Forbes – June 30, 2011
After more than 15 years of covering the world of leisure travel, I’ve picked up a tip or two, and when friends call me soliciting vacation advice – which happens weekly – I can usually point them in the right direction.
When they ask about cruises, the right direction is Mary Jean Tully, President and CEO of The Cruise Professionals.
I am a fan of travel agents, and even though they have been taking it tough since the internet explosion, there are plenty of signs they are making a comeback and they should be: they can add an enormous amount of value to your trips, but only if you choose the right one. Hell, I use travel agents and there are not many people who know more than I do about the travel business.
There are lots of great travel agents, and different ones I would recommend for golf, for skiing, for safaris, and so on and so on, but only one I would ever use to book a cruise: Mary Jean Tully and her staff.
Why? Because she’s been doing it for a quarter of century, and frankly, she knows more about cruises than you or I do, and will undoubtedly enhance your experience – while saving you money at the same time. It’s a crude metaphor, but her agency combines the buying clout and leverage of WalMart with the custom, expert touch of a Savile Row Tailor, to offer you the best product and service at the best value, an impressive combination.
Here’s a hypothetical. Let’s say you have decided to book a cruise. Now let’s assume you are extremely knowledgeable about cruises, and you know exactly what you are doing and you don’t need any advice at all. You’ve picked the line, let’s say Crystal, consistently ranked the best or among the very best on earth (I’ve sailed on Crystal myself and can vouch for the exemplary quality of the rooms, food, and service). Now we will assume that you know what departure/itinerary you want, and let’s also assume that like the staff at The Cruise Professionals you know every room on every ship in the line’s fleet intimately and exactly which one offers the best value, layout, and location. Even if you know all these things, which few people do, when you book your cruise directly with Crystal, or with almost any other agent, you are not going to get as good a deal. It’s as simple as that. You are losing money by doing it yourself.
Why? It’s a simple business proposition. Economics 101.
Your trip (assuming for two people) brings Crystal one booking, totaling maybe $10-$15,000. When you call them and get routed to their call center, that’s what you represent to the company. Maybe you book a cruise every year, and you represent $15,000 annually, making you a bit higher up the food chain. When your travel agent, who presumably books dozens of cruises a year calls, representing say $250,000 in revenue, they might do a little bit better, maybe get you a one class cabin upgrade or a token shipboard credit, because Crystal needs to keep its best customers, in this case your travel agent, happy.
But they need to keep Mary Jean Tully really, really happy. She gives Crystal $11 million in business each year, and no one, as in nobody in the world, books more than she does, as the line’s top seller for the past 10 years. She is also in the very top tier of producers (with goofy names like Inner Circle and Pinnacle Club) of all the top luxury cruise lines as well as cruise add-on partners like Ritz Carlton hotels and Abercrombie & Kent tours. That means she doesn’t get the call center, and if she needs to, she gets the President of the cruise line on the phone. She gets room upgrades, extra credits, waiting lists waived. Most interestingly of all, she offers her clients price protection, so if the cruise gets discounted after you book it, which happens more and more often these days, she uses her leverage to make Crystal give you back the difference, even though they do not normally do that, and their policy is that the lower rate is for new bookings only. Almost no one else can offer this. It also means you get better rooms at hotels before and after your trip and better deals on shore excursion add-ons. You might be a loyal Ritz customer and stay 30 nights a year. She buys 3,000. Hello, Club Floor.
And it’s not just Crystal and Ritz Carlton. The Cruise Professionals is a luxury cruise specialist, and they do an enormous volume of business with all the 4-Star and 5-Star lines, especially Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, and Seabourn, all of which she serves on the advisory boards of, as well as Oceania, Silversea and Cunard, and in a pinch she will book clients on Holland America, though she is not your choice for mass market lines or Disney, which she avoids.
