If you want to take a group of 50 people on a cruise, where do you start?
On the whole, cruising has never been more popular, and millions of people from around the world take cruises every year. And as the growth of the cruise industry continues, more travel groups are looking to ocean and river cruises to complement their lineup of land tours.
Most travel aficionados — including many group travel planners — have at least one cruise under their belts. But booking a cruise for yourself online or through a travel agent is a far different experience than arranging an entire cruise vacation for a whole group of travelers who are depending on you to deliver exceptional value and experience.
Whether you’re a professional tour operator looking to add cruises to your catalogue or a volunteer group leader interested in taking your community organization on a cruise, you’ll have to learn to navigate the ins and outs of group bookings and cruise planning. And to make matters more complicated, there is no standard procedure across the industry for handling group bookings — each cruise line has its own approach to group sales and operations.
To help you figure out the first steps for taking your group on a cruise, we spoke to representatives from three cruise lines with diverse positions and products. They help illustrate the range of booking processes and activity programs available to help you plan memorable cruise vacations for your travelers.
Scenic Cruises and Emerald Waterways: Full-Service Planning and Booking
Among the fastest growing segments of the cruise industry is river cruising, which offers intimate trips on small vessels throughout Europe and other popular destinations. Emerald Waterways runs cruises on nine rivers and actively promotes their offerings to groups, and sister company Scenic Cruises offers all-inclusive luxury sailings for high-end groups.
If a group leader is interested in an Emerald river cruise, they’ll find that the company does all the heavy lifting in arranging a group booking.
“We do most of the work for you,” said Dave Lubchansky, group sales manager for Emerald and Scenic. “You contact the group department, and we talk about availability and the number of cabins you want. Then we send you a program agreement and ask you to sign and return it to us. There’s no real obligation — we just want to have it in writing, then we allocate the space so we can hold the cabins.
“We’ll hold the allotment for 30 days to give the group leader time to collect the deposits. If there are some cabins booked and they need more time, we can keep giving them more time as long as the cabins are available.”
After this, group leaders begin working with the line’s group operations team. Among its other services, this team manages the booking and payment details for the group. Each group member can book their desired stateroom and pay their balances directly, which means the group leader doesn’t have to get in the middle of the transaction or handle any funds.
“The only responsibility to the group leader is to encourage his guests to reserve,” Lubchansky said. “He can tell them to call us and book the reservation.”
The groups team also works with group leaders to arrange any special inclusions or activities during the cruise. Every Emerald cruise includes a sightseeing tour in each port visited, but groups can arrange for private tours or more extensive shore excursions. Beer, wine and soft drinks are included at lunch and dinner; group leaders can choose to include an upgraded drinks package for their travelers as well. Scenic has its own menu of special group opportunities.
Since river cruising is popular and space on vessels is limited, Lubchansky recommends group leaders start working well in advance of their desired travel dates.
“We’re accepting group travelers for 2021, and currently protecting them with the 2020 current prices,” he said.
Holland America Line: Work with a Travel Agent
With a long history of traditional ocean cruising, Holland America has proven a popular choice for groups, particularly in Alaska. Eva Jenner, vice president of sales, encourages group leaders to enlist the services of an experienced travel agent to handle the logistics of booking a group cruise.
“Travel advisors have been educated on our product, and they know how to book groups with us,” she said. “They can take all the bookings and payments and take that off the hands of the group organizer. But the group organizer is responsible for ensuring the travel advisor knows what the group needs.
“Let’s say it’s a local church and they want to have services on board the ship. That’s absolutely possible, as long as they tell the travel advisor and our groups department. We can arrange for them to work with a pastor on board or set up a private dinner in one of our specialty restaurants.”
Travel advisors will consult with the groups department to set up any special requests regarding group dining, shore excursions or activities. They’ll also guide group organizers through the comp policy — Holland America offers one tour conductor credit for each 10 passengers — and help them select perks and extras for the group from the company’s Group Advantage Program.
“Depending on the length of the sailing, they get points to use toward cocktail receptions, specialty dinners, bottles of wine — there’s so much to choose from,” Jenner said. “And we provide packages to take some of that planning off the group organizer’s plate and make things as easy as possible when they come aboard. We have wedding packages, wine and food pairing packages and others already put together. The group leader can build their own packages too.”
Once all the bookings have been made, Holland America’s groups department arranges a call with the travel advisor and the group organizer to discuss any special needs the group has and plan logistics. The line call also offer customized shore excursions for groups, as well as exclusive space on its private island in the Caribbean, Half Moon Cay.
Jenner said that professional tour companies, which have their booking and payment procedures, can work directly with Holland America’s groups department in lieu of a travel agent.
MSC Cruises: Choose Your Resource
MSC Cruises, an ocean cruise line based in Europe, is quickly making inroads in the North American market. For group bookings, which require a minimum of eight staterooms, organizers can choose between a do-it-yourself online tool or a full-service group sales department.
“Groups can go to mscbook.com, where we have a tool called the Group Quotator,” said Claudia King McWilliams, the line’s vice president for the contact center and groups. “We make it fast and easy to get the groundwork covered when putting the group together. You can access real-time group availability and pricing and see all of our current promotions. You can instantly obtain quotes for the cruise and lock in rates. You can create a group booking on your own, then the Quotator creates a contract and emails it back to you.”
Once the group organizer locks in the contract, they can sign up trip participants and collect credit card information from them. Then they use each passenger’s payment method to book their cabin on the cruise through the Quotator.
To access the Group Quotator, travel planners have to first has to register with MSC as a travel provider. This comes with a significant benefit: Registered travel sellers qualify for a significant commission on each booking.
If all that sounds like too much work, MSC offers another option: Planners can work directly with the company’s groups department. This route doesn’t pay commissions, but it comes with a high level of service.
“If you want more personalized service, advice and guidance, simply call us,” McWilliams said. “Our group advocates are very seasoned representatives who know the ins and outs of MSC and all our itineraries.”
Regardless of which booking method a group leader uses, once the booking is complete the company’s groups department works directly with the trip planner to customize the group experience and take advantage of incentives.
“We offer a tour conductor credit for every 15 full-fare guests in the group,” McWilliams said. “And there’s another advantage called Amenity Points. These allow the group leader to customize the trip with extras. Those can range from stateroom gifts and cocktail parties to WiFi packages or shipboard credits.”