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Monday,  July 15, 2024 6:40 AM 

On Location: “There’s a cruise for every client”: TDC Cruise Academy with Virgin Voyages wraps up in Caribbean

On Location: “There’s a cruise for every client”: TDC Cruise Academy with Virgin Voyages wraps up in Caribbean
Suppliers gather on board Virgin Voyages' Valiant Lady for TDC Cruise Academy. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Amazing, informative, inspiring, helpful, impressive, fun, interesting, educational, enlightening, exciting, immersive and wow.

Those were just some of the words Canadian travel advisors, during a pass-the-microphone-around-the-room exercise, used to describe their experience at Transat Distribution Canada’s (TDC’s) 2024 Cruise Academy, which ran from April 20-26.

The seminar at sea, which, this year, unfolded aboard Virgin Voyages’ vibrant, 17-deck ship, the 2,700-passenger Valiant Lady, saw 80 travel professionals, from various provinces, participate in a robust training program for boosting cruise sales, on a voyage from Miami, Florida to Costa Maya, Mexico; Roatán, Honduras; and Bimini, in the Bahamas, and back.

From supplier presentations and expert-led workshops, attendees – a mix of both seasoned sellers and individuals cruising for the first time – got the inside scoop on today’s latest cruise products, and guidance on how to find a niche, create an action plan and provide better customer service.

Sharing insights at TDC Cruise Academy. (Pax Global Media)

TDC Cruise Academy turns cruise ships into classrooms. (Pax Global Media)

Agents also got to dive deep into Virgin Voyages’ exciting way of life at sea.

“It was an amazing experience,” Leanne LeRose, an owner of Marlin Travels in Kingston and Hanover, ON, told PAX, which covered TDC's Cruise Academy exclusively. “I’ve done a lot of conferences, but this was the first one that really immersed me in a product.”

TDC Cruise Academy graduates give suppliers a high five. (Pax Global Media)

An adults-only world

Virgin Voyages, which launched in 2020, is all about inviting its guests into a vivid, adults-only world.

READ MORE: On Location - TDC Cruise Academy sets sail with Virgin Voyages amid “booming” cruise sales

The Sir Richard Branson-owned line boasts design-savvy spaces, superb food, wellness activities, rule-breaking entertainment and tons of value (all sailings include gratuities, basic Wi-Fi, group fitness classes, shows, non-alcoholic drinks and dining at more than 20 eateries).

Valiant Lady docked in the Bahamas, in Bimini. (Pax Global Media)

The music-filled voyage is packed with fun activities (like pajama parties), flamboyant hosts (there’s a resident drag queen) and cool technology, like an on-demand, app-based champagne delivery service, called “Shake for Champagne.”

As PAX previously reported, it’s a come-as-you-are experience, built around socializing, wellness, dining and adventure, that attracts all walks of life – open-minded travellers, of diverse sexual preferences, genders, ages and body sizes, who go with the ocean flow.

Funky public spaces on board Valiant Lady. (Pax Global Media)

Inside The Wake restaurant on board Valiant Lady. (Pax Global Media)

Poolside on board Valiant Lady. (Pax Global Media)

“It’s for people who aren’t afraid to have a little fun, be naughty or silly,” said Sean Russo, sales manager for Canada at Virgin Voyages, noting that the average age on board is 49. “They realize life is too short to follow the rules. They like cultural experiences, they want to let loose.”

READ MORE: Boy George to join Sir Richard Branson for Virgin Celebration Voyage

That be-yourself philosophy extends to the crew, too, who may proudly show tattoos, piercings or colourful hairstyles.

As LeRose put it: “There’s no other product like it.”  

From left: Sandra Wesson, Mike Quinto, Leanne LeRose, Jordana Botting, Diana Tanguay, Sue Palma. (Pax Global Media)

The onboard diva (drag queen) brings glitter, glam, sparkle, and glitz. (Pax Global Media)

Worth the investment

Mid-sized Valiant Lady, which entered service in 2022, was a fitting venue for this year’s Cruise Academy – TDC’s first since the pandemic first hit four years ago.

From left: Jean-Philip Genest, Transat; Caroline Legendre, TDC; Emmanuelle Sigouin, TDC; Sean Russo, Virgin Voyages; Gina Mallamo, TDC; Donna Glover, TDC; Sandra Wesson, TDC. (Pax Global Media)

After all, TDC was the first Canadian travel group to offer a Virgin Voyages training program and FAM with the brand in 2022.

It’s also a good time to talk business. Sandra Wesson, director of product and industry relations at TDC, said cruise sales are “booming” right now, producing double and triple-digit growth among the network’s preferred partners.

