How Travel Agents Can Make the Most of a Cruise Ship Inspection
Ahoy there, captain! (Admiral?) I’ve just returned from CLIA’s Cruise360 conference, so I’m really excited to chat a bit about cruise ship inspections! Oh yes. Yes I am.
By the way, I had no idea that doing a cruise ship inspection is an intense cardio workout. Seriously, you need to get on your comfy tennis shoes and khakis to cover a lot of ground in what might be a short amount of time.
And just how does a travel agent make the most of their time on a ship inspection? Well that’s what I’m here to chat about. So let’s do some stretches and lace up, shall we?
First on the Menu: Cruise Ship Inspection, Two Ways
There are two different ways to do cruise ship inspections, and every agent will have different preferences. Two main ship inspection categories are escorted or unescorted (what I like to refer as free range).
Here’s some of the qualities of the different kind of cruise ship inspections:
- You go at your own pace
- You set your own strategy and see what you want to see
- You can sneak onto their zip lines or hop in their buffet line
- You can chat with cruisers who are boarding the ship and get their firsthand experience
- You need to find your own way around
- Good for those who lack an inner compass (of course I’m not referring to myself! ;) ). But even if you are Magellan, with a guided inspection, you can spend more time paying attention to the ship than figuring out your route.
- Could be good if you’re newer to cruise ship inspections and aren’t exactly sure what you’re looking for.
- You can ask questions as you go and get insider info that might be harder to find otherwise.
- You aren’t in charge of where you go and what you see.
- You can’t go at your own pace.
- You’ll likely be with a group, so might have to jostle to get good videos and photos (which may be the case on your own, too).
Of course this is to say nothing of going on a cruise! Cruise vacations for a travel agent are essentially like an extended ship inspection. Once you start working as agent, it will be hard to turn off that critical part of your brain.
The travel expense to inspect a ship can be sizable. So it’s likely best to consolidate your cruise ship inspections to align with your travel whether it be personal travel or for a conference. If you live in (or near) a cruise port anyway, then that’s a huge bonus when it comes to inspections.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
I know. It’s really tempting to choose the cruise line with the fanciest food and call it a day (perhaps I speak for myself!). But your time is precious, so you want to make sure the cruise ship inspection will be worth it.
This is a good time to put on your client goggles. Does the cruise line offer something your clients are looking for? Ask yourself these questions to see if it the ship inspection might be a good fit:
- Does it align with my niche in some way?
- Does it include a new itinerary I’m excited about?
- Will it help give me a comparison for ships that I frequently sell?
- Is it a new ship or a ship with a new feature?
- Is it at a port I’ve never visited before?
- Does the ship offer price points that reflect my clients’ budget range?
If you’re going to a conference and trying to narrow down what cruise ship inspections to sign up for, aim for the ones that you answer yes to the most times! Of COURSE I’m going to make this into an interactive download for you, because I can’t stop myself :)
Keep reading for in-depth cruise inspection tips and more free resources!
Strike While the Iron’s Hot
You don’t have to wait for a conference to do a ship inspection. Ron Harshman of Harshman Travel takes advantage of the fact that he lives close to a cruise port, and attends ship inspections whenever he can.
If you don't live near a port, you can reach out to do a ship inspection if you’re traveling close by for personal or work travel (is there such thing as non work-related travel when you’re an agent?). Otherwise, when you hit up those cruise conferences, sign up for your ship inspections ASAP (they went fast at Cruise360) and squeeze in as many as you can or care to!
Cruise Ship Inspection Checklist
If you put clients on the wrong cruise, there is a good chance you will lose their business. I say this not to strike fear into your heart, but to emphasize its value and how a ship inspection can help you qualify your clients, and make sure you get them on the right ship.
But fear not, because I put my head together with travel agent Ron Harshman, and he offered some amazing, smart, insightful, critical thoughts on how to really take advantage of a ship inspection. Credit where it’s due! When you see Ron next, buy that man a beer!
Before we begin though, I want to mention that I’m focusing on aspects of a ship inspection that you can’t find on Google. This may sound obvious, but as I was running my own inspection, snapping random shots of staterooms, the thought occurred to me: What kind of information will my photos/insights/information add that a client can’t find on the internet or a cruise line’s comparison sheet?
Here are a few answers, my dear reader:
“[Embarkation] is a big thing for me because most cruise ship inspections take place in between cruises . . . It’s very easy to observe how the passengers are being treated. Is it like cattle herding? Are [cruisers] left outside in the heat? How is the embarking process? How are people being treated. How are the port personnel? Are they polite? How do they minimize the stress of the on-boarding process? Sometimes, you feel like need a vacation by the time you get onto the ship!”
Though it may be easy to overlook, a ship’s on-boarding process can really set the tone for the rest of the voyage. Ron pretty much summed up most of it with his sharp insights above, but here’s a few details to pay attention to at the the port:
- How accessible is the port from the nearest airport?
