Beyond frustrated or why I hate Costco

Frustration.jpgOn Thursday a very nice young lady called the agency and said she had driven by and seen our sign and could someone help her with some questions she had about taking a cruise. Actually, the cruise wasn’t for her, it was for her 70+ year old Mom and Dad and two of their friends who would be visiting her this summer from Japan. They wanted to take a cruise-tour to Alaska and since she (nor they) had ever cruised, she wanted to come in and discuss it. I told her “we are here to help.

About two hours later she came in and we had a very nice talk. I found out a bunch of stuff about what her parents and their friends were looking for in the way of a cruise. I told her that I thought I had all the info I needed and that I would have some options for her before this weekend was over.

This morning she e-mailed me some additional comments and we went back and forth with questions and answers until she used that horrid word that I have learned to hate…Costco.

I have a huge love-hate relationship with Costco. I have been a member forever. We probably spend thousands of dollars there every year. We get all our gas there, we get most of our grocery staples, most of our meat, all our paper goods and a bunch of other stuff from them. Heck, my son has worked at Costco for almost 20 years. But when someone mentions them when talking about travel, it drives be nuts. Especially someone like this young woman.

Her question was typical, “I see that if I buy the cruise from Costco, they will give me a Costco gift card for $350. Can you match that with a discount?” The answer is no, we can’t. And we shouldn’t. Costco uses travel as a loss leader and another way to serve their membership. It’s the way Costco pretty much does everything. The prices are lower to us because they make much of their money selling memberships and they make a bunch more selling prime space in their stores to companies. You know that big line of products on the left when you go into a Costco? The companies that make those products pay Costco to be there. As well they should. It’s prime real estate and the fact that their product is there and not on a shelf in the back means they will sell a BUNCH of extra product.

But Costco should not be in the travel business. Not because they compete unfairly (which they do) but because the people you are dealing with when you buy travel from them don’t have a clue about what they are selling.

If you think about it, Costco people seldom have a clue about what they are selling  product-wise. My son is in the “Majors” department. That’s the one that sells TVs, computers, etc. He knows that stuff. He ought to after almost 20 years. But if you go into his department when he isn’t there, you might end up talking to a new employee that started last week about exactly which TV or computer you are going to buy. Now this if just fine if you know exactly what computer you want. If you know how much RAM, whether you want a traditional hard drive or an SSD or one of many decisions you need to make to buy a computer. If you are ready to make the purchase and have done all your research and you feel like you are an expert—buy it. But if you have no clue about computers, and if you are a smart buyer, you either wait until my son is there (LOL) or you go someplace that knows about computers.

This is even more true when it comes to cruises. If Costco wants to sell car rentals and flights and hotels, that’s fine. Those things really don’t have many variables, while cruises do. If you are going to rent a car, you rent a car. You know what a Ford or a Honda are. If you want to book a hotel and you see a Hyatt on an online website, then you pretty much know what you are getting (although a good travel agent would know about good restaurants and sights near a hotel that was just as nice.)

When you buy a cruise from Costco you are buying it either online or from someone on the phone. If online then you better know exactly what you want stateroom-wise, exactly which ports you want to go to, exactly what perks you are getting, which dining plan you want, etc. Cruises have hundred of variables. But if you don’t, you are in trouble. And this nice young lady who came in to buy her parents a cruise said exactly that, “I don’t know anything about cruises.” If she decides to buy one from Costco online, she will be in trouble.

Let’s say she decides to make a phone call and talk to someone instead of buying her travel online? Will she talk to someone who knows all about cruising? Probably not. In fact my guess is that she will probably talk to someone who has NEVER been on a cruise. Not one. Sure, they may have read some brochures or studied the websites of the cruise lines they sell but have they sailed 20+ times? No. They work in a big phone room (you can’t go to your local Costco and book a cruise—you can only do it online or on the phone), where the next person who calls gets the next employee who is free to answer.

