The CEO of IST, the leading technological partner in the distribution and sale of online cruises, Manuel Sardi, tells us of his impressions regarding the status of the sector and the measures that cruise line companies and travel agencies have taken, as well as IST itself, to face the challenges posed during this global health crisis.
As an entrepreneur in the tourism sector, how have you lived this moment? What difficulties have you had to face?
It has been a difficult time that has forced us to redefine our strategy to adapt to a situation of extreme uncertainty. The world came to a standstill from one day to the next and we had to adapt to it in a few days but with a clear objective: to continue providing the best service to our customers. The devastating effect of the pandemic that has shaken tourism and the cruise industry is undeniable. To achieve an efficient reactivation of tourism, the key is to generate trust and guarantee the safety, health and well-being of tourists. In this sense, CLIA has pioneered in the industry with one of the most demanding measures, by requesting a negative test before boarding. Cruise line companies continue to work day after day on other measures to ensure that the cruise travel experience is once again exciting and interesting, as well as safe.
How has IST dealt with the coronavirus crisis?
In such a difficult situation, an unprecedented crisis with a global reach, we have adopted a philosophy of mutual support. At IST, we have focused our efforts on providing full support to travel agencies during this health crisis, avoiding as far as possible the suspension of our connection service between cruise line companies and agencies to many clients who could not assume the costs. Our objective has been to maintain the maximum number of our active connections so as not to disconnect the agencies from the cruise business. Suspending connections would imply a much more complicated recovery in the future for travel agencies and cruise line companies.
What form of support has been provided?
In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, we created a contingency plan to ensure our survival and guarantee our service to travel agencies, tour operators and cruise line companies that depend on our technology. Once the plan had been designed, we offered a system of allowances, discounts and payment plans adjusted to the possibilities of our clients.
Agencies had to focus on resizing and adapting to move forward, IST was not going to add to their difficulties at this critical time. We have seen how, thanks to this support, most of our clients have opted for continuity and have not given up. They, with their optimism and without realizing it, are the ones who have given us the necessary strength to continue without rest. The pandemic has forged business relationships that will last forever by placing all of us involved in the tourism sector on the same level, now we are all one.
What are the health measures that the sector has adopted?
As the tourism sector continues in its fight for survival, the cruise industry is demonstrating leadership and firm commitment to public health by opting for the importance of testing as an effective tool to resume travel.
The commitment of cruise lines to test 100% of passengers and crew is significant and unique compared to any other industry. In addition, another battery of measures have been implemented to safeguard people’s health; the mandatory use of masks by all passengers and crew on board, physical distancing in terminals, during excursions or clean air management, and improved ventilation strategies to prevent the risk of infection, among others.
How is the sector now?
Although the reservations for the remainder of the year are not as expected, the sector is optimistic. Cruise line companies are presenting new itineraries for 2021 and pre-sales have exceeded a 100% growth compared to last year. In the sector, March 2021 is being hailed as a moment of reactivation. Easter could be a good time for the sector to reactivate. At this time, cruise line companies are already adapting to the “new normal” and the sector is characterized by offering guarantees, flexibility and very favourable conditions attached to its reservations; travel date and cruise changes, cancellations up to 2 days before departure and greatly reduced prices are just some of the conditions that cruise line companies are promoting to reactivate their reservations.
What are the challenges for the future?
The limited resumption in Europe and elsewhere gives us confidence and has allowed more than 110 cruise ships carrying more than 55,000 passengers to have operated since then. However, the distribution channel is suffering greatly. In Spain, 20% of travel agencies consider the definitive closure due to the pandemic and 88% say that this year they will register a drop in sales of more than 80%. Travel agencies are and have always been the main sales channel for cruise ships, so we must work together to cushion their decline. We are challenged to find solutions because this crisis is unprecedented, so there are no simple answers either. However, the attitude and the way the cruise industry has reacted by leading pioneering measures gives us hope and the conviction that we are in a strong sector, which puts safety and people first.
How do you see technology in the future?
The world has changed and consumer habits will change. We see a future with much more technology and less face-to-face sales. Travel agencies will have to adapt in the short term to this new scenario and the mechanisms and strategies to explain the product will become increasingly sophisticated to be convincing and attractive. We are seeing significant movements in major agents in the sector and windows of opportunity are opening for those companies with vision and the ability to manoeuvre. In this sense, we are working on a very large project with some important entities in the sector, which will change the way of understanding how technology can support the sector. It is something that we are very excited about and that we will soon be able to comment on. During times of crisis, new opportunities always open up and despite the severe blow of COVID-19 in the sector, never before have so many opportunities been opened up for tourism companies to digitalize. Technology is and will continue to be the great ally of the sector.
What developments would you highlight at IST for the coming months?
During this time of stand-by in the sector, IST’s technology has remained in operation and we have taken the opportunity to improve our B2B tools (Cruise Browser) with new functionalities and develop a new cruise platform, Naveo, for OTAs and agencies that sell to B2C which will hit the market in the coming weeks.
Cruise Browser is our B2B tool that allows a centralized and automated management of the reservations of your entire network of agents. We have created a new image, as well as a new look and feel to the tool in addition to developing new functionalities. We have also incorporated cruise line companies such as Celestyal and Ritz Carlton, or the integration of analytics to improve the analysis of the purchase funnel.
Naveo is an innovative, visual and simple reservation platform with disruptive functionalities adapted to new trends in online shopping, such as the price calendar or the comprehensive view of the cheapest available cruises. This new cruise booking engine, connected to more than 95% of the market offer, offers a unique shopping experience in the world that is highly relevant to modern times.
In a context of maximum uncertainty, providing security and confidence to the user is one of the most difficult tasks, and that is why we think that travel agents should help the consumer in advising about the product while our technology helps them to put sales on autopilot.