Don’t Be the Hidden Gem

By Cindy Bertram

In the business world today, things continue to change. With the extremely high percentage of people now doing online searches first to find a company that fits their purchase needs, being found is just the first part of building clients. Being at the top of the list, along with positive reviews are other critical areas. People often explain, “Oh, I just Googled it, and that’s how I found this company.” As business owners, think back to how you’ve found companies you decided to use for services and purchases. Those tend to come through referrals, but once again it takes time to build those. And we must make sure that we are not the hidden Gem.

Insights from Marilyn Conroy, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Riviera River Cruises

Building a Brand and Your Specialization

Dean DeLisle, Founder & CEO of Forward Progress, Inc. as well as Developer & Chief Visionary of Social Jack™, does a weekly podcast, Influencer Factory, where he shares tips and ideas from experts. In his March 13 Influencer Factory podcast, Dean and his team shared ideas on being found, building credibility, and clients using a sports team approach. (Dean has had sports teams as clients.) One part focused on building cheerleaders, which are advocates for a business. Getting people to recommend you to others in their network is a way to be found. Also getting people to do a third person positive review about their using your services (on some social channels) is also a great avenue. These are great ways to be found and not be a hidden gem.

Insights from Marilyn Conroy, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Riviera River Cruises

In December 2018, Marilyn Conroy joined Riviera River Cruises as Vice President, Sales and Marketing. Marilyn is well known in the cruise industry. Her diverse expertise includes working for three different cruise lines where she held vice president of sales positions. Then in 2010, Marilyn started a company with a partner doing specialized consulting work. In 2018, their company was retained by Riviera River Cruises to assist with growth in the North American market. Marilyn mentioned what attracted her to Riviera River Cruises was that it was a truly unique company and why she accepted this position.

More on Riviera Travel & 

Transition into Marketing as Riviera River Cruises

Marilyn and I first talked a bit about the company. Riviera Travel has been operating since 1984, providing tours to over 46 different countries. And Riviera has been offering river cruises for more than 10 years now. With that, they began marketing themselves as Riviera River Cruises in 2017. I asked Marilyn, “How did that change in marketing come about?”

Marilyn explained more and said, “They entered the North American market place to ‘test the waters’ in 20l7. Previously they had only marketed in the UK. Entering this very competitive market place was a big decision, but knowing the strength of the market place, they firmly believed that there was a niche for this product. They truly only geared up for sales in 20l8 by opening their own reservations office consisting of 5 staff and an operations center. This is in Fairfield, Connecticut. They also retained the services of two District Sales Managers, but this will soon be 3, with another District Sales Manager being added.”

Marilyn then mentioned, “The company has been growing, by adding two ships per year. Right now, they have 12 ships with a new ship coming out in 2020. Riviera River Cruises wanted to increase their base of business in North America, because it’s very lucrative and viable market.” 

Focusing on Travel Agencies and Support for Travel Agent Professionals

Marilyn and I then talked about Riviera River Cruises focusing on travel agencies. I asked Marilyn, “As far as providing support for travel agent professionals, what has Riviera River Cruises been doing?”

Marilyn explained, “Riviera acknowledges that they must offer support to the agency community and apart from having a dedicated reservations department open 9-7 Eastern Standard Time? They have an on-line booking portal. Agents must register on our web site The agency portal will give them access to making a reservation 24/7, we have an on-line training academy enabling agents to become proficient sellers of our product. It should be noted that from this academy we draw in an agency who successfully completed the course to receive a complimentary cruise. We support the agents with flyers that can be customized.”

Marilyn then shared more and said, “We also have a dedicated group department. Options are held for 5 days, and group space for 8 weeks. As I said previously, we also have two sales directors that are ready, willing and able to assist the sales process. I myself give at least one general agency webinar a month and will do individual webinar training for individual agencies. — just ask!! We will work proactively with agents providing co-op support.”

When it comes to groups, Marilyn shared more, saying, “When it comes to groups, we take cabins out of inventory. These are held for 8 weeks and then require the deposits. Our group department will then communicate this before they pull back inventory. Some cruise lines, including river cruise lines don’t do that. They will provide the travel agent professional the right to sell the space, but they don’t hold inventory. So then when the travel agent professional calls to do deposits, the actual space might not be available. And this is a plus that we offer at Riviera River Cruises.”

Strengths Riviera River Cruises Has

Marilyn and I then talked about strengths. I asked, “As far as strengths, what are key ones Riviera River Cruises has? Can you provide a few quick examples?”

Marilyn said, “Our strength is simply we offer itineraries that we ‘tweak’ to make them more immersive. For instance, instead of sailing Amsterdam to Basil where all you see of Switzerland is the bus ride to the airport (unless you take a post tour, of course) we start our cruise in Cologne. There is nothing to see on the waterways from Amsterdam to Cologne, unless you like factories. And by starting in Cologne you save a day and a half, enabling us to overnight in Basil and provide our guests with an included tour taking them to Lake Lucerne where they can see the Alps. Our fleet of 12 ships are the youngest fleet of any river company — no ship is older than 6 years.”