READ MORE: On Location - Third time’s a charm with Virgin Voyages’ Resilient Lady. PAX's Diane Tierney reviews

“We’re seeing great engagement with Europe cruises, a lot of new-to-cruise customers, as well as new-to-brand,” Wesson told PAX previously.

One-on-one sessions agents make the right connections. (Pax Global Media)

While the sea was churning, travel advisors were learning. (Pax Global Media)

In-depth learning events like TDC Cruise Academy – one of several training sessions TDC hosts throughout the year – are worth the time and investment.

“Anytime we run an Academy, we definitely see a jump in sales,” Wesson said. 

TDC Cruise Academy class of 2024 on board Valiant Lady. (Pax Global Media)

“Ah ha” moments

This year’s conference, which offered sessions in both English and French, welcomed “First Mates” (that's what Virgin calls travel advisors) from all the sectors of the TDC network – this being, Marlin Travel, TravelPlus, Affiliates, Transat Travel and agent@home in English Canadaand Voyages Transat, Club Voyages, Voyages en Liberte, agent@externe in Quebec.

For many, the week was an invitation to think about the cruise industry in a whole new way.

Cocktail hour on board Valiant Lady. (Pax Global Media)

“There were a lot of eye-opening moments during the supplier presentations where I said to myself, ‘I could sell this,’” said Halifax-based Wayne Arsenault, who belongs to Transat Travel’s agent@home program. “I heard from cruise lines I previously didn’t push too much, but after their presentations, I realized I have the clients.” 

LeRose was similarly inspired, telling PAX about one “ah ha” moment she had during a session about river cruising.

From left: Leanne LeRose, owner, Marlin Travel (Kingston & Hanover); Wayne Arsenault, Transat Travel, agent@home program. (Pax Global Media)

“River cruising isn’t as intimating as some agents think it is,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for agents to make good revenue and build their business with clientele they already have.”

“There’s the old saying, ‘I don’t think I have that client.’ But we actually do. More than we think we do,’” LeRose said.

Her plan, she said, is to take what she’s learned and share it with her team of agents back home, and grow her agency’s groups business.

An all-star cast

The cruise partners who participated in this year’s TDC Cruise Academy included Sean Russo from Virgin Voyages, who’s doubling as this week’s onboard host, Thomas Steer from Holland America Line, Natalie Papoutsoglou from Princess, Wade Menard from Cunard, Jordana Botting from Viking, Maxine Gundermann from Seabourn, Tracy Daniels from Scenic and Emerald, Morgane Beltaief from Oceania, Neil Dudley from AmaWaterways, Katie Kania from Norwegian, and Brenda Yeomans from Celebrity.

And, in recognizing that cruises involve pre and post-land experiences, and other products, TDC brought in additional suppliers to enhance the experience.

Mixing and mingling aboard Valiant Lady at cocktail hour. (Pax Global Media)

They included Bruno Muñoz from Bedsonline, Hillary Arsenault from G Adventures (which sells expedition voyages), Maria Jennipher Santa Cruz Perez from Encore Cruises, Mike Quinto from Exoticca, Patrick Brousseau from Manulife, and Jean-Philip Genest from TDC Training.

Having so many suppliers on board, within arm’s reach, was a boon to Wayne Arsenault, who jumped at the opportunity to build personal relationships.

“When you really get to know [suppliers] in person, it gives us [agents] a level of comfort to call them,” Arsenault said.

Agents had opportunities to win prizes at TDC Cruise Academy. (Pax Global Media)

All about trust

Jean-Philip Genest, a training designer at Transat, took a one-size-fits-all approach to his workshops, ensuring that his lessons applied to all kinds of cruise topics.

For agents approaching cruise brands for the first time, Genest applied the “Six Thinking Hats” method, a way of thinking first pioneered by Dr. Edward de Bono.

This involves deconstructing a subject by separating facts from emotions, while identifying negative and creative sides.

Jean-Philip Genest, a training designer at Transat. (Pax Global Media)

“It allows you to remove your unconscious bias and approach a new subject portion by portion,” Genest explained. “Once you do that, you’re able to build your own plan of action around promoting a cruise product.”

It’s a learning method that helps identify “the needs and the desires” of customers, Genest said.

READ MORE: On Location - Virgin Voyages’ new Valiant Lady leaves a vivid, lasting impression

“When a client comes in, they will express their needs, but sometimes it’s harder to understand their desires,” Genest told PAX. “That’s where the added value of a travel professional comes in. They can scratch the surface a little more, and understand what their clients truly desire so they can tailor a vacation accordingly, and ensure they have a great time.”

The long-term benefit of this approach is that it develops trust between the client and the travel advisor, Genest explained.

“It gives clients peace of mind,” he said. “They know their vacation will be amazing because their travel professional knows them.”

