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The Mature Traveler

A Different Kind of Cruising for Ex-Policeman

April 24, 1988|BILL HUGHES | Hughes is a 25-year veteran travel writer living in Sherman Oaks.

These days, Doug Harris does not expect to meet people he had as guests when he ran the "Hotel Graybar" . . . at least he hopes not.

The Graybar, you see, is a euphemistic name for the Burbank city jail, which Harris was in charge of for a time during his 14 years with that city's police department.

Harris left the force a few years back when, after being partly disabled, he thought he would prefer to place people in more opulent surroundings--like cruise ships. So two years ago, Harris opened Cruise Plus Travel in Sherman Oaks.

Cruise-only agencies, of which there are several in this area, differ from regular travel agencies in that they specialize only in cruises. No motor-coach tours, airline reservations, package trips and so forth, except when bought as an option with a cruise stay-over.

Selling cruises, of course, is often a major part of travel agencies' vacation spread; some more than others. Some travel agents also operate their own cruise packages.

Fast-Growing Industry

But the fast-growing cruise industry, with more than 30 major lines and more than 120 major ships, has become a complex and constantly changing operation. Cruise-only agents are an outgrowth of this.

In carving his market niche, Harris decided that in addition to specializing in cruises he would specialize in mature travelers and senior groups along with selling cruise tours to employee organizations of companies such as Hughes Aircraft, Xerox Corp., NBC and others.

"What we offer," Harris says, "is cruise knowledge and personalized service--plus substantial savings by knowing which lines have discounts on various ships and sailings.

"In effect, we're sort of a price club. We know where and when the discounts are, how they can be arranged and how to get the best group rates."

Except for one or two cruise lines there are no discounts just for seniors. Almost all discounts are across-the-board for any age group. The big discounts are just market strategy to fill up "soft" sailing dates or keep an important market share of the business in a very competitive industry.

Just what are the savings in cruise discounts?

"It varies with the cruise line, the ship, the season, even with a specific sailing date," Harris says. "It can go as high as 40% or more off the published rate. Or it can be just the savings from putting together a group.

"But one important thing to note when you select one of the high discount sailings is that there are no deviations. You can't expect to change sailing dates or make other major alterations."

Harris said that often senior groups do not choose the discount sailings, often preferring a specific ship and sailing date. He must then negotiate the best group rate to provide savings.

"Because of our cruise-only volume in bookings we often can get space and savings on cruises where smaller agencies cannot.

While Cruise Plus has worked with most cruise companies, Harris deals most regularly with Norwegian Caribbean, Princess Cruises, RCCL, Holland America Line, Sitmar Cruises, Admiral Cruises, Royal Cruise Line and Carnival Cruises.

All of these, except Norwegian Caribbean, have the reputation for appealing and catering specifically to the mature traveler. Even Carnival Cruises, which has a ship capacity to cater to both "fun" and "family" market segments as well as mature travelers.

Other major cruise lines with the industry reputation for appealing to mature travelers include Sun Lines, Costa Cruises, Royal Viking Line, Home Lines, Paquet Cruises, P&O Lines and Cunard.

It used to be, and still is true to some extent, that only the longer or more expensive cruises were for the mature market.

"That's still true," Harris says, "but it is changing with increased capacity of some of the new cruise ships. And with the industry trend to shorter cruises and increased competition among the lines for business, sailing discounts can be savings for seniors.

'Constant Changes'

"But it's important to keep abreast of the constant changes. A ship's reputation for appealing to the fun crowd, the family trade or mature audience can change with the season, a specific sailing, even depending on the type of theme sailing or entertainment planned aboard. That's where the specialized knowledge of a cruise-only agent helps."

Most of Cruise Plus' business is with groups--more than 300 last year. But with a forthcoming enlargement of his office, Harris hopes to cater to more individual cruisers.

"What we can do now, especially for those looking for savings in discounts or group savings," Harris says, "is to place individuals or couples in with senior groups that need outside help to fill their group. So far it's worked out pretty well for both."

For more information: Doug Harris, Cruise Plus Travel, 14044 Ventura Blvd., Suite 304, Sherman Oaks 91423, phone (818) 501-7951.

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