While small, independent cruise lines may have to sail their own course and not follow the big companies if they want to survive and prosper, Renaissance Cruises also seems intent on infuriating travel agents.

In the latest turn of events, Renaissance has been offering agents capped commission checks now on sales made previous to the capped commission policy, effective May 21, in lieu of full commissions to be paid later.

It was only weeks ago that Renaissance's web site reportedly recommended that consumers book directly with the cruise line and not waste their time on agents.

That announcement caused considerable reaction from the travel agent community and led to the expulsion of Renaissance from the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) - and that was just weeks after Renaissance announced its maximum $250 per person, and $500 per couple, commission policy. 

Tom Beebe, owner of Uniglobe Vip Travel in Atlanta, was among the agents offered a capped commission check now on a cruise booking made and paid in full in January for a cruise next February.

"I am mad," Beebe told Cruise Industry News. "I will do my best to steer clients away from Renaissance."

Beebe noted how Renaissance requires full payment in advance, especially on special cruise offers, but only pays commission after the cruise has been taken.

Beebe said he sees no reason why his company should sell Renaissance's cruises, when he could earn a commission rate of between 10 and 15 percent from Crystal Cruises, for instance, which he said was a comparable product.

"It is pure conjecture on my part," he said, "but when a company starts to demand full payment far in advance and pays commissions late, it may suggest that it is in financial straits." He said he had seen the same pattern at certain airlines in the past.

Growing Fleet

While Renaissance is battling it out with travel agents, the company is building six new sister ships at Chantiers de l'Atlantique, with more orders reported to be in the pipeline, which will dramatically grow the line's passenger capacity.

With the six new ships, Renaissance will be able to carry an estimated 116,750 passengers per year in 2000, compared to 33,250 in 1996 with its fleet of smaller ships.

The first of the new ships, the R1, is scheduled to sail its first revenue cruise August 1, and will be based year-round in the eastern Mediterranean, primarily sailing between Athens and Istanbul. The R2 will launch service in the western Mediterranean in December of 1998.

The R3 and R4, meanwhile, are slated to sail year­ round from Papeete, Tahiti, launching service in August and December of 1999, respectively.

R5 and R6 are slated for completion in 2000, but sailing programs have not yet been announced.

Thus, with an estimated billion-dollar investment on the line, why does Renaissance need to start a war with travel agents? The company could quietly have gone ahead and sold cruises its own way anyway and benefited from some travel agent support. After all, many cruise passengers have already decided upon a cruise when they call a travel agent. And Beebe conceded that Renaissance has a "very good product." Renaissance did not return phone calls.