Comebacks, it seems, are all the rage in the world of football at the moment with Thierry Henry at Arsenal and Paul Scholes at Manchester United.
Andy Harmer, director of the Association of Cruise Experts (Ace), makes no claim that his reappointment to the travel agent training body two months ago ranks alongside these headline-grabbing returns. But, like the aforementioned sporting stars, he understands the risk of returning to a job in which he built an enviable reputation by re‑establishing the organisation and securing its future.
And now he is faced with the daunting challenge of supporting the trade by minimising the long-term impact of the Costa Cruises disaster on the sector’s reputation.
“Incidents of this kind are incredibly rare. Cruising is one of the safest ways to travel,” he says.
“We have a programme of events and systems to communi-cate with the trade regularly, and we will be using these to reassure agents that cruising is safe and will continue to grow.”
Returning to take the helm at Ace – he left in 2009 and had a stint as sales and marketing director at Crystal Cruises – had not been on Harmer’s radar.
“I did not think I would ever return but it was too good an opportunity to miss,” he says.
“I thought how would I feel if someone else took the position and I decided I’d be disappointed I had not taken it myself.
“I had been here for three years previously and I felt it was an unfinished job. I have always told people never to return, but this time I ignored my own advice.”
One of Harmer’s greatest achievements during his first stint in charge, apart from establishing the Ace name, was introducing the Cruise Convention, now an integral part of the annual travel calendar.
But he has returned to Ace aware that while he was away the trading environment, and to some extent the relationship between cruise operator and agent, has changed.
“We are in the latter stages, hopefully, of a deep downturn that has affected how agents work and how they go to market.
“But cruise has continued to grow and the opportunities offered by operators to agents have improved and the way agents learn has moved on as the cruise market has matured.
“It was very useful to make new contacts and work with agents in a different way at Crystal and understand more the commercial challenges everybody faces.”
Ace finds itself in a sensitive position, reliant on the support of cruise lines but also there to champion the work of agents.
Those two groups often have divergent demands and last year’s commission cut by Complete Cruise Solution heralds potentially wider changes in the agent/operator relationship. This caused consternation in some quarters, but Harmer insists Ace’s fundamental role has not changed.
“It’s the job of Ace to work with agents so they understand the opportunities available and how they are best placed to capitalise on those opportunities. Everything else is outside what Ace does.
“The whole travel industry has a vested interest in agents championing the cruise sector and being ambassadors for the industry to their customers.
“What’s increasingly clear is that agents and consumers are looking for different experiences and cruising is perfectly placed to achieve that. Agents with the knowledge are far better placed to offer that diversity to match whatever the customer is seeking.”
Harmer feels that agents are starting to proactively offer cruise without customers asking for it and this is testament to the increased confidence that comes from training.
Cruise lines have invested heavily in their own agent training in the past year. But there is still a vital role to be played for the kind of generic training Ace offers, says Harmer. However, he talks of the need for a unified approach or “blended learning”.
“We have to move from a pure reliance on e-learning. We will continue to invest in it and launch a programme on May 1 but it’s not the only way to train agents. We will back that up with other online and offline learning opportunities and also run showcase product-driven learning, expos and events such as the river cruise conference.
“We have always tried to be complementary to what the cruise lines do, rather than compete.
“That allows us to train more travel agents to sell more cruises, to give them as much advice, support and tips as possible.”
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