Strength in numbers: how to master group bookings

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Jane Archer dives into the lucrative world of group cruises, which can pay big, rewarding returns


There can’t be many agents who have not heard cruise lines urge the retail sector to book more groups. It’s a good way for everyone to make money, but also an area many agents shy away from, believing it to be time-consuming, which it is, and difficult, which is doesn’t have to be.

There are two ways to get into the groups market. One is to take allocation on a cruise – either an ocean or river ship – and then sell the cabins to clients who have nothing in common other than they book through the same agent.

The other is for agents to come up with an idea for a special interest cruise and then either market it to clients on their database, or approach local community clubs
that share the same pastime.

“Groups are a great way for agents to target a new audience,” says Viking UK head of sales Neil Barclay, “whether it’s friends and family or speaking to local groups to encourage like-minded people to cruise together.”

The key is to work with cruise lines that make organising a group easy. “It has to be simple,” says Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ head of sales Mike Hall. “We have people to sort everything out. Group business is lucrative but untapped. The successful agents are those who are busy in their local community.”

Hall says CMV recently hosted a 160-strong group of gardening enthusiasts on a round-Britain cruise organised for Gardeners’ World readers by Edinburgh-based Connoisseur Travel. “We provided three bespoke garden excursions and they included them in the cost of the cruise,” he says. “It was so successful they are talking about doing two next year.”

Holland America Line senior marketing manager Carly Perkins says persuading agents to book groups is a “work in progress”. “They can choose onboard credit for clients, or take bonus commission, so the rewards are great, but it is a big commitment for them,” she says.

AmaWaterways UK managing director Stuart Perl says one of the best ways to get into the groups market is for an agency owner to contact clients and invite them to join him or her on a cruise. It makes the customer feel valued, builds relationships and adds to the bottom line. “Even if there is no theme, it is likely they will go,” he predicts.

Perl acknowledges that agents are often too busy to host a group trip. In that case, he suggests they tap into their own social circles or local clubs to create a themed cruise.

Options with AmaWaterways might include keep-fit and wine groups as all their European river ships (not on the Douro) have full-time wellness instructors, and there are more than 60 wine-themed cruises a year hosted by wine experts with included tastings and vineyards visits.

Fred River Cruises looks after several brands that offer a variety of themes agents can sell into, including classical music and golf with Amadeus River Cruises, and history and food with American Cruise Lines. Pandaw has river cruises in Vietnam, Laos, India and Myanmar that are a good match for clients interested in history and culture.

Across the cruise industry, the options for group travel are limited only by an agent’s imagination. They could take wildlife lovers on a Holland America Line cruise to Alaska or an Azamara Club Cruises’ voyage around South Africa. Seabourn’s wellness-themed voyage in Australia with Dr Andrew Weil next February would be great for spa-goers.

A fitness cruise on a big ship with a state-of-the-art gym works for members of a leisure centre. CMV and Fred Olsen are popular with bridge groups. A Rhine cruise is a perfect fit for oenophiles; the Danube ideal for a U3A history group.

Fred River Cruises’ Sukie Rapal suggests everything from yoga and meditation to garden and theatre groups. “It doesn’t have to be big numbers – maybe just 10 or 20 people – and it’s not daunting as we are here to help,” adds Rapal, who heads up the company’s river cruise division.

Go Cruise agent Martin Hay ‘stumbled’ into selling groups some nine years ago when he was approached by a travel adviser from Age Concern who had been let down and needed help organising a cruise for a group of 23. He now arranges up to 12 group bookings a year.

His biggest, a Danube river cruise with Shearings, was for 115 people and took hundreds of hours to organise. In the pipeline is an art and history cruise on the Seine in France.

“It is challenging and time-consuming but also rewarding both professionally and financially,” he says. “Some customers are referred by past clients but you have to be prepared to go out and find business.”

His top tip for agents? “People rely on group leaders so you must spend time and make sure you get it right.” Organising a group can take a year or more so booking early to get the best rates and ensure there’s time to market and sell the cruise is vital.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Travel Village Group chief executive Phil Nuttall is organising his first group – a one-week cruise round-trip from Bordeaux on Uniworld River Cruises’ Bon Voyage next June that he and Holiday Village managing director Paula Nuttall will be hosting.

More than 20 past clients, both ocean and river cruisers, have booked and he is expecting more. “It’s been a lot of work but something I’ve wanted to do for some time,” says Nuttall. “It’s not about the money, but about building relationships.”

The primary aim of the cruise is for Phil and Paula to spend time with their clients, but as it coincides with a Bordeaux wine festival their guests will be able to visit that as well as joining the wine-themed excursions.

Working with cruise lines that reward group organisers well is crucial if agents are to maximise their return. Hay says Fred Olsen and CMV are his go-to lines for groups when planning an ocean cruise, while he turns to Amadeus and Shearings for the rivers.

Norwegian Cruise Line, Silversea and CroisiEurope are among other group-friendly companies, offering group discounts, extra commission and free places for tour managers.

AmaWaterways pays an extra 2.5 per cent commission and will hold cabins for a £50 per-cabin deposit. It also offers free places for tour managers once nine people are booked. Holland America Line offers complimentary dinner in a speciality restaurant and a cocktail party.

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