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Living Large with Small Ships

By Mimi Kmet — for Agent@Home Magazine

A narrow niche widens Linda Androlia's sales potential

For Linda Androlia, smaller is better, especially when booking cruises. From her home-based business, Sunstone Tours & Cruises, in Malibu, Calif., Androlia sells small ship cruise vacations. Period. And that yields big sales figures - $1.5 million to $2 million a year, she says.

Small ship clients such as Androlia's are wealthy enough to book these five-figure cruises more than once a year. And her expertise in that niche, which includes companies such as Cruise West, Lindblad Expeditions, American Safari Cruises, Clipper Cruise Line and American Cruise Line, yields loyalty and trust from those clients. In fact, when Androlia, who belongs to the Independent Travel Professional Network (a group of about 15 independent agents nationwide, each with a different niche) qualifies a client or a potential client as a person who wants something other than a small ship cruise vacation, she refers him or her to another agent in the network.

Androlia eased into her niche after first becoming a general travel agent in a brick-and-mortar agency in the 1990s, then going it alone without a host agency in 1996. She soon found that clients on the high end of the market "knew more about the destinations than I did," she says. So she started specializing in Alaska and Hawaii, and 10 years ago, took her first cruise on Celebrity Cruises to Alaska. But when she later went on a Cruise West fam to Alaska, she found her true specialty.

"Once I went on a small ship, that was it," she says. "I never wanted to cruise on a large ship again." Still, she sold both large and small ships for the next few years, "because small ships were my passion, but big ship were my income."

Meanwhile, she continued to learn about Alaska and small ship cruising, and dropped Hawaii as a niche. And about five years ago, she shifted her focus to small ship cruising exclusively, booking those voyages to destinations around the world.

"Once I became knowledgeable, I was able to project that whenever I talked to people," she says, noting that she has built her business both through word of mouth and her website. "I find that I sell mostly on my knowledge. If I've done it, I can sell it. And that's what I portray on my website."

Androlia credits her webmaster with making sure her website is up to date and reflects her specialty in the best way possible. For example, in preparation for the documentary "Arctic Tale," which debuted in movie theaters July 25, she had her webmaster create a page for Arctic small ship sailings. She hopes "Arctic Tale" will generate as much interest in the area as "March of the Penguins" generated for Antarctica.

"There's not enough space," she says. "Lindblad has a 21-day Antarctica sailing that starts at around $17,000 per person, and there's a wait list of 34 people for next January."

Androlia also developed a data base two years ago, and sends emails and postcards to clients. "I'm very big on keeping in touch with my clients. You have to keep yourself in front of them, not with special offers but with tidbits," she says, noting that high-end clients are "not price-driven, but experience-driven." For example, when she went to Ketchikan, Alaska, she wrote an email to clients about the town's new stores, a Zip line through a rain forest and other experiences.

Specializing in such a narrow niche has its advantages: Androlia was named Cruise West's and Lindblad's single top producing agent in 2006. And because she books so much volume, she often earns commission overrides that host agencies typically earn.

But there are also disadvantages: Her clients often don't think of contacting her to book the air and hotel segments of their small ship cruises, even though she can book those components through the cruise lines.

Another challenge is qualifying clients who have never been on a small ship cruise. "They know what a big ship is, but on a small ship, the bathrooms are not marble, and there are no big buffets," she says. "If you put the wrong person on a small ship, you're dead in the water. You're talking about 3,000 people versus 100 people. If someone asks me more than once about the cabins, I know they're not a small ship person. On a small ship, most of the time you're out on deck with your binoculars."

Which raises another issue: Small ships seem to be key words that many luxury cruise lines are adopting, she says, adding that those luxury vessels carry a few hundred people and offer big ship amenities, as opposed to the ships she books, which carry about 100 people and are geared toward nature and adventure.

"In the Galapagos, a blue-footed booby came up to us and untied my daughter's shoelace," she says, referring to the type of experience a client might have a on a small ship cruise vacation. "If you put someone looking for luxury on Cruise West, they'll be upset; but if you put some who wants to get splashed by a whale on SeaDream, they'll be equally upset."