis deter him from pushing it forward.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: The team were all kept on full pay with furlough not brought in until December. Phil joined the admin care team he could help with any issues and all clients were called back the day they rang in. Team morale was boosted with quizzes and walks together when restrictions allowed and staff moved to support different departments when needed. Marketing guru Lewis compiled all changes in policies and advice from cruise lines and distributed to the sales team to keep them up-to-date. Every email that goes out has Phil’s email address on and he responds personally to all feedback emails sent in.
Highlight: The team hosted their first virtual cruise event with a cruise manager joining live from Germany, which resulted in new bookings for the agency.
ROL Cruise's Sarah Wikevand and Ellie Fielder with TTG's Abigail Healy and APT's Jessica Shelton-Agar and Katie Elson
About them: Solely selling cruise this independent agency with 110 staff based in Essex celebrated its 25th anniversary last year had increased river cruise as a proportion of the business.
How they navigated the Covid-19 crisis: A key Covid team was put in place from the beginning to regularly communicate information to staff. Contacting customers before they got in touch was a priority and new staff were recruited into the customer service team later in the year. Sometimes weekly calls were necessary to reassure customers and the team received plenty of thank you messages, all shared on an internal hub, which was also a place to share information and have some fun. Continuing with national press advertising helped to fly the flag for the industry while a new TV advert featuring ambassador Jennie Bond went out this January, which has resulted in some new customers.
Highlight: A donation for every booking was made in May and June with £100,000 raised for Colchester Hospital. Thank you notes from staff for care packages they’ve received has proven that the money was well spent.
APT's Jessica Shelton-Agar answers five key questions about the operator's plans for 2021.