- How is parking and getting the luggage into the port and onto the ship?
- How are the lines and how long are people waiting?
- What is the overall attitude of the cruisers? Do they seems stressed and rushed, or do they seem relaxed?
- How are staff interacting with cruisers?
- Is there enough waiting area? With seating? Are there enough restrooms?
- Approximately how long does it take for cruisers to board from stepping out of their car and embarking the ship?
In general, on an unguided cruise ship inspection, you’ll want to hustle over to check out the staterooms and suites before the cruisers begin to file in. Most cruise lines have ample photos and specs online, offering general overview and specs. What I learned from my own inspection that many of my photos simply reinvented the wheel. So while it’s GREAT to take tons of pics (and videos), take a moment to consider what you want to capture with your picture that you can’t find on the internet.
How is the room laid out? Feng Shui goes a long way with what is likely little space to work with. This was key for Ron during a cruise ship inspection; “Some [staterooms] seem more spacious depending on how they’re laid out . . . even though they’re generally the same square footage. It can make a huge difference.”
In order to get a feel for the room, check out:
- Can you stow luggage under a bed?
- Is there a pullout to help maximize space during the day?
- Does the bathroom have a split sink/shower to get more mileage out of a morning routine?
- How high are the ceilings?
- Are there rooms with options for 3+ sleepers?
- Are there murphy beds (particularly for rooms with 3+occupants)
- Are there conjoined rooms?
- What is the natural light/ artificial light situation?
- Are balconies spacious? Can balconies of adjacent rooms open into one another (for groups)?
- Does the closet have a slide door or does it open into the room?
- Can you hear your neighbors?
- How spacious does it feel? (Can you get out of bed without being pinned between the mattress and a wall?)
- Is the bed by the door or by the balcony?
There’s no “right” answer to any of these questions, but taking the time to get a sense of how a room feels can go a long way when determining if a client will like it.
The Ship Layout:
Most cruisers are going to spend most, if not all, of their waking hours outside their room. Since ships are so large, it’s important to take stock of how easy the vessel is to navigate. Do you need a compass to get from your stateroom to the dining room? I hope not.
But here’s a few things to look for in the overall layout of the ship:
- How wide are the halls? Are they easily navigable?
- Are there enough elevators at different parts of the ship?
- How is the layout of the stairs? Are they easy to navigate (sometimes the stairs might feel too close together, etc.)
- Are there any tricks to see if the direction you’re going is toward the stem, aft, aport or astarboard (i.e. on a Disney ship, the staterooms on the starboard and portside have different room number decals, and the design on the carpet indicates whether your walking aft or astern).
- Where are smoking-designated (or non-smoking) areas?
- What about the pool area? Where are the staff located around the pools? (embarkation is a great time to check out pool layout, particularly if cruisers aren’t able to check into their rooms).
- How are the entertainment areas such as the casino, theaters, and spas?
On a ship inspection, there is such thing as a free lunch. Eating is my reason to live. Seriously. If a cruise ship has amazing and memorable food, I’d be the client who could easily overlook a cramped stateroom.
Eating a meal on a cruise ship is not only a chance to see how their food tastes, but also to see how accommodating the staff is. If you’re doing a cruise ship inspection, during the meal you can pretend to have a dietary restriction or preference to see how they respond.
Do they have vegetarian or gluten free options? If you tell them you’re vegan, can they adapt your meal? Are they responsive if you want to send something back? Or, if you’re my like my late grandfather, can you ask the crew the scare up a scoop of chocolate ice cream for dessert because that is literally the only thing you will ever eat for dessert, even if they put the fanciest sweet delicacy on the menu.
I’m going to break down the dining portion into two sections, food and service. I’ll start with food, but again remember that some of these don’t have a “right answer.” It’s just intended to help give your clients an accurate idea of what to expect.
Food, glorious food:
- Menu options: is there variety? Can they adapt to your dietary restrictions?
- Taste & visual appeal: Does the food look and taste good? Does it reflect its description on the menu?
- Is everything cooked to your liking?
- What's your first reaction when you take a bite?
- Is there variety?
- How are the portion sizes?
- Is there something that you leave wanting to eat again (bonus points if you’re still thinking about the menu item three days or more later).
- How does the food compare with similar cruise lines?
Dining layout and service:
- The dining area layout: Are there there large tables for groups or do they accommodate more intimate dining as well?
- Is the area noisy?
- Are you comfortable? Excited to be there? If there are other, do they seem to be having a similar experience to you and receiving a similar qualify of service?
- Staff morale: Are they just trying to keep you happy enough not to complain or they are trying to create a memorable experience for you?
- Is staff responsive to your needs?
- Are the bathrooms clean and close by?
Since you'll likely eat in their main dining area, you’ll want to see what other options they have available for dining as well. Do they have a range of options and food varieties? If you see a buffet service going, how is the foot traffic managed? When you embark the ship to inspect it, it might be a great opportunity to see some of those areas at their busiest!
