Recently I did a post about the problems that an elderly couple on our recent cruise on Azura had run into. They had made some mistakes in the excursions they had booked, possibly even the specific cruise itself, and generally didn’t seem to be “clued up” about the way the cruise was organised. It was their first cruise, and seemed likely to be their last. As a result of meeting them I began to wonder how cruise newcomers could get the information they needed in order to avoid similar mistakes and to make informed decisions. One obvious place would be their travel agent (TA), and I realised that I’ve never really covered this aspect of the overall cruise experience. So I decided to have a chat with a dedicated cruise TA, if I could, and Bolsover Cruise Club was an easy choice. Their headquarters is not far from where I live, and these days they also have a retail shop in the Meadowhall shopping mall. So I made myself known to them, emails were exchanged, and last Friday I found myself the guest of Michael Wilson, Bolsover Cruise Club’s managing director, and marketing executive James Ward, at their modern offices at Barlborough. (Before I get any further, I ought to say that this article is not an endorsement of Bolsover Cruise Club as against any other TA, nor do I have any connection with them – I simply wanted to get a feel of what a leading TA can do, Bolsover Cruise Club was the one I approached, and the article reflects what I found.)
I wanted to ask some questions around the following points:
- What was Bolsover Cruise Club’s history and how had it reached the position it currently enjoys?
- How could BCC help newcomers to cruising avoid making mistakes?
- What does BCC offer to more experienced cruise passengers?
Before we got into the meeting, however, I was given a quick tour of the site. The main area, on the ground floor, is given over to the telesales team. I ought to say ‘teams’ as there are in fact more than 80 staff on the sales side, organised into teams of up to a dozen, and with experience ranging from recent starters up to some who have been with BCC for decades. There’s a shift pattern, with two shifts – 9am until 5:30pm, and 11:30 until 8pm (Monday to Friday). The teams also work at weekends, but I believe the hours are shorter then.
In addition to the main telesales office there’s a smaller ‘retail’ area, where customers can come and speak direct to a cruise sales person. This can either be on a drop-in basis or by appointment. This area is manned, as and when required, by members of the telesales teams, so these staff get some face to face experience with customers as well as just telephone contact. Finally, the four sales staff at the Meadowhall shop (which is open for all the normal Meadowhall hours) are drawn on a rota from a dedicated team in the main office. All of the sales staff are indeed ‘staff’; i.e. they’re employees of Bolsover Cruise Club, there’s no franchising or self-employment. There are also no home-workers, all employees are based at the Barlborough office. The main office was broadly open-plan, and attractively decorated and furnished – no cubicles here. Also on the ground floor was a training room and the directors’ offices. Upstairs there’s a smaller area which houses the admin team (they handle paperwork and documentation for customers) and some specialist teams: marketing, design, and IT. The ‘Retail’ area at Barlborough is normally open 10am until 4pm Monday to Saturday – it’s not open on Sundays – and the Meadowhall shop follows the same hours as the rest of Meadowhall.
