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Recently I did a post about the problems that an elderly couple on our recent cruise on Azura had run into. They had made some mistakes in the excursions they had booked, possibly even the specific cruise itself, and generally didn’t seem to be “clued up” about the way the cruise was organised. It was their first cruise, and seemed likely to be their last. As a result of meeting them I began to wonder how cruise newcomers could get the information they needed in order to avoid similar mistakes and to make informed decisions. One obvious place would be their travel agent (TA), and I realised that I’ve never really covered this aspect of the overall cruise experience. So I decided to have a chat with a dedicated cruise TA, if I could, and Bolsover Cruise Club was an easy choice. Their headquarters is not far from where I live, and these days they also have a retail shop in the Meadowhall shopping mall. So I made myself known to them, emails were exchanged, and last Friday I found myself the guest of Michael Wilson, Bolsover Cruise Club’s managing director, and marketing executive James Ward, at their modern offices at Barlborough. (Before I get any further, I ought to say that this article is not an endorsement of Bolsover Cruise Club as against any other TA, nor do I have any connection with them – I simply wanted to get a feel of what a leading TA can do, Bolsover Cruise Club was the one I approached, and the article reflects what I found.)

I wanted to ask some questions around the following points:

  • What was Bolsover Cruise Club’s history and how had it reached the position it currently enjoys?
  • How could BCC help newcomers to cruising avoid making mistakes?
  • What does BCC offer to more experienced cruise passengers?

Before we got into the meeting, however, I was given a quick tour of the site. The main area, on the ground floor, is given over to the telesales team. I ought to say ‘teams’ as there are in fact more than 80 staff on the sales side, organised into teams of up to a dozen, and with experience ranging from recent starters up to some who have been with BCC for decades. There’s a shift pattern, with two shifts – 9am until 5:30pm, and 11:30 until 8pm (Monday to Friday). The teams also work at weekends, but I believe the hours are shorter then.

In addition to the main telesales office there’s a smaller ‘retail’ area, where customers can come and speak direct to a cruise sales person. This can either be on a drop-in basis or by appointment. This area is manned, as and when required, by members of the telesales teams, so these staff get some face to face experience with customers as well as just telephone contact. Finally, the four sales staff at the Meadowhall shop (which is open for all the normal Meadowhall hours) are drawn on a rota from a dedicated team in the main office. All of the sales staff are indeed ‘staff’; i.e. they’re employees of Bolsover Cruise Club, there’s no franchising or self-employment. There are also no home-workers, all employees are based at the Barlborough office. The main office was broadly open-plan, and attractively decorated and furnished – no cubicles here. Also on the ground floor was a training room and the directors’ offices. Upstairs there’s a smaller area which houses the admin team (they handle paperwork and documentation for customers) and some specialist teams: marketing, design, and IT. The ‘Retail’ area at Barlborough is normally open 10am until 4pm Monday to Saturday – it’s not open on Sundays – and the Meadowhall shop follows the same hours as the rest of Meadowhall.

 


After the tour I spoke with Michael and James. I told him the story of the passengers we’d met on Azura, and he suggested the following ways in which booking with BCC could have given them a better cruise:

  • Sales staff are prepared to spend as long as necessary to make sure that customers have got all the information they need, and are happy. Additionally, all customers are told the name of their sales person (and given a picture of them, in their documentation), and are told that if they have any questions they should call them;
  • BCC produce various publications.  There’s an annual Cruise Guide with which I was particularly impressed. It’s aimed at beginners, and contains a glossary of terms, a summary of the arguments around fly-cruises vs. cruising from the UK, a summary of all the major cruise destination areas e.g. Norwegian Fjords or Canary Islands, and a section outlining the major lines active in the UK cruise market and what they each offer – this section ranges from eight pages for P&O down to just one or two pages for lines such as Oceania and Holland America. There’s also a quarterly (going to bi-monthly in 2016) publication which covers current offers from the lines.  Via their website you can sign up for email newsletters, and there is a blog and a FAQ section;
  • Most important of all, all of BCC’s sales staff are very well trained. This training (which is done internally) takes a total of eight weeks, and means that even new sales team members have the right information and can give the right advice to customers. This stretches across all the lines that BCC act as agent for, so staff will be able to advise on issues surrounding excursions and port calls (e.g. tendering), different ships’ facilities, etc. Michael mentioned a recent Travel Weekly ‘Mystery Shopper’ of cruise specialists, in which BCC came out top, and he suggested that this was a strong testament both to the staffs’  experience and to the level of the training;

I did ask if BCC staff could actually book excursions for customers. Unfortunately, this is not so easy. The problem is that these days excursions are generally booked and paid for in advance, often via the internet. The passenger’s credit card has to be used to do this, and there are increasing regulations and ‘best practice’ policies which militate against third-parties (i.e. BCC staff) having access to a person’s credit card number. Indeed, all the thrust of the latest policies is that the third party should know as little as possible about the passengers credit card. At the moment, however, BCC staff are still able to book excursions on customers’ behalf on their instructions. It’s also the case that the customers can be invited into the office (the Retail area) where they can be given advice by staff on suitable excursions and then make the booking themselves. Visa applications can also be handled in much the same way. (Have a look at this site for further information about the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) which companies such as BCC are increasingly having to adhere to.)

