CLIA Hall Of Fame Honourees Epitomize Cruise Retailing Success

Cruise Week

Cruising is truly an interlocked industry. While it always has been, the importance of that fact hasn't always been appreciated by the cruise lines themselves.

Indeed, one of the biggest differences in today's cruise business compared to pre- Concordia is that, from the top down, more suppliers recognize the need for travel agents to succeed when selling cruises.

Raising yields is not a stand-alone function of the cruise brands. It takes 2 to tango, which brings us to this year's CLIA Hall of Fame Retail award honourees: Mark and Mimi Comfort, for over 26 years the owners of Cruise Holidays of Kansas City.

There are Mark and Mimis in every state across the U.S. and every province in Canada. They are vacation sellers who care about the industry, their staff and their customers.

When visiting agencies over the years, Cruise Week says they have been fortunate to see a lot of Mark and Mimis. They say they are always instantly made to feel welcome and at home at these locations and remember particularly feeling that way during their visit to Cruise Holidays of Kansas City.

In the introductory speech at the Hall of Fame ceremonies, Royal Caribbean's Vicki Freed made this observation: “Mark and Mimi counted on their faith, their compassion and their dedication to build their cruise business into one of the top agencies in the U.S. - all while contributing to the lives of others far more than anyone could ask.

“Have you noticed that you never say Mark Comfort? Or Mimi Comfort?" asked Freed. “It's always Mark and Mimi. No need for last names. It's their perfect union of complementary skills that makes them an inseparable pair and has taken them so far together.

“Their goal," Freed continued, “was never to be the largest agency, but to be a model agency - role models in the industry of how everyone should be treated. Sales is how you measure success in numbers, but you only get there if you take care of each and every person along the way - your staff, your customers, your suppliers."

Welcoming people is a factor in their success. “Their staff is very tenured and their lives are all interwoven," says Freed. “They celebrate each marriage and birth like family. It's this philosophy that has been at the heart of their unwavering success." Their mission statement today is the same as when they opened shop: We create memories that last a lifetime for our clients.

Freed concludes, “It applies not only to their clients but to everyone they come across. Perhaps that's why Cruise Holidays of Kansas City has been the #1 U.S. store in the Cruise Holidays franchise for 23 years."

Mark Comfort has his own idea why: “The reality is we're persistent, aggressive and consistent. We believe very passionately that we do business the right way."

Another Approach

Mark and Mimi Comfort have entered the CLIA Hall of Fame the same year as Wayne and Judy Heller. The Hellers first made their mark in the business by launching Cruises Only in the 1980s, which featured a nationwide sales model with trained sales people particularly adept at closing the sale and emphasizing price advantages.

CLIA honoured them specifically with the Cruise Sales Innovator Award. As CLIA advisor Mark Conroy, former President of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, points out, “The Hellers were one of the first (if not the first) people to set up a structured training program for incoming cruise sellers and put them through a whole learning process."

While that's quite common now, it hasn't always been. “They did a lot of pioneering things like that," said Conroy. “For instance, early on they were some of the first people who really came up with a structure combining salary and bonuses. They thought up a lot of things like that."

That Wayne and Judy Heller enter the Hall of Fame at the same time as Mark and Mimi Comfort symbolizes how there has always been considerable breadth on the retail side. Mark and Mimi were fundamentally local sellers and their goal was not to be the biggest.

“When we found out the honourees, and how polar opposite the business of Wayne and Judy Heller and Mark and Mimi Comfort were, we thought 'Isn't that cool that we could both be in the Hall of Fame?'" says Mark Comfort. “I think that's the greatest thing in the world to show: there's a lot of different ways to do business. But as long as we have the same end goal, and that's to sell cruise vacations, we all win."

Different as they are, all 3 of this year's honorees, both on the retail side and the supply side, had something very much in common: they were outspoken on issues impacting the business. This year the Cruise Line Executive Award went to Rod McLeod who is now retired from his lengthy career with Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corp. and NCL. In terms of suppliers there have been few over the years who speak with more honesty and insightfulness than McLeod does about industry issues.

Comfort certainly hasn't been afraid to speak his mind either. “If you're confident in yourself and your thoughts, and you are professional in how you say what you want to say, whether it's controversial or not, then you have every right to say it," he sums up.

He provided further advice: “Don't ever be intimidated about speaking the truth. If these executives don't hear from people like you and me, how are they going to know how we feel?"

According to Comfort, it's an obligation to speak up. “In our case, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to those people who may be afraid to speak up for whatever reason. Mind you, there's a lot of people who are complainers and whiners that suppliers don't listen to anyway. So that's why I believe while it's important to say your piece, it's important to be professional."

He also says that it's crucial to speak up because industry leaders can live in a bubble. “Too many do not understand what we go through on a day to day basis to sell their cruise line to our mutual customers. They can't because most have never done it."

It's vital that they be reminded about the value of agents. Comfort recognizes those lines that are valuing and supporting the travel agency distribution system: “Where I think there's going to be a problem is for those lines that think they can do it better by doing it direct. And some have already had problems because of that."

(will not be published)