At the end of the day, clients are going to spend a lot time eating the cruise food, so you want them to like it!
Staff Interactions/ General:
This is a big one because getting a sense of the staff is something that you absolutely cannot get a sense of online. We covered some of this in different areas, but inspections are a key to understanding the cruise culture of a ship.
- What is the overall demographic of the cruisers? Younger? Older? Families? Active?
- Does the ship culture seem to cater more toward relaxation? Adventure and activity? Nightlife and entertainment?
- How is the morale among cruisers? Do they seem to be having a good time or do they appear to be stressed out?
- How does the staff engage with you when you ask a question? (asking directions somewhere is always a good test).
- Does the ship market themselves or push their reputation for anything in particular? (culinary, entertainment etc.?) If so, do you think it lives up to its hype?
PHEW! That was a doozie! This is a lot of stuff to consider, but soon it will become second nature.
Here's a brief intermission:
Moving on . . .
Social Media & Marketing Follow Up
Okay, so you may be off the ship but you’re not off the hook just yet. A big part of being a travel agent is that you have the experience and critical eye that a typically cruiser (or traveler) will not. So once you complete your cruise ship inspection, you can take the opportunity to strut your stuff a little bit on social media (don’t be shy).
We have an entire article dedicated to social media, which might be a good primer for what you’ll read below. But the major takeaway is that you don’t need to do everything suggested here. Just a few that make sense for your business model and clientele, so you can get the most traction out of your cruise ship inspection.
Here’s a few tips to prepare:
1. Ships likely won’t have Wi-Fi during your inspection, so you probably won’t be able to FB Live, email yourself large video files, or send them to the cloud. What this means is that you really want to make sure you have plenty of memory/storage in your phone/camera or whatever doodad you want to use to document your experience. Learn from me. I ran out of space on my phone so couldn’t do anymore video or pics by the end of the inspection.
2. When you are culling through your videos and photos, really try to focus on what you can’t find online (you’ll notice that I did not do this with many of mine). You’re really curating what you’re showing your guest.
Here’s a few ways you can use your cruise ship inspection on social media (and the internet at large):
1. Video: I took a video and won’t show it here because it did not turn out well (the cruisers came to check into their room right in the middle of my masterpiece!). A video is nifty because it can give a better feel for the size and space in a stateroom or suite.
As an added bonus, Facebook offers more “organic reach” to video posts since it encourages the viewer to stay on FB longer, so a video will cast a wider net in terms of audience. Here’s a few tips on posting video on Facebook:
- Embed the video: Upload it to Facebook, (don’t link it to YouTube).
- Add the video to your Facebook page’s video feed.
- Don’t forget to share your video on Twitter and Instagram too!
2. Pics: Of course you’ll want to take a pictures of your inspection. Some of them will be for your own reference, and others can be used for social media and/or your website. A few tips for photos:
- Take as good a photo as you can. I know, I’m not Annie Leibovitz either, but if you take a minute to edit images before posting them online, they can look really sharp, but still homemade.
- Take a picture of the cabin number before you take pictures of the room. This way, you’ll remember what floor you were on and can compare the room to a same class of cabin on a different floor. This will give you that insider edge you can’t get from Google.
- When you choose what pictures to post, make it something unique to your inspection. You don’t want your photo gallery on social media or your website to look like a pile of stock photos (admittedly, most of mine do).
- Focus on posting features that really stunned you. Ron Harshman, for example, took a picture of the menu on his Oceania cruise ship inspection because he was impressed by his offerings and could tell that the menu was individualized for his group’s inspection. For Ron, it's about more than just showing off the food: The unique menu (with the date) indicated that Oceania had paid attention to the details, which could reflect positively on their customer service.
- Focus on pushing photos from cruise lines that you really want to promote: This doesn’t mean that you have go to radio silent on other lines, but if you’re really only doing an inspection for your own reference to speak knowledgeably of it, you probably may not need to put it out there.
- Captions go the extra mile: Write a caption for the photo that shows your expertise and eye as an agent. (I created captions for images in this very article for this sole purpose! Check them out for examples!)
3. Experiment with what works best for you: See the difference for yourself in posting links (presumably to your travel agent website :) ), pictures, albums and videos of your cruise ship inspection. Since your business has a verified Facebook page, you can easily look at data regarding which of your posts get the most shares, reactions and the greatest reach. All you need to do on your biz page is click on “posts” on the left hand column, then the ellipses “...” button to see more options, and scroll down to “page insights.”
Okay, you are truly amazingly prepared for your next cruise ship inspection! But to sweeten the deal and to reward you for your patience in reading this whole stinkin’ article, we have saved the best for last:
It’s like dessert.
What do you look for in a cruise ship inspection? What social media strategies promote the most engagement among your clientele! Let me know in the comments below!