We turned next to the question of what BCC could offer experienced, regular cruise passengers. Here I think I was less convinced of a specific advantage in using BCC. Not that they may not be better than others in the industry, but that for passengers who know the ropes and who don’t need that much advice, it’s hard for any TA to offer much – most such passengers will have made their own choices in advance, through studying the brochures, and are probably just looking for an efficient way of making the booking. That said, Michael did make the following strong points:

  • Many of their customers continue to book cruise after cruise with BCC, year after year. So, as Michael said, they must be getting something right…..
  • And that ‘something’ might be the back-office admin work. I didn’t get all the details on this but I did see some document packs being prepared, and I was told that in fact most customers are happy to receive all their details by email. Whichever form the documentation takes, BCC prepare a comprehensive pack which will include the confirmation emails & post from the cruise line, so that the passenger doesn’t have to scrabble around between documents to find the information they want. And of course, if the cruise line makes changes to the cruise, it’s the BCC Admin staff that will inform the customer;
  • additionally, for more experienced passengers who want to extend (or preface) their fly-cruise with a stay abroad, and who don’t want to use the lines’ suggested hotels, BCC has an arrangement with another TA who can do this.

We also talked about one or two issues of general interest to cruise passengers. The most interesting of these was the current pricing strategy used by the Carnival UK companies: the split between Select, Early Saver, and Saver fares. Michael and James were convinced that this was a significant improvement because it increased the transparency of pricing policy and allowed customers to make an informed decision. They contrasted this with what had come before. Most recent was the (very) unhappy period of the ‘Price Promise’ and the Vantage fare, during which many passengers felt that they were deliberately being misled. Unfortunately, many of the complaints came BCC’s way and not cruise lines’, and Michael said that they had to work hard to regain customers’ trust and at the same time maintain a relationship with the cruise lines. Before that experience cruise pricing seemed to be random, with fares going up and down, no-one understanding what would happen next, and customers were often in a very confused state: was it best to book early or late? – there was no transparency at all. So it’s felt that the present position is a big step forward from that.

We did also talk about the history of the company, from its beginning as one part of a retirement venture by Michael’s grandfather, to today when it usually wins Cruise Agent of the Year from various lines. This is well covered on their website so I don’t intend to go through it here, but one point was very interesting. In the company’s early existence (as ‘Bolsover Travel’) I gathered that the company was selling holidays of all types, with cruises as just one area. At that time they sometimes ran a very small advert for cruises in the Sunday papers, and these generated quite a lot of business. It was Michael who in the early 1980s decided that the company should focus its energies on the cruise sector, and it was that decision – plus a lot of hard work, of course – that has taken the company from a small shop in Bolsover town centre to being possibly the country’s leading cruise agent. I came away from this meeting impressed with the company and with the people I’d met.

(Update 17 November – a small number of minor changes have been made to correct errors of fact, e.g. I mis-stated the shift patterns.)

 

10 Responses to “A meeting with Bolsover Cruise Club”

  1. Solent Richard says:

    Well there you go Tom, a good choice picking a genuine cruise agent with a very good reputation for service. By the way, I would consider myself in your ‘regular cruise passenger’ bracket and continue to use Bolsover for most of my cruise bookings – I have a P&O cruise with them for 2017.

    Of course they have, on their website, a dedicated cruise Forum which your ‘elderly couple’, providing they joined, could have had all the answers from a very experienced bunch of cruisers. Here’ the link in case you’ve missed it…

    http://www.bolsovercruiseclub.com/forum/

    • Tom Burke says:

      Thanks for the comment, Richard.

      Let me ask you something, please. I know from your own blog that you’re a very experienced cruiser, and take great pleasure in finding your own way around ports of call. Why do you continue to use Bolsover CC (or indeed any TA) when you make the bookings? Why not make them direct with the lines?

  2. Solent Richard says:

    Good morning Tom.

    A good question as I did say ‘most’ and I’m happy to clarify that. Since moving my TA allegiance to Bolsover I have found that the Bolsover service is second to none. As most of my cruises are booked well in advance there is relatively little in savings to be made and therefore service becomes paramount – getting what I want and when I want it. Having said that Bolsover recently offered a very lucrative ‘loyalty’ scheme which paid dividends on the cruise I mentioned in yesterday’s comment.

    That service also comes in very handy when lines like P&O and Cunard have their new cruises sale dates and a registration with Bolsover ensures first pick.

    Having said all that I do use one or two other high end specialist agents and also go direct with two cruise lines: that’s between them and me though as there are ‘rewards’ available for past reviews.

    Last minute deals are a different matter again and probably the best agent for those is Cruise Nation, purely on the basis of their ability to offer pre and post cruise extensions. See…

    http://solentrichardscruiseblog.com/2014/06/09/ventura-a-perfect-fly-cruise-med-break/

    I hope that has been helpful.

    PS. Perhaps we should form a ‘Blogger’ Association.

  3. Chris Lord says:

    Hi Tom,

    I just thought it worth a mention that my wife and I have used Bolsover Cruise Club since the days when they were a small travel agent in the centre of Biolsover. In all that time we have enjoyed many cruises booked through them and have nothing but praise for their unfailing courtesy, their knowledge and their efficiency.

    From time to time we have used the services of other travel agents to book cruises but usually when there was a specific package deal with add-ons that was unique to them and in which we were interested. However, we have always come back to BCC and this surely says something about their customer service.

    In fact I guess that, for experienced cruise passengers, it is the quality of customer service that makes a specific travel agent their first port of call. As cruising is somewhat different to the run of the mill package holiday it really is important that the travel agent has specialist knowledge and this is something that unfortunately few staff in high street travel agent outlets have. So, when asked by friends or aquaintances where they should go to book their first cruise we always suggest using a dedicated cruise specialist and usually give them a few names that we trust (BCC is always on the list somewhere).

    Thank you for your blog and I hope it helps new cruise passengers avoid the sort of mistakes that you so ably detailed earlier.

  4. John Revill says:

    Are you paid by Bolsover Cruise club ?
    I have found the entire opposite,
    I booked a Fly stay and cruise to USA through Bolsover Cruise Club who acted on behalf of the selling agent (Holiday Directions Ltd ) so I assume BCC profited from their involvement.
    I have never had so much trouble with any holiday cruise company I have used before.
    I repeatedly had to ask for emails to be sent (I was always told they had sent and could I check my junk mail box – I did there were never any emails from BCC, but once I phoned them – surprise surprise it always came within minutes
    Every time I rang them with a question they could never answer as it was down to the holiday seller, I continually told BCC I had booked with them so expected them to give me the answers, invariably they would not ring back, I had to chase them.
    8 weeks before travel I was told The business class Amtrak seats had been overbooked so were no longer available, When I intially booked the holiday, BCC rang me to say did I want to book there and then because the Business class seats were selling out fast _ they did not try to fight our corner just accepted it from ‘ Holiday Directions Ltd ‘.We had to change our itinerary to suit them.
    Unfortunately ( due to a Heart attack ) I had to cancel my holiday 5 weeks before travel, Even then I have found them to be unhelpful in supplying me with just a Cancellation invoice so I can claim the cost of the holiday back from my Insurance company – so far have waited 7 days.

    Disgusted with Bolsover Cruise Club – beware buyers !

    • Tom Burke says:

      John

      Thanks for the comment – it certainly sounds as if you had a bad experience with them. (I also hope you’re recovering well from the heart attack).

      You asked “Are you paid by Bolsover Cruise Club?”. The answer is a definite and resounding “No”. Indeed, I’m not paid by anyone in connection with this blog, nor anything connected to it. As regards this post about Bolsover Cruise Club, I’d heard of them many times over the years and I’d seen comments by other passengers (e.g. on Cruise Critic) saying that they’d had good service from them. As part of wanting to cover the industry more widely in the blog, I contacted BCC on my own initiative, asked if I could visit, and was invited. I didn’t receive any money, goods or other consideration from them, nor did I seek any, either following that visit nor for any other reason. Nor am I a Bolsover Cruise Club customer. Finally, I’m retired – I do not work in the cruise or travel industries in any way.

      • John Revill says:

        Thank you for your quick reply,
        You must realise that when you are invited into a company to review them they will inevitably pull all the stops out ! So it’s not always a true reflection of how the company performs. I live local to BCC so have visited them twice in person
        when I have had no joy ringing or emailing them, they would much prefer you book by phone than actually visit them in person.
        I am also retired for quite a few years and am a seasioned cruiser, In my view you can get much better service from other cruise companies and much better value as well.
        Good luck with your blogging.

  5. terence lambert says:

    we have used bcc since 2007 never had a problem ,going again this year 2nd cruise2017

    • Tom Burke says:

      Thanks for the comment, Terence. I think there are many UK cruise passengers who feel the same.

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