I’ve been working with Tully as an expert consultant and cruise agent for friends and relatives for more than a decade, but I’m not exactly her only fan. ‘Conde Nast Traveler’ magazine has named her the Top Luxury Cruise Specialist every single year since 1999. ‘Travel Agent News’ called her “…one of the most influential and powerful women executives in the industry…” Several different luxury travel publications have named her the nation’s best cruise agent. And they are right.
Want to compare? “Call your American Express agent,” urges Tully, referring specifically to the concierge travel services offered by the Black and Platinum cards. “Then ask the person on the phone outright: have you ever been on the ship?” She spends about a third of the year afloat on the top cruise lines, as do many of her staffers, and her team knows every class of cabin on all the lines she represents. “Especially in this market, they are giving us deals that no one else has, that we can’t advertise and the line can’t advertise. Be it upgrades, extra amenities, whatever, it’s just like any other business, it is all about relationships, and we have longstanding relationships with the luxury lines. The bottom line is that people should shop for a cruise agent based on the volume they do with the lines they are interested in traveling on.”
But the advantages of using an elite cruise oriented travel agency do not end with the discounts and upgrades, though these are nice. The biggest value add comes from experience, knowledge and unmatched expertise. “There’s not much magic in booking a cruise from Point A to Point B,” said Tully. “It’s all about which ship, which room, how you get there, where you stay and what you do before and after, and what you do in the ports during the cruise. For instance, when you take a cruise that stops in Istanbul, they shuttle you in for the day and then you are on your own. It’s like visiting New York City for the first time and getting dropped by a van in Times Square and having them say ‘good luck.’ We are all about maximizing your choices and experiences, so we ask a lot of questions and we give our clients a lot of options. In Barcelona, there is no need to hire a private car and guide, so don’t. In Istanbul it’s a must, but you have to know that. We save you here so you can spend there. Let’s say you are choosing between Category A cabins on Crystal on decks 8 or 9. I’ll say book 8, it’s cheaper but it’s got the same views and everything, and then spend the savings on a private tour when it really makes a difference.”
Here’s a concrete example of the choices she talks about. “If I have a client going to Europe I tell them this, and it does not matter what cruise line, it could be Crystal or it could be Princess, they all do this. If you go to Florence the port is Livorno, and they offer a bus ride that leaves at 8:30 in the morning into the city for the day for $100 per person with nothing but the ride. So for a couple that’s $200 and for a family or two couples it’s $400. I tell my clients that for $500 I can get you a private car driven by a qualified local guide, you can leave the ship later, you can stop and go up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you can have lunch in the Tuscan countryside, or do and see whatever it is you want to do and see, and you still can get a tour of Florence and the Duomo. It’s an option, you can decide whether it’s worth it to you. But there are shore excursions and there are shore excursions, and not all of them are experiences best shared with 50 people on a bus. We know that difference in every port and have options.”
Because of the internet, the transparency of booking cruises has gotten worse, not better. “Two for One” and “Free Air” specials abound online, but usually have tons of fine print and don’t always mean what they appear to. Since many people add on ground trips to cruises, and often begin and end their trips from different cities, an agent like Tully can take the air credit the cruise line offers as “free air” and apply it towards what you really want to do, your choice of airlines, dates, and locations. She also handles much more complex custom itineraries for her regular customers, like someone who recently wanted to leave a long cruise for several days in the middle, jump over to a deluxe South African safari lodge by private jet for a few days of game viewing, and then rejoin the ship. Try booking that on Expedia. “You can find us on the internet but we are not an internet company. We don’t take bookings on line. We want to talk to you.”
I’ve sent several friends and even relatives her way, and they have never been disappointed, regardless if they were going high-end or middle of the road, as a couple or a family, or whether their main focus was on value or experience. Personally I think the latter is more important, because you can only save so much money on a cruise, but you can never stop making a trip better and more interesting, and there is always something you don’t know about but might wish later that you did. “If your cruise has you in Rome on a Wednesday, for $175 I can get you a front row seat with the Pope. I don’t care if you are middle class, rich, even Jewish, it’s a lifetime memory. That’s our thing: we think every trip should be a trip of a lifetime and we try to make that happen.”