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FIVE MINUTES WITH MATTHEW EICHHORST catches up with Expedia CruiseShipCenters’ president in Vancouver
12-12-2012  By: Amanda Stutt
Matthew Eichhorst, president, Expedia CruiseShipCenters
Matthew Eichhorst, president, Expedia CruiseShipCenters
Vancouver- based Expedia CruiseShipCenters recently celebrated its 25th anniversary onboard the Ruby Princess for the company’s annual national conference at Sea, attended by 600 travel agents. caught up with company president Matthew Eichhorst upon his return to Vancouver, as he discussed the challenges of the past year, predictions for the upcoming wave season, and the strengthened value of travel agents.

Expedia CruiseShipCenters is based in Vancouver- was the company started here?

Head office is in Vancouver, and it was started out here 25 years ago- we just celebrated our 25th anniversary on the Ruby Princess-next year we’re on the Allure with Royal Caribbean. Our [company] founder was Michael Drever- he started the company as an agent. It became a franchise in its early days. He bought the assets-he was the only franchisee, and he grew it from the ground up.  He took an idea and grew it to where we are now- quite a vision.  We have almost 4,000 agents across North America over just about 160 locations.

How has the company changed over the years?

I purchased part of the organization about eight years ago and in the last ten years, we’ve grown about 10 times... by growing our distribution channel as well as by growing sales, both on an individual by agent basis, but also per location basis. We’ve quadrupled our number of agents, doubled our number of locations and grown our revenue by [around] ten times. It’s been quite a success for not only the franchisees, but also the agents themselves.

Are Expedia CruiseShipCenters primarily ‘bricks and mortar’, or are there home-based agents as well?

Primarily bricks and mortar. Out of all of our locations, they have agents that are certainly full time, but they work inside the center on a part time basis for the most part. There are varying degrees- and they are independent contractors.  

Do you believe the bricks and mortar concept drives the company’s success?

Yeah, it’s been interesting, over the last ten years, as the internet has grown and become what it is today, I think people thought that travel would be going the way of the internet, and there would be no need for the agent, but what’s happened is, anyone who’s taking their few weeks of vacation a year with their family or loved ones, simply put a lot of merit on getting that vacation purchased right. Like a flight, or the right hotel. And the value of the agent, as the internet has grown and there’s so much information out there, has actually started to re-strengthen. There are lots of articles out there that show how the agent helps sift through the complexity of the leisure market, so [clients] know exactly what they’re getting. We’ve seen resurgence, in all of the research that we’ve done, that the value of the agent is actually strengthening. [For example], if you’re going to fly to Europe and spend a couple of weeks in the Baltic, there are a lot more questions than there are answers for the consumer, so they like to have people helping them.

600 agents onboard the Ruby Princess for Expedia CruiseShipCenters' 25th anniversary national conference
600 agents onboard the Ruby Princess for Expedia CruiseShipCenters' 25th anniversary national conference

What are some highlights from the 25th anniversary cruise?

We have our national conference every year, and we always do it on a ship. What was a little unique about this is that we were celebrating our 25 years, and our theme was ‘building excellence’. I think everyone would agree that the cruise industry, in 2012, had some challenges, not only economically, but also with some of the events that have gone on, so we really focussed on the year of progress, and where we looked at the year of 2012 as an investment year to really dig into some of our core programs. We launched two major initiatives on the ship; one was our ‘promise’, and that was about ‘who does Expedia CruiseShipCenters stand for, and what are we trying to be’? And it’s really about being navigators of spectacular vacation experiences. [It’s] not just about selling the cruise- it’s about selling the entire vacation experience. And we also launched a new training program for agents called ‘The Navigator’s Approach’. And that has five modules that help with sales training and sales effectiveness.  It’s not only for people that are brand new, but for people who have been in the business awhile- some of our agents have been with us for 20 plus years- so it’s more of a skills development program. It was really well-received; we got a standing ovation at the end of the conference.

What do you see trending for the 2013 season?

I think it will be better than last year. Coming into wave season, the last couple of months have been quite positive. I don’t think we’ll see a year of even greater deals, because there’s still a lot of value in the pricing of the current marketplace, but you’ll see some additional value-adds, whether it be gratuities, or onboard credits or things like that to entice customers.  River cruising is something that has been expanding almost 100 per cent per year for the past five years. This is because, I think people are looking for variety, and people who are long-term cruisers are looking to try something new.  And I think people are starting to get a little more adventurous [and want] to get more into the countries, so the concept of a river cruise, where you spend a lot of your time in port, where you get to walk around and see a variety of cities, has really caught on. It’s like- how do you take the cruising market to the tour business? People rave about it. 70 per cent of river cruises in Europe are still down the Danube, but you’re starting to see new markets, like Portugal should be opening next year. And Africa was launched by AMA this year and Vietnam a few years ago, so you’re starting to see it grow into new markets.