This week’s musings, reflections and observations about travel affiliate marketing…

1. I think Snow24′s analysis that suggests European ski resorts represent a better vacation bargain for US skiers than comparable domestic resorts should give travel affiliates that sell ski trips a reason to smile.

After a rather dismal 2008 winter ski season wrought on the back of the global financial crisis and battered economies in the U.S. and Europe, the Scotland-base research company says we may see a resurgence in European ski vacations this year as the confluence of deep discounts by European ski resorts, extremely high lift ticket fees at U.S. resorts, and somewhat favorable foreign exchange rates may prove to be the magic elixir that lures Americans back to the gleaming slopes of the Swiss, French and Austrian Alps.

Snow24 published the 2009 edition of its World Ski Lift Ticket Price Report back in March, and while the report cautions that some of the side-by-side comparisons of ski lift tickets at U.S. and European resorts can be ‘misleading’, they do provide compelling evidence why Americans should consider European ski holidays.

Here are several findings from the survey (which compares six-day, peak-season prices from more than 600 ski areas in 40 countries worldwide) that continues to stimulate a healthy debate in the ski industry:

  • U.S. ski areas are represent 19 of the 20 most expensive six-day lift tickets in the world
  • Eight of the world’s 10 most expensive six-day lift tickets are in Colorado
  • An average six-day U.S. resort peak-season lift ticket cost $408, exactly double the average in France, $204
  • One-day, non-discounted prices for Vail and Beaver Creek inched above $95 in 2008, for example, with Aspen and Telluride not far behind
  • Lift tickets in such top European ski areas as Zermatt, Switzerland, and Courchevel in the French Alps are priced at about $52 and $64, respectively

If these numbers aren’t convincing enough on their own merit to entice US travelers to consider Europe ski holidays, TravelDividends suggests that once the rock-bottom airfares that airlines continue to offer from virtually every U. S. gateway to Europe are added to this mix, the value proposition to American skiers is quite compelling.

We’re curious if any of our travel affiliate readers that sell ski vacations (whether to U.S. or European destinations – or both) have noticed any customer shifts in their business that align with some of the conclusions in Snow24′s survey.  If you have, we’d appreciate your sharing these as well as your take on this potential opportunity with our community…thanks.

2. I think it’s a bit puzzling why Royal Caribbean International’s (RCI) online radio show “Why Not Talk Cruise” was abruptly canceled last week; the final broadcast aired (somewhat ominously) on Friday, September 11, after a 23-episode run on the VoiceAmerica online radio network.

The show was hosted by Ken Muskat, RCI’s Vice President of Sales, and made its debut on Friday, April 10th.   Billed as a live weekly call-in radio show, Why Not Talk Cruise” featured “live interviews, behind the scenes stories, and exclusive insights” about Royal Caribbean and the cruise industry in general.

What made the cancellation perplexing is that in a press release back on June 26th, RCI noted that the “…show has achieved one of the highest listenerships on the VoiceAmerica online radio network.”  The press release went on to say that “The show averages approximately 18,600 listeners weekly – live, archived and iTunes – with more and more listeners tuning in every week,” adding that “The series has quickly become the fastest growing show on the network this year, and has been so successful that Why Not Talk Cruise has been extended from its original 13 episodes to now 23.”

Assuming all of this was true – and we have no reason to doubt it – why would notification of the cancellation of the fastest-growing show on the network be announced 2 days before the broadcast of the 23rd episode?   Was it because of the lack of further funding by Royal Caribbean (after all, they’ve had a terrible year financially…), or did listenership decline precipitously during the summer months, leaving RCI no choice but to pull the plug or, was it something else?   Perhaps we’ll never know.

Regardless, it is unfortunate that this program was canceled, for the ability to stimulate cruise demand (whether first time cruisers or repeats) is critical to the cruise industry.  The failure of a novel program like “Why Not Talk Cruise”, which aimed to do just that –  stimulate demand by interacting with the consumer using the latest in online technology – has to be viewed as a major disappointment, not just to RCI and the other cruise lines, but to all of the retailers associated with the sale of the cruise product, including travel agents and travel affiliates.

TravelDividends applauds Royal Caribbean’s sizeable investment and willingness to gamble on a novel program such as this; hopefully, it won’t be the last of similar customer-facing online marketing initiatives by the cruise industry.  We also hope that Royal Caribbean will follow Carnival Cruise Lines’ lead and begin offering a cruise travel affiliate program.

3. I think the article in Travel Weekly (TW), Tour Operators Seeing Signs of Recovery, could be a ‘hidden’ harbinger that the overall U.S. economy is beginning to turn around.

According to the TW article, “Tour operators spent the first half of the year desperately waiting for the phones to ring.”  That apparently changed early this summer, as a host of tour-operators reported an upswing in last-minute booking patterns.

For example, Paul Wiseman, President of Trafalgar Tours told TW that Trafalgar’s last-minute bookings “… have exceeded last year, sometimes by over double.  And when you consider we really didn’t get into the bad booking pattern until September [last year], what that’s done is put a really sweet end to what was initially looking like a very sour year.”   Similarly, Collette Vacations’ CFO John Galvin pointed out that that his company’s August bookings for travel within 2009 were up 105% compared with August 2008, while year-on-year July sales was up 93%, and June increased by 87%.

Additionally, the TW article points out that many executives in the tour trade “…are already looking ahead to 2010, where they have two things going for them: early booking patterns that suggest positive performance and early hedging and pricing contracted into April 2011 that will only become increasingly attractive if and when foreign currencies strengthen against the dollar and suppliers begin to increase prices as the global economy stabilizes.”

If these positive trends continue, TW says, ” [Those}Tour operators that were faced earlier this year with supplier retail pricing so severely discounted it threatened the value of packages could now be singing an entirely different tune."

Underscoring this point, Trafalgar's Wiseman said "We negotiated everything and locked in all of our contracts all the way through April 2011, and we will absolutely benefit from that...We always aim to be producing packages that are 40% cheaper [than what the consumer or travel agent could package on their own], and we will be absolutely secure in that,” adding that “It’s a very strong pricing position.”

That type of optimism may not be felt in other travel industry segments just yet (I don’t think anyone in the airline industry is uncorking the Champaign bottles), but they and the hospitality firms, cruise companies, car rental firms and other travel players may not be far behind.  Historically, it’s been the airline industry that presages the end of a U.S recession (typically 6 months before the stock market begins a sustained  rise upward), but we no longer live in ‘typical times’.  So, maybe the traditional economic indicator ‘baton’ has been passed from the airlines to the tour operators…we’ll have to wait and see.

Let’s just hope we don’t get a ‘double dip’ recession, or a worse than predicted return of H1N1 swine flu; if we do, I think it’s fair to say all bets are off.

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