Shore excursions are a major cost factor for your cruising customers. They can also be an important contributor to your bottom line when you become a travel agent.
But shore excursions are a mixed blessing and require some careful thinking on the part of every home-based travel agent. So I thought I would try to lay out some pros and cons, some dos and don’ts, along with some personal observations to help you formulate your own policy towards shore excursions for your clients.
I should mention at the outset that I have decidedly mixed emotions about them when it comes to my own personal choices. Perhaps you will notice my biases as we proceed.
Shore Excursions: The Cons
- Shore excursions are expensive. They can certainly look that way to many of your clients. Most shore excursions are put together by so-called receptive tour operators, who have to pay for everything included in the excursion — buses, museum admissions, guides, etc. They add their profit margin to their costs and then quote a price to the cruise line, which adds its own mark up. When you look at it like this, it’s not too surprising that shore excursions cost what they do. Then, too, cruise lines often work with tour operators to add value to their tours and ensure a unique, high-value experience. Even so, you will find a lot of your clients balking at the price. This is a classic example of the cost/value equation discussed in the Home-Based Travel Agent Success Course.
- Shore excursions are non-commissionable. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions that prove the rule. That’s why many travel agents turn to third party excursion providers such as ShoreTrips, MyExcursions, and PortPromotions. The prices are comparable to those offered by the cruise lines, sometimes less, sometimes more, but there are commissions.
- Shore excursions are time sinks. Stays in port are fairly short and some “nearby” attractions aren’t really all that nearby, so excursions can involve a fair amount of time getting to and from the main attractions. Shore excursions from Le Havre to Paris involve almost five hours on a bus, with even more time spent seeing the sights of the City of Light from the bus windows! Many shore excursions involve stops for shopping, which may or may not interest everyone. One memorable excursion to the Mayan ruins at Tulum stopped for 45 minutes at a cluster of souvenir shops in a walled compound in the middle of nowhere from which there was no escape!
Shore Excursions: The Pros
Of course, there are some good things to be said about shore excursions.
- Shore excursions can offer the best chance 0f seeing some amazing places. A good example of this is the typical “port intensive” cruise of the eastern Mediterranean. Seeing Ephesus and the palace at Knossos is worth all the inconvenience of early rising and lengthy bus trips. If your client has only one shot at seeing Paris, that trip from Le Havre might be worth it.
- Shore excursions can be great fun. My wife still raves about seeing bears on a shore excursion in Alaska. (I called it the “walking around in the rain to get soaking wet tour.”) A Star Clipper shore excursion that included slogging through chest-high waves, playing Tarzan in virgin jungle, and a superb buffet lunch on a deserted beach miles away from the nearest road is one of my most cherished travel memories. It’s also worth noting that there was no possible way this experience could have been duplicated on our own.
- Shore excursions offer convenience. Sure, you can get off the ship in many Caribbean ports and make your own way to the beach, but the convenience offered by a shore excursion, which might include snorkeling equipment and such like, can be well worth the cost.
- Shore excursions offer certainty. At least that’s what the cruise lines like to say. Shore excursions offered by cruise lines feature insurance valid in the United States. Other options may not have this feature. Also, if an excursion offered by the cruise line is delayed in returning to the ship, the cruise line will, within reason, delay departure.
A Tale of Three Shore Excursions
My wife and I stopped in Cobn (pronounced “cove”), Ireland, on a transatlantic crossing. We took a train from the dockside into Cork, walked into the center of town, and enjoyed a pint of stout at the Mutton Lane, a candle-lit sliver of a pub dating from the 1700s. Then we had a wonderful farm-to-table Irish lunch at the Farmgate Cafe at the English Market while perched on a balcony overlooking the market floor. We spent an hour or so strolling the narrow streets and alleys of downtown Cork, popped into the (free) Crawford Art Gallery for a half hour or so, and made our leisurely way back to the ship. We were happy campers.
Back on the ship, we had an opportunity to compare notes with some fellow passengers.
One fellow told of his less then satisfactory outing to Blarney Castle, where for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, the extraordinarily uncomfortable ritual of kissing the Blarney Stone has been a tourist must-do for over two centuries. By the time the tour bus reached Blarney Castle, which was only about a 40-minute drive from the ship, the famous site was so mobbed that climbing the steps to the ramparts, let alone kissing the stone, was impossible. In fairness, it should be noted that the write-up for this shore excursion pointed out that there were no guarantees.
On the other hand, a woman reported that her excursion to the Waterford Crystal factory was a smashing success (smashing may not be the best adjective to use). She learned the history of Waterford and got to see how the crystal is made, step by step. I neglected to ask if she also dropped a bundle adding to her own Waterford collection but I suspect for most people on that tour, that’s exactly what happened.
Bottom line: Different strokes for different folks.
Shore Excursions: The Sales Challenge
Let’s not mince words. Selling shore excursions offered by third parties can be a challenge. One option is simply to opt out of even trying; let your clients make their own decisions among the cruise line’s offerings.
On the other hand, it makes sense to maximize your commission income. If you become a travel agent and specialize in cruises, it might be said that you have a professional obligation to provide excellent consultation on shore excursions.
This is one of those situations in which qualifying (also discussed in depth in the course) meets the cost/value equation and becomes of paramount importance.
You will also need to gain a good working knowledge of the ports and shore excursion possibilities available at each. The best (and most enjoyable) way to do this is via personal experience, but inevitably you will have to seek out the expertise of others. By all means talk with your fellow travel agents, but an Internet search for “cruise port information” will turn up a wealth of options.
Basically it all boils down to your clients’ preferences. Do they like taking shore excursions or not? Be aware that some clients will say they don’t (and mean it) but then they’ll meet a fellow passenger who raves about the Mystical Waterfalls of Hakuna Matata, and they’ll sign up for a commissionless shore excursion on board.
As you learn to do a good job of getting to know your clients, it becomes easier. You will know those who never gets off the ship in the Caribbean (“Been there before and it’s so nice to have the ship virtually to yourself!”); those who never met a shore excursion they didn’t like; and those who would appreciate some knowledgeable guidance (“By all means, take this shore excursion to Ruin X in Port A, but just stroll to this undiscovered cafe in Port B”).
Perhaps the trickiest challenge is answering the question “Why should I use this outfit you’re recommending instead of taking the excursion offered by the ship?” The answer will be different for each excursion and each client, but it should be a good one. “Because I get a commission,” is not the answer they want to hear. A good place to start is with the provider of the tour.
A good way to avoid this question altogether is to work with the provider to set up a completely private tour just for your client and their family and friends.
When helping people decide, weigh the value and accessibility of nearby attractions versus the negatives of shore excursions. For the reasonably active and adventurous client, I would never recommend a shore excursion in Amsterdam, where so many knock your socks off attractions are so easily reached and where just walking around the canals is a magical experience. Know their interests. Art? History? Shopping? Local arts and crafts? Fine dining? Active sports like scuba diving? Sitting at a cafe and people watching?
As you gain experience, from your own travels, debriefing clients, and professional research, you may want to develop your own sets of recommendations for various ports — great restaurants, walking tours, recommended sights to see, and so forth. If your recommendations are sufficiently detailed and tailored to the tastes of the individual client, you shouldn’t hesitate to charge a consultation fee for your expertise.
Remember, your goal should always be to best serve the client, not to make a commission. The value gained by your clients knowing you have their best interests at heart is far greater than any passing shore excursion commission.