Of course this means when you call back because you need to make a change or something is a problem, forget trying to deal with the first person you talked to (“Can’t I talk to Joe, I really liked him so much when I called last time.”), that person may not even work there any longer. If the turnover at the Costco travel phone room is anything like the turnover at your local Costco, who knows who you will be talking to and what their level of expertise is. And imagine that this nice ladies parents (who, according to what she told me, speak Japanese predominantly) have a problem in boarding or anywhere along their way and they try to call Costco for help. They will get connected to the next person who answers the phone. Then they will get to explain their problem all over again. If they book with us and there is a problem, they will call me. I will know their circumstances and I will deal with the situation. And if I am not here, Mark

I have written before about my friend Seth Wayne. Next to Rick Steves he is probably Seattle’s number one travel expert. When it comes to cruising he even knows more than Rick. Before Kathleen and I got into the travel business he pretty much did not use a travel agent. He and I had discussions about this and his feeling was that he knew more than 95% of the travel agents he had met. As his friend and someone who he discusses travel with a lot, I agree with him. But that isn’t true of all travel agents and he knows that. That’s why when he found a travel agent who knew as much as he did, he started trusting him with his travel instead of booking it all online. (That would be me.)

You see Seth could book online if he wanted to because he is an expert. He knows if he is going to book a cruise, exactly what he will get from a particular cruise line (after 65+ cruises he should) and he knows exactly what to ask for if he buys it online. I have a lot of friends like Seth because we travel and cruise so much. They know what they want, they could book their travel themselves. But they don’t anymore—I do. Because they know that besides knowing as much as they know about travel, I have the time to look at all kinds of options and catch things they might miss. Not because they don’t know those things but because they are so busy they would have missed them. Sometimes they catch things I miss and they call me and I get them what they caught.

This nice young lady who called me actually told me, “I don’t know anything about cruising.” Should she book online or with Costco? You tell me. Will her parents have a great cruise if she books online or with Costco? Maybe. Will it be as good a cruise as it would have been if I booked with my expertise and the combined expertise of my fellow agents in our office? Probably not. If they have a problem, will they have someone they have met face-to-face to stand up for them, to fix things, to make things right—NO!

When I started this rant, I thought this will help with my frustration but it hasn’t. I have e-mailed the young lady and told her we needed to talk before I did any options for her parents. I had to do this because after being burned recently by a prospective client who had me do hours of research to find just the right cruise for her husband and his father, they went off and bought it at Costco. That is crushing. And I have resolved to never do that again. So as soon as someone mentions the C word, I stop working altogether until I can have a discussion with them. That’s where I am now. I have tried to reach her to no avail and have left her messages and e-mails but have not heard back.

Too many people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing. —Ann Landers

You aren’t bothering me…really

IMG_4119Over the last few days I have been working with two different clients on two different trips. One has me looking for a Caribbean cruise, first for next Christmas and then when that proved way too expensive and hard to find, one in February of 2020. The other was looking for a short cruise to Cuba.

I did most of the planning by going back and forth with e-mails. They would ask questions, inquire about alternate cruises, ask about travel insurance, different types of staterooms and other types of questions. I would send replies with new options for them. In all, I would guess that I exchanged at least 10 long e-mails with each of these wonderful folks.

But the one thing that both of them had in common was that they started every e-mail by apologizing for asking for so many options, for so many changes. On almost every e-mail reply the first line was, “Sorry to be bothering you with this,” or “I hate to ask you about a different option.” I just want to make one thing clear…you aren’t bothering me.

I have had this happen before with close friends. One of my best traveling buddies asks me about airfare and always starts by saying, “only when you have time.” Another very close friend spends a lot of his time looking at travel arrangements to have me book them. When I ask why he did all the research he said, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

If I was bothered by people asking me to find out about different types of travel, I wouldn’t be doing this as my “funtirement” job if I didn’t love looking for travel. I am at a point in my life where I don’t really have to do this job. And I really do love it…most of the time.

Sometimes because I look so hard for different options, I find something truly important. As an example, in looking for the Cuba cruise for these clients I discovered that if they went to Cuba after March 18, the overnight cruises were much shorter than after. The March 18 cruise (and those before that one) have an overnight in Havana. They arrive at 8:00 am on day 1 and then don’t leave until 3:00 pm on day 2. After the March 18 cruise, they arrive at the same time but leave Havana at 6:00 am on day 2 so even though they get a full day and an evening on the island, they don’t get a second day.

We also looked at another cruise that did an entire day in Havana and then sailed away at 5:00 pm and then did an entire day on the south side of the island in Cienfuegos from 8:00 to 5:00. But I also read a lot of reviews by other travelers that had been there that one of the things they loved the most was the evening time in Havana and this cruise didn’t give them that. And I found other options. They ended up getting the exact cruise they wanted along with all the visas and travel insurance they need.