After the tour I spoke with Michael and James. I told him the story of the passengers we’d met on Azura, and he suggested the following ways in which booking with BCC could have given them a better cruise:
- Sales staff are prepared to spend as long as necessary to make sure that customers have got all the information they need, and are happy. Additionally, all customers are told the name of their sales person (and given a picture of them, in their documentation), and are told that if they have any questions they should call them;
- BCC produce various publications. There’s an annual Cruise Guide with which I was particularly impressed. It’s aimed at beginners, and contains a glossary of terms, a summary of the arguments around fly-cruises vs. cruising from the UK, a summary of all the major cruise destination areas e.g. Norwegian Fjords or Canary Islands, and a section outlining the major lines active in the UK cruise market and what they each offer – this section ranges from eight pages for P&O down to just one or two pages for lines such as Oceania and Holland America. There’s also a quarterly (going to bi-monthly in 2016) publication which covers current offers from the lines. Via their website you can sign up for email newsletters, and there is a blog and a FAQ section;
- Most important of all, all of BCC’s sales staff are very well trained. This training (which is done internally) takes a total of eight weeks, and means that even new sales team members have the right information and can give the right advice to customers. This stretches across all the lines that BCC act as agent for, so staff will be able to advise on issues surrounding excursions and port calls (e.g. tendering), different ships’ facilities, etc. Michael mentioned a recent Travel Weekly ‘Mystery Shopper’ of cruise specialists, in which BCC came out top, and he suggested that this was a strong testament both to the staffs’ experience and to the level of the training;
I did ask if BCC staff could actually book excursions for customers. Unfortunately, this is not so easy. The problem is that these days excursions are generally booked and paid for in advance, often via the internet. The passenger’s credit card has to be used to do this, and there are increasing regulations and ‘best practice’ policies which militate against third-parties (i.e. BCC staff) having access to a person’s credit card number. Indeed, all the thrust of the latest policies is that the third party should know as little as possible about the passengers credit card. At the moment, however, BCC staff are still able to book excursions on customers’ behalf on their instructions. It’s also the case that the customers can be invited into the office (the Retail area) where they can be given advice by staff on suitable excursions and then make the booking themselves. Visa applications can also be handled in much the same way. (Have a look at this site for further information about the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) which companies such as BCC are increasingly having to adhere to.)
We turned next to the question of what BCC could offer experienced, regular cruise passengers. Here I think I was less convinced of a specific advantage in using BCC. Not that they may not be better than others in the industry, but that for passengers who know the ropes and who don’t need that much advice, it’s hard for any TA to offer much – most such passengers will have made their own choices in advance, through studying the brochures, and are probably just looking for an efficient way of making the booking. That said, Michael did make the following strong points:
- Many of their customers continue to book cruise after cruise with BCC, year after year. So, as Michael said, they must be getting something right…..
- And that ‘something’ might be the back-office admin work. I didn’t get all the details on this but I did see some document packs being prepared, and I was told that in fact most customers are happy to receive all their details by email. Whichever form the documentation takes, BCC prepare a comprehensive pack which will include the confirmation emails & post from the cruise line, so that the passenger doesn’t have to scrabble around between documents to find the information they want. And of course, if the cruise line makes changes to the cruise, it’s the BCC Admin staff that will inform the customer;
- additionally, for more experienced passengers who want to extend (or preface) their fly-cruise with a stay abroad, and who don’t want to use the lines’ suggested hotels, BCC has an arrangement with another TA who can do this.
We also talked about one or two issues of general interest to cruise passengers. The most interesting of these was the current pricing strategy used by the Carnival UK companies: the split between Select, Early Saver, and Saver fares. Michael and James were convinced that this was a significant improvement because it increased the transparency of pricing policy and allowed customers to make an informed decision. They contrasted this with what had come before. Most recent was the (very) unhappy period of the ‘Price Promise’ and the Vantage fare, during which many passengers felt that they were deliberately being misled. Unfortunately, many of the complaints came BCC’s way and not cruise lines’, and Michael said that they had to work hard to regain customers’ trust and at the same time maintain a relationship with the cruise lines. Before that experience cruise pricing seemed to be random, with fares going up and down, no-one understanding what would happen next, and customers were often in a very confused state: was it best to book early or late? – there was no transparency at all. So it’s felt that the present position is a big step forward from that.
We did also talk about the history of the company, from its beginning as one part of a retirement venture by Michael’s grandfather, to today when it usually wins Cruise Agent of the Year from various lines. This is well covered on their website so I don’t intend to go through it here, but one point was very interesting. In the company’s early existence (as ‘Bolsover Travel’) I gathered that the company was selling holidays of all types, with cruises as just one area. At that time they sometimes ran a very small advert for cruises in the Sunday papers, and these generated quite a lot of business. It was Michael who in the early 1980s decided that the company should focus its energies on the cruise sector, and it was that decision – plus a lot of hard work, of course – that has taken the company from a small shop in Bolsover town centre to being possibly the country’s leading cruise agent. I came away from this meeting impressed with the company and with the people I’d met.
(Update 17 November – a small number of minor changes have been made to correct errors of fact, e.g. I mis-stated the shift patterns.)