Marilyn then shared a bit more about other areas where Riviera River Cruises stands out. She said, “We offer solo cruises. No one else does that — namely several cruises a year. There are 4 left for this year where the entire ship is sold as singles. If you are in one of our 88 suite ships, then the maximum capacity would be 88 guests. On each departure on all our ships we have between 4-6 cabins that have NO single supplement. They are, of course, the first to go so agents should book this quickly.” 

Also, as far as their staterooms, this is another area where they stand out. Marilyn explained, “Our cabins are extremely spacious — you will see on the ‘long ships’ that our cabins start at 183 square feet. In short, this is one of our main strengths. Our Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is price/value. We offer a superior product at extremely competitive prices — often 30% below our competition. We do this as we are the ‘new guys on the block’ and must get the agents and consumers attention.”   

Successful Transition in Marketing as Riviera River Cruises

In our discussion, I mentioned that the transition Riviera Travel has done by marketing themselves as Riviera River Cruises is a terrific example of marketing. And I asked Marilyn, “Can you provide a few steps and things done to transition into Riviera River Cruises?” 

Marilyn explained, “Riviera Travel, which has been in business for 34 years offering tours all over the world, decided to enter the river boat business some 11 years ago. This was of course a big step for them and since this was a totally different product than a land tour. They needed to differentiate the products, and therefore evolved into Riviera River Cruises instead of Riviera Travel. At Riviera River Cruises, we are growing our fleet. There are now 12 ships another one coming out next year, and with this continued growth? Riviera River Cruises had to expand their client base to markets other than just the UK namely Australia and North America all English-speaking countries.”

Marilyn’s Insights - Building Awareness So Riviera River Cruises Isn’t a “Hidden Gem”

Marilyn and I then discussed a bit more about building awareness for Riviera River Cruises. I asked her, “When you took over the role as Vice President of Sales and Marketing, North America end of December, what did you see as key things needed to build awareness of Riviera River Cruises so they’re not ‘a hidden gem’ so to speak?”

Marilyn said, “The challenge is that this is a terrific product in all areas, hardware, food, service itineraries and price/value — the product must reach the attention of the distribution system, namely travel agents. And they just don’t know us. Therefore, we have increased our trade advertising and electronic communications, namely e-mails to data bases such as CLIA (we are a member of course) and ASTA, as well as our own agency list. We are adding a third sales person. I have always believed in face to face relationship selling. Riviera continues to update their web page to make it more informational.”

Marilyn then shared a bit more and explained, “We have become preferred suppliers of such organizations as Avoya, Expedia CruiseShip Center and Travel Edge. These powerful organizations I believe will assist us in getting the product known to the Trade, who in turn we hope will market to their consumer base. Riviera is here in North America for the long term and building the agents support and trust takes time. When they book clients and they come home happy this will automatically help build awareness of our product. We need to get agents to experience the product; hence, we just offered agents a very compelling familiarization opportunity on cruises in April — this again will help increase awareness.” 

And Marilyn mentioned that North America is one of the most lucrative markets out there, but it takes time. She said, “It usually takes two to three years to create traction with any business, but this is the turning year.”

Marilyn’s Suggestions in Building a Specialization

I mentioned that today, travel agent professionals are most successful when they build their own specialization, are known for what do best, and are not “a hidden gem.” I asked Marilyn if she had any suggestions what a travel agent professional should do.

Marilyn said, “Firstly, take our on-line training course, secondly reach out to a sales person who can either visit them or provide personal training webinars. And thirdly sail on the product. One of the best ways to do that is to promote a ‘come along with me’ cruise. You can’t specialize in a product unless you make the effort to have in depth knowledge of the product and that can only be done by online training, contact with a sales person, and experiencing the product.”

Putting into Practice Some Good Solutions – Marilyn’s Suggestions

Finally, I mentioned, “Marilyn, throughout your successful career and roles, you’ve probably encountered situations where you had to create and implement solutions. Can you share more?” Marilyn explained, “As far as solutions? Well, do all the above things I’ve shared. I have always believed in the agency distribution system, so obviously my mantra is to support them. Any agent can reach out to me or the sales team for assistance in their sales process which can be unique to that agency and their location. I guess in short, we just must keep on communicating with agents and giving them the confidence to sell.  We just recently placed an ad in trade magazine that featured three agencies who had sailed on us and a brief endorsement of the product. Namely showing them what their colleagues think of us. Yes, third party endorsements are more credible.”

A Few Key Take-a-ways 

Finding some unique ways to provide some things our competitors aren’t doing is one. Also, it’s important not just stand out, but getting the genuine, third party endorsements is important today. That not only creates and builds credibility, but makes us stand out, so we’re no longer the “hidden gem.”