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Mico Cascais, vp tour operations, Carnival Cruise Line, and chairman, FCCA Shore Excursions Committee, moderates the panel (Photo: Anne Kalosh)

Tour tips (for operators) from the pros

Monitor tourism trends. Craft experiences in sync with each cruise line's brand proposition and customers. Plan for different age groups. Fold social media and technology into the tour. Ensure guides are passionate storytellers. Constantly review and refresh. Innovate.

These were some of the expert recommendations for tour operators in a shore excursions workshop at this week's Florida-Caribbean Cruise Conference & Trade Show in Puerto Rico.

Keep abreast of tourism trends, including what's happening in the United States where most Caribbean passengers originate, said Christine Manjencic, vp, destination services operations, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.

'A lot of people focus on their destination only ... You're in competition not with other islands but the rest of the world,' she said. The culinary movement, for example, is huge. 'Bring it in and incorporate it with island flair.'

'Go on our websites. Look at what we're promoting,' advised Lisa Jensen, manager, shore excursions, Holland America Group. Through its UNESCO partnership, Seabourn highlights World Heritage tours. Princess Cruises is associated with the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet and seeks excursions that tie in.

'In this region we are severely lacking Animal Planet [content]. There's only one tour,' Jensen said.

Tours for families are needed, and operators should think about different age groups within families—small children, teens, grandparents.

'Our guests are looking at building memories and having fun,' said Erika Tache, director, product development - tour operations, Carnival Cruise Line. Excursions need to be experience-based and provide value. Kid-friendly dining, access for strollers and safety and security are important.

Operators should think of the entire demographic, according to Arnaldo Zanonato, senior manager, Port Adventures, Disney Cruise Line. A lot of adults travel without kids on Disney.

MSC Cruises fields four ships in the Caribbean—one caters to Americans and three to Europeans, mainly Germans, French, Spaniards and Italians. Each nationality has different needs and expectations, noted Valentina Pietropaolo, manager, shore excursions, MSC Cruises USA.

That also means multilingual guides are crucial. Reminding the FCCA audience that Europeans come from countries rich in history and culture, Pietropaolo said they have high expectations and are 'shore excursion lovers.'

A good way for a new operator to break in is by researching what lines already offer and finding a gap that needs to be filled, suggested Mike Bush, product manager, shore excursions, Holland America Group. One newcomer who did that got business across multiple brands.

Parks Canada is a great example of how to create innovative historic and cultural experiences, Disney's Zanonato said.

'Royal Caribbean loves to talk about innovation,' noted Tom Anderson, director, product development, Global Tour Operations, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. So active tours that are exciting and different play well. He credited Puerto Costa Maya's new Lost Mayan Kingdom water park as a 'remarkable' experience that's themed 'at a Disney level.'

Fold social media into the experience, cruise lines said, so people can send their selfies home, showing friends and family all the fun they're having on the cruise. Providing Wi-Fi in the buses or at the destinations is important, and iPads can be incorporated into tours, as well.

Guides can make or break a destination. 'Please make sure your guides are passionate,' Tache urged. 'They build memories. They are crucial to your business.'

'Teach your guides to be excellent storytellers,' Zanonato advised. And don't hand off groups to a succession of guides. One person can forge a bond with the group. 'Allow that person to be a great host and ambassador to your destination,' Zanonato said.

Steve Hites, president and director, St. Kitts Scenic Railway, told the FCCA delegates: 'Know your audience. Cruise lines differ. Some stories work with one audience and not another. Stay current, he added. The audience changes, and that means what they want changes and the story has to change.

Cox & Co. Ltd., St Lucia, conducts annual guide training, according to Eleanor Rae, director of revenue.

How do cruise lines compete with independent tour operators? By working to ensure their tours give the best experience. Also, Carnival offers a best price guarantee.

'As a tour operator, it's very important to understand what tour revenue means to the cruise lines,' said Martin Ince, ceo, Foster & Ince Cruise Services, Barbados.

Advance bookings are a focus. Disney's Zanonato foresees a time when the shore excursions office on board will have more of a customer service function than a sales function.

Meanwhile, to increase sales points aboard ship, Holland America Group's Jensen said tour operators should invite shore excursions staff, waiters and bartenders when they have space. Those customer-facing crew are a source of information for passengers who want to know what to do in port.

Above all, 'You need to listen to your customers all the time. Go on your tour. Listen on the dock. Get out of your office,' Hites said.

'Never get complacent,' Ince added. Constantly review and refresh tours to ensure they're the best they can be.

 

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