A real-life example of this surfaced at TDC’s Cruise Academy – one attendee, Cathy Ieritano, revealed that she booked a 101-day World Cruise with Princess this week for a husband-and-wife client that she’s had for more than 20 years.

Travel advisor Cathy Ieritano shares her top sales tips. (Pax Global Media)

“It’s all about trust,” Ieritano said, discussing her booking with the group.

Ieritano said she physically goes to her clients’ home to review trip logistics and itineraries, and to ensure that they, as Elite Status members at Princess, get the choices they want.

“It’s all about those extra steps,” Ieritano said.

Unpacking “Scarlet Night”

TDC Cruise Academy is work intensive. Beyond daily classroom time, one-on-ones were also held with suppliers so agents could ask follow-up questions.

But there was also room for fun – which is easy to find with Virgin Voyages, which brings in poolside DJs and charismatic live bands, while offering eye-popping (and sometimes naughty) entertainment.

Scarlet Night, which unfolded Wednesday night (April 24), was one standout extravaganza where all passengers on board dress in red (Virgin Group’s signature colour) and explore a wild menagerie of pop-up circus acts, flash dances, singing and art activations throughout the ship.

A wild menagerie of pop-up acts take over Valiant Lady during Scarlet Night. (Pax Global Media)

From left: Brenda Yeomans, Celebrity; Sandra Wesson, TDC; Jennipher Santa Cruz, TravelBrands; Katie Kania, Norwegian. (Pax Global Media)

Cruise Academy attendees embrace the Virgin Voyages way at Scarlet Night. (Pax Global Media)

The idea is to transport guests to a world that’s built around a sailor’s myth – the story of a brave sailor and an octopus goddess who transforms him into the moon as a testament of her love.

READ MORE: On Location - Hip, fun and a little naughty. What to expect from Virgin Voyages

It all cumulates at night on a spotlight pool deck, where a giant blow-up octopus oversees a sea of go-go dancers and grooving passengers – some who will eventually remove their shoes and dance in the pool’s ankle (and chest-level) waters.

Poolside during Scarlet Night on board Valiant Lady. (Pax Global Media)

Canadian travel pros on the scene at Scarlet Night. (Pax Global Media)

It’s a beautiful thing, seeing a ship full of diverse people, joyfully dancing to uplifting music under the moonlight, with wind of the Caribbean Sea beneath their wings.

If there was night to go dancing on a Virgin ship, it’s this one. There’s nothing else like it at sea.

Suppliers sound off

Between onboard dinners to a half-day beach party hosted by Viking and Exoticca at the Krazy Lobster in Costa Maya to a day off in Bimini at Virgin’s beach club – where pop remixes, bubbles and floaties ruled the pool (a mermaid was also spotted) – and giveaways, agents had plenty of ways to mix and mingle with suppliers.

“I like the balance,” said Maxine Gundermann, senior manager of national and strategic accounts at Seabourn. “Connecting with agents isn’t just done during presentations. The absorption takes time. I value the personal connections made at dinners and events the most.”

Virgin Voyages' beach club at Bimini in the Bahamas. (Pax Global Media)

One “common theme” Gundermann heard among attendees was that the demand for luxury travel is rising. Agents also have a desire to sell brands they, perhaps, weren’t familiar with previously, she said.

“The Academy has opened their eyes and made them way more confident,” Gundermann said.

Mermaid sighting at the Beach Club at Bimini. (Pax Global Media)

Caroline Poulson, business development manager for Eastern Canada at the Scenic Group, which includes Scenic and Emerald, said the format allowed her to better understand the needs of agents in her territory, which includes both English and French-speaking communities. 

“By mingling with agents, and knowing where they’re based, I can better understand the challenges they’re facing and help them,” Poulson told PAX

TDC Cruise Academy also highlights some of the regional differences within Canada’s cruise market, she said.

For example: Ontario may be the “bread and butter” of Scenic’s business, but clients in Quebec spend more money on cruises, Poulson said, emphasizing the opportunities that await.

From left: Jennipher Santa Cruz, BDM, TravelBrands; Maxine Gundermann, sr. manager of national & strategic accounts, Seabourn; Caroline Poulson, BDM, Eastern Canada, Scenic Group. (Pax Global Media)

The week wrapped up with a graduation ceremony, where agents received a diploma for completing TDC’s Cruise Academy. 

“Don’t be afraid to put that diploma where clients can see it,” said Jennipher Santa Cruz, a business development manager at TravelBrands. “Share your knowledge with as many people as you can.”

Santa Cruz (who, too, confirmed that cruise sales are “booming”) urged agents to offer all kinds of cruise products – even if it’s a brand they, personally, aren’t interested in, or wouldn’t be able to afford.

“Show clients the options, and don’t sell from your own pocketbook or own experience,” she said.  “There is a cruise for every client.”

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