"We are filling the ships, although not quite with the yields we would like. But consumers are recognizing the value, and we are doing OK," said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and trade support for Royal Caribbean International. Freed spoke to Cruise Industry News in conjunction with the Association Of Travel Marketing Executives' Travel Industry Forecast meeting in New York.

Comparing the present situation to the aftermath of 9/11, Freed said that fear kept people from traveling then. Now it is guilt, she said. "Ninety-three percent of the population feel guilty about the 7 percent that are unemployed. But our message is that there is no better time to take a cruise. People are working hard, they are in the rat race, so they need a break. They need to get away; they need a change of scenery. Travel agents can help people relieve that feeling of guilt. On a ship, there will be 3,000 other people enjoying themselves which will make everybody feel a lot better.

"We are targeting families. In times of crisis, you cannot replace family time," Freed added.

Royal Caribbean is trying to get that message across in television advertising in addition to strategic pricing initiatives and other incentives. "We do not want to sell on price alone; you die by selling on price alone," Freed explained.

"We have built up a brand. People want to be on Royal Caribbean ships. They want that one of a kind experience. If we all paid more attention to the brand, we would all be better off. I want to be the brand that people are willing to pay more for."

Helping Agents

To help agents, Royal Caribbean recently launched ASAP - which stands for Agent Support Action Program for travel agents or Amazing Ships, Amazing Perks for consumers.

"We are giving agents one more point of commission at least through February, that is, an extra point of commission on all bookings, including the Oasis of the Seas through April 2010," Freed said. "We also offer one tour conductor for every 10 people booked; that translates into an extra 10 percent commission and helps group business."

In addition, Royal Caribbean has also allocated several million dollars to co-op advertising - "to get agents out there to market and promote."

All travel agents are being targeted, and the line will work with any agent that wants help. "We have local business development managers supporting agents; we are helping them on the grass root level with marketing and sales," Freed said.

There is also a monthly webinar, Freed called it the "Vicki and Ken (Muscat, vice president of sales) conference," giving travel agents direct access to the executives. The next webinar is scheduled for Feb. 10. These efforts are besides educational tools and other initiatives that were already in place, such as Cruising Power, Royal Caribbean's dedicated website for travel agents, and a travel agent locator on the line's consumer Website.

Consumer promotions includes onboard credits, reduced deposits to 50 percent and a variety of pricing promotions.

Freed's message to agents is that tough times don't last; tough people do.

"We need the travel agents," Freed said, "and we are there to help them."

Royal Caribbean is also looking ahead to the introduction of the 220,000-ton. 5,400-passenger Oasis, which is expected to generate much positive publicity for Royal Caribbean as well as for the cruise industry at large.