I loved finding that kind of stuff. Digging to find the best thing for the clients. See the smile on my face. You aren’t bothering me…really

I like bothering people and stirring things up. –Tim Daly

Dealing with schedule changes

AdobeStock_84068264.jpgOne of the things that I have always had a huge problem with is schedule changes. Today I had an appointment with four wonderful women who want to take a cruise to Mexico next fall. Was really looking forward to meeting with them. But yesterday the leader of the ladies (so to speak) called to say she couldn’t meet due to a personal appointment she had forgotten. She asked if we could move the meeting to tomorrow (Tuesday) at the same time.

Only problem is that Tuesday is my regular work day. By that I mean that on Tuesdays, I work on my real job. Of course I work on my “real job” other times during the week, but I set aside Tuesdays for big project work. This week (the last week of the month) is when I schedule creating my monthly newsletter, my biggest product. Now I know that it would seem it would be an easy thing to just do that on Monday instead of Tuesday. But as I told my wonderful bride this morning, it’s tough to just turn creativity on and off. Plus, I had information and graphics I was waiting for from other sources. But still, I had to make it work and I did. But it was a pain.

All of this will be moot tomorrow if these really cool women come in and put a deposit down on their cruise. I just have to get used to rolling with the punches.

I don’t think that scheduling is uncreative. I think that structure is required for creativity.—Twyla Tharp

It’s not all cruising

 

londonSince I started writing on these pages last month I have had a few people ask me if we are all about cruising. They want to know if we just help clients plan cruises. Nothing could be further from the truth. We at Expedia are a full-service travel agency. On our door is the slogan, “We plan, you pack.” We do have cruise ship in our name and Kathleen and I do take a lot of cruises but we have traveled on land in Europe and all over the USA. Plus, with most of our cruises we usually spend quite a few days either before or after the cruise exploring the city or region we are leaving from on the cruise we are taking.

florence1For instance, we are doing an 11-day cruise from Dublin, Ireland to other ports in Ireland and spending four days in Iceland. But before we get on Celebrity’s Reflection, we will spend four days in Edinburgh, almost a week in Leeds, England visiting good friends and three days in Dublin before we embark. So when a client comes in and doesn’t want a cruise but does want a land trip, we can do it all. We can book you with a tour company who will take you everywhere in the country or region you have in mind. Or I can plan an entire trip just for you.

edinburgh 1Last year I had two clients who came in during the spring asking me to help them plan a European trip for their families last summer. One wanted a four country tour with a cruise to the Greek Isles right in the middle of the land visits. The other asked for an eight city, 34-day tour by train, plane, rail and automobile. We arranged flights, rail tickets, hotels, dinner reservations, day trips and guided tours all over Europe. If you would like to see the entire tour, you can click here. It even has pictures and lots of great places you can visit if you are in any of these cities.

barcelona-spainIf this is the kind of vacation you are looking for, we’re the people to talk to. I love planning stuff like this. BTW: This is not the kind of plan you are going to get from an online or big box travel agency where you talk to a different person every time you call. And believe me, this planning took about two months and countless e-mails, phone calls and texts getting things reserved and set up. For me, it was just fun. For the clients it was a great time…at least that’s what they told me when they got back.

Traveling expands the mind rarely. —Hans Christian Andersen

 

Yikes—another place we want to go

One of the problems with working in a travel agency is that we see so many great travel destinations, that we want to go to all of them. Well, maybe not all of them. There are a few places I don’t care to go to but I never dwell on those. So our destination goal list grows with every presentation we see.

By the way, you may have noticed I don’t use the term “bucket list.” Not a big fan of trying to do things before I die. Always sounded kind of negative to me. Would rather set goals that keep me wanting to go on until I visit all of them. I am going to call them my destination goals. Bucket list is too negative. 

So back on the new place we want to go. Last night Marilee Syme from Celebrity Cruises came by. Now we have been on quite a few Celebrity Cruises but we have never been to the one place that they kind of rule the world of ships—the Galapagos. To be honest, I have always wanted to go there. The animals, the flora, so many amazing things to see. So many things to photograph. And Marilee had just been there in September and she had first hand experiences to share and incredible photos she and her traveling partner had taken when they were there. No word fits but amazing.

Did I mention that the ships they have down there are not really ships. They are yachts. Celebrity’s “yachts” that sail the Galapagos hold no more than 100 people. The newest, the Flora, will be launched in just a few days. If this amazing new “yacht” interests you at all, check it out by clicking here: The Flora.

Of course that means we now have another destination to add to our list. But as I posted a few days ago, we plan far, far ahead. But right now, we are planned out about as far as we can go. Maybe 2022. But don’t let that stop you from going right now. If you are interested, let me know and I will set it up for you. You can send us pictures.

I love traveling and seeing new things, learning the histories of different cultures. But I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos to see the giant turtles.—Mikaela Shiffrin

Planning early…really early

img_0879
A tiny bit of a European Christmas market taken by my good friend Bob. Read more about his Christmas Market River cruise a few years ago by going here: https://bob221b1.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/european-christmas-markets/

Do you plan your vacations in advance? I mean way in advance? Like two years or more? We do. And for a couple of reasons we recommend that others do too. It’s especially important when you want to go someplace that there are few openings for. Or if you cruise and you want a particular cabin. Let me give you some examples.

Over the weekend we (along with my brother and his bride) booked a Christmas Market cruise on Viking River Cruises for December of 2020. Why so early? Because we really want to do a Christmas Market cruise and we can’t go in 2019 because…Viking is pretty much sold out. That’s right. Most Christmas Market cruises in Europe are sold out for 2019 or there is very little left in the way of space. And the space that is left now, is pretty expensive. By booking for 2020, we got the stateroom we want, we got the dates and the route we want as well. Not only that but because we booked within this month (following  our Viking Cruise night at the agency last week) we were awarded additional onboard credit. It was a great deal.

Another example. Last week I had a very nice woman come into the agency to ask about booking an Alaskan cruise for this July or August. It was her, her husband and her two boys in the same stateroom. But the real problem is that there are very few staterooms that will hold four people left on any of the most kid-friendly ships. Category after category are sold out. My suggestion…let’s look at summer 2020. Great deals and the best stateroom selection. Of course there are staterooms like that left, but they aren’t a bargain at this point.

Or…Tonight we had a great friend send us a referral for her brother and sister-in-law who want to sail to the Caribbean next Christmas. This is a GREAT time to book that cruise—during WAVE season (which is going on right now) when all the cruise lines have major specials. There should still be plenty staterooms in all categories available. But if they ask me in August or September, not as many.

Lastly, we got two of our best friends the exact stateroom they wanted for a February 2020 cruise that will stop in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. It was the last of this particular kind of very desirable stateroom. And the best part was that this weekend, that cruise line had a sale with a reduced deposit as well as some other great perks (because it’s WAVE season). If they waited even three more weeks, their deposit would have been 19 times higher. Seriously.

So the message here is, if you know your dates, or know that you can get certain time off, or you are retired and can go whenever you want, then book early! If the price goes down, you can always rebook for the new price. So…if you have any desire to join us on a Christmas Market cruise in December 2020, let me know and I will set it up. Or go anyplace else next year.

Plans are nothing; planning is everything. —Dwight D. Eisenhower

Standing Room Only!

IMG_1554.jpegJust a short post tonight. From time to time at the agency we have a Cruise Night. The means that a representative from one of the cruise lines comes in with all kinds of cool info about their line. We had our first one about a year ago (our buddies Bob and Judy came all the down from BC for that one)  and we had about 15-20 people attend. It was pretty cool. We have had about one a month for the last year. The attendance goes up and down but last night was a first. We were standing room only.

Viking Cruise rep, John Jerkovich did an outstanding job telling us all about Viking river cruises and Viking ocean cruises. Viking is known as THE river cruise company (well known from their sponsorship of Downton Abbey on PBS) and now they are totally into ocean cruising with six ships currently sailing and more than 10 planned in the next five years.

If you live locally, you should stop by our next Cruise Night next Tuesday night at 6:30. The topic is The Galapagos. Marilee Syme from Celebrity Cruises will join us to talk about their brand new (it launches in May) Galapagos-only yacht (really—a yacht) that you can sail on. If you are interested in coming, you can RSVP by clicking here. It’s always a lot of fun and there’s wine, goodies, door prizes and more.

We work for free

Free Word On TagsThis afternoon I was working in the agency when I got a call from a very nice lady who asked a question we get all the time. The first words out of her mouth were, “How much does it cost to have you book our vacation?” I was thrilled to tell her exactly what I tell everyone else—absolutely nothing. Not a proverbial red cent, not a single penny, not a dollar, not a hundred dollars—NOTHING! It costs you no more to book a cruise, a hotel, a rental car or in some cases a flight  with us than it does for you to call the cruise line and book it yourself. In fact it may cost you more to book it directly. More about that below.

But first I want to explain why we work for free. The cruise lines and the hotels and the car rental companies and in some cases the airlines pay us commission. If you book directly with a cruise line, hotel or rental car company, you will pay exactly the same price, they just keep the commission they would pay us. As well they should. Because if you deal directly with a travel provider they have to pay someone to answer all your questions. The only problem is, once you get the answer to your questions, if you want to call that same person back to get another questioned answered—good luck. Those folks (who do a great job) sit in a big room someplace in the middle of the USA (or in some cases they sit in other countries) and answer phones. They take those calls, first-come, first-served so your chances of talking to the same person when you call back are pretty small.

So, since we (travel agents) don’t cost you anything (and in many cases can save you money) why aren’t you booking your vacations with us?

Here’s an example of what I am talking about. Today the caller who wanted to know if it cost more to work with us, told me she had called a cruise line the night before. She said all she wanted to do was ask some questions about cruising because she had never cruised before. The person wouldn’t even talk to her until she gave them her name and phone number. I explained I would want those too, but first, ask me the questions. She did. Before I ever knew who she was, I answered all her questions. She then told me that the cruise line had quoted her a particular price for a particular stateroom on a particular cruise. I told I could match that and I would take care of booking her airfare as well. She said, “WOW! That’s super!” And I told her not to forget she would need transfers from the airport to the ship and back again. She had not thought of that.

I then spent about 25 minutes on the phone with the cruise line, got the stateroom for less than she had been quoted (because she had never been on a cruise and I knew what to ask for) and got her a great flight and transfers as well. I emailed her the pricing and she replied with a few more questions and said she would call in the morning to book. I have already told her what I need to know when she calls and the call should take no more than five minutes of her valuable time (unless she has more questions), then I will be the one dealing with the cruise line and getting everything set for her. If there is a problem later on with any of it, the cruise line will contact me and I will deal with it. That’s the way a real travel agent should work.

Then at the end of the day, we heard this from another Expedia office: “Woot! Just obtained a new customer from (A Particular Cruise Line). They told us that (A Particular Cruise Line) is getting too expensive to book with now that they charge research / booking fees.” Not sure this is 100% accurate at this point but to be honest, I totally understand why they would do that. Since I can spend hours talking travel and getting info from a new client, I can see why they might feel the need to do that. Especially when it comes to new cruisers or inexperienced travelers who would have to have a lot of things explained to them. That’s our job and where you are concerned…we do it for free.

“Smile, it’s free therapy.” –Douglas Horton

A typical day for a great team

2018060509454467-ios-upload-file-49085540What’s a typical day for a Expedia Cruise Ship Center Travel Consultant like? Isn’t that something you have always wanted to know? Today was a typical day. Did a bunch of paperwork at home this morning and then we went into the agency. Our agency is about a 20 minute drive from the house and the best part is that it’s opposite the flow of traffic so we get there with a minimum of effort.

No sooner had we arrived at the agency and got settled than my first appointment of the day walked through the door. The couple I had booked the Mediterranean cruise for (that I wrote about yesterday—the strange non-balcony) were coming in to go over travel insurance (a topic for another day), their airline seating, shore excursions, pre-cruise hotel and all the other parts of the (as we call it in the travel biz) “the complete vacation.”

The “complete vacation” starts when you leave your house and head to the airport and it ends when you walk back in your front door after your trip. I like to run an Excel file that lists every possible thing that could cost them money (other than souvenirs and lunch) during their vacation. This is also a great way to remember all the places you are going and things you are doing. And I really appreciate clients like these who are looking for that “complete vacation.” I promise much more on this topic in a coming post.

After our discussion with this wonderful couple (we spent about half the time just talking about all the amazing ports they will get to see on their 22-night cruise) they were off and I started on my to-do list for them getting all those things done that they now don’t have to deal with themselves. I still have a few more things I have to do to complete the list and it seems to keep growing all the time. About halfway through the list, a friend of a good friend gave me a call to see if he could arrange a birthday cruise for his wife and eight or nine friends. So I quickly got him some numbers and dates so he could start organizing the celebration.

 

While I was dealing with the to-do lists for our Med travelers and checking on the birthday celebration, Kathleen was doing all the paperwork for the Med travelers and checking up on some others we needed to update. There is quite a lot of paperwork involved in our business (with Expedia) and most agents have to do their paperwork themselves but Kathleen and I have a wonderful set up where I deal with the clients and do most of the research while she takes care of the invoicing, receipts, etc. It’s a perfect situation as we both get to work to our strengths and makes us a truly great team. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do this job without her.