'The significant changes come from the customers themselves who demand new experiences,' said Erika Tache, director, product development, tour operations, Carnival Cruise Line. She said travelers increasingly seek tailor-made experiences and urged tour operators to know the specific demographics of each brand—such as families with young children or teens—in order to proactively offer the right programs.
'You should be refreshing your product at least once a year,' Tache told FCCA delegates.
Adventure products, World Heritage sites, local customs, traditions and culinary experiences are key now. Plus, the use of technology—such as offering Wi-Fi on tour buses—is important.
Tache said it doesn't matter how long tour operators have been in business; they need to innovate to keep up with today's travelers, and governments should support this with needed infrastructure improvements.
'Creativity is really the key,' said Tom Anderson, director, product development, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s Global Tour Operations.
'The creative process has to allow for failure,' he added. 'If not, you're not really innovating.'
Anderson also stressed the need to know cruise line demographics and differentiate products for each brand.
'Guests expect the tour to be an extension of the cruise they purchased,' he said. 'You need to build differentiated tours that at the same time are authentic and experiential.'
It's crucial for destinations to invest in language training for guides, said Albino Di Lorenzo, vp cruise operations, MSC Cruises USA.
More and more international travelers—particularly Germans but also Chinese—are taking Caribbean cruises, the panelists said.
Speaking from the audience, Martin Ince of Foster & Ince, noted that a few years ago, the Barbados Ministry of Tourism worked with a community college to foster German language classes for local guides.
Mark Mingo, ceo of the St. Maarten Harbour Group, said he'd reached an agreement with a tourism institute in Hamburg for German-speaking guide training during Seatrade Europe. And Beth Kelly Hatt of the Aquila Center for Cruise Excellence, which fosters guide certification, noted there's a working group within the FCCA addressing the need for more multilingual guides.
Christine Manjencic, vp destination services operations, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, congratulated the region on having 'some phenomenal guides' and stressed how critical the guide is to the destination.
In one place where the guides routinely weren't up to par, the whole destination suffered and Manjencic said ultimately she had to manage passenger expectations by being truthful about the experience during tour briefings. As a result, excursion sales in that destination dropped 20% but so did complaints. Yet tour sales went up in other destinations because passengers understood the enthusiastic briefing was genuine.
The destination with poor guides was 'the sacrificial lamb,' Manjencic said. 'Don't be that sacrificial lamb.'
Eventually, the FCCA panelists noted, such a destination would likely be dropped from an itinerary.
'Make sure your guides are passionate and that they are story-tellers,' Carnival's Tache added.
Asked how open the cruise industry really is to working with new tour operators, panel moderator Mico Cascais, vp tour operations, Carnival Cruise Line, returned to the innovation theme.
Newcomers must offer something truly different, not just a subtle variation of an existing tour, he said.
'If you have something way new, you have a really good opportunity to break in,' Cascais told FCCA delegates.