From last year's deadly Costa Concordia disaster to the stranding of the Carnival Triumph in February (not to mention a number of smaller incidents), it has been a tough couple of years for the cruise industry. The publicity problem might seem like bad news for cruise travel agency franchises. Certainly, it's not something they're celebrating--but there are some positive points to note, too.
First, despite predictions to the contrary, online booking sites have not made travel agents obsolete. In fact, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, 90 percent of all cruise vacations are booked through travel agents. And when negative news stories arise, the personal touch a travel agent provides becomes particularly vital.
"Customers trust our franchise owners' judgment," says Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager of Cruise-One. "Franchisees help ease the customers' concerns, cut through the hype of the 24-hour news coverage and get to the facts."
Vicky Garcia, COO of Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, concurs: "The value of using a travel advisor has never been higher." Both companies report that in 2013 their franchisees' cruise bookings are up in double digits, percentage-wise.
Another point in cruise agencies' favor is simply the fact that they are franchises. Anyone who has shopped for a franchise has probably heard this saying over and over: "You'll be in business for yourself, but not by yourself." Perhaps nothing proves that better than the way franchises are able to respond to bad publicity. Rather than being left to deal with PR problems on their own, as independent travel agents would, franchisees have the training, technology, resources and support of the franchisor behind them.
"Cruise Holidays franchise owners definitely rely on help from headquarters when situations like this arise," a company spokesperson says. When negative news stories pop up, she points out, "it's hard to keep up with what's fact and what's fiction." To help, Cruise Holidays' PR team issues regular recaps of the facts to franchisees so they can respond confidently to questions from customers or the media. If an incident occurs, she adds, the company pulls up a report detailing which customers might be affected and notifies their agents so that "they, in turn, can proactively contact their client."
Negative publicity can plague any industry, but it needn't be a death knell. "Whenever industries have to experience unfortunate events, lessons are learned, providing an opportunity to improve," CruiseOne's Wall says. For the cruise industry, that meant adopting a "Passenger Bill of Rights" in May. For cruise travel agent franchises, it means recognizing that PR nightmares will probably still happen--and being prepared to help both franchisees